Today Mar d’Estórias invites you to unveil some secrets of the traditional art of the Medronho distillery! But before this ancient wisdom, shared in the secrecy of Algarvian people, we begin by picking the fruit that makes the drink sweet and tasty.

If the fermentation and distillation take place in the winter months, the harvest of the Medronho begins invariably in the autumn when the forest is filled with shrubs stained with red-orange fruit trees. Ricardo Gonçalves, who distils at Quinta Gonçalves, in Monchique explains that “the harvest begins at the end of September, in small quantities; October and November are strong months to pick medronho and by the end of December it is over. ”

In spite of the fires of the summer that decimated many medronho trees in Serra de Monchique, when walking along the forest on foot it is possible to choose those that will make this year’s aguardente!

Pisco as he is known, 35, learned to distil with his brother who always used the old rituals and precepts. One of the tips shared is to choose the sunny shrubs that are blessed with the sweetest medronho. Once the medronho trees has fruits with several ripening points, one must pick only the ripe fruit for a more soft and profitable drink: “I can get up to 5 times from a shrub … every 8 days I go back to the same site to collect the remaining berries “.

The medronho goes to the distillery where it takes about 2 months to ferment in pots of 200 litres, when the magic of the transformation of the sugars into alcohol occurs. This is not only a time to wait, it also requires attention, skill and wisdom, to keep the fruit moist, preventing it from going sour. Ricardo mentions that “this year was like a rainforest, so it didn’t need as much water as last year. (…) The medronho will indicate the necessary water for the process”.

The rigour of old procedures dictates how to cover the barrels since everything has a rationale: “we make the face to the medronho, that is to say, crushed medronho over the fermented mash, with the use of a hand the mash must be smoothed down and salt put on top. This thick layer of berries with salt retains moisture, otherwise, it can go sour. ”

The times don’t alter either the material nor the shape of the copper still. The still washing ritual is an essential part of the process, preventing the copper hydrocarbon from contaminating the beverage. “Cleaning is always a priority because as the still is made of copper it gains zinabre and is toxic.”

Thus begins the ancestral process of the distil, in a recipe of fermented medronho mash, water and low alcoholic aguardente obtained in the previous distillate. At a precise temperature, the furnace creates an atmosphere of sweet vapours which is only possible with the experience of the masters.

It is from the heat of the fire that the vapours of the preparation pass from the header of the still and follow the way into a tube that is plunged into a tank full of cold water, where it liquefies in the first drops of the precious medronho! Pisco explains that the entire process takes about 3h / 4h: “at first the fire may be stronger to heat all the material. After about 1:30 we have to reduce the fire so that the medronho becomes smooth. It takes 40 minutes to stir the mash while it heats up. Then I put the still header on the after 10 minutes the first aguardente drops begin to come out, but it is not used, because it can have zinabre. The good distillation begins moments later, at which point I put the pitcher of clay. After about 2h the low alcohol aguardente begins to flow.

This is an art that takes the tradition very seriously, but that counts on modern analyses of experts to certify if the final product is perfect. To have a notion, the 200-litre pots redeem about 11 to 13 litres of medronho, which cannot be bottled without being analysed by the University of Algarve.

Everything so that soft warm liquid is shared with friends and family. A shot or two of medronho that cheers the conversations heats the body and certainly is a testimony of many stories to tell.

Article cover photo in the book Costa do Mar by João Mariano (Alambiques & Alquimistas). Read also Costa do Mar article here.