When the wine has fermented on the fruit for a week or so it is “racked off” from the fruit into a different barrel to ferment. Janet “scraped the barrel” to remove the pulp (bagaço, pronounced bag-a-soo) and press it in a wide-mesh cloth filter to ensure that every last drop of wine was extracted. We put the pulp, which was still fermenting, into two barrels and in the evening we took them to the quinta of Zé’s father-in-law, Senhor Zé.

The distillery

Early the next day we returned to his quinta. There were several plumes of wood smoke scattered in our view and a smoky haze in the air that morning – we were not the only folks to be making aguardente. We followed our noses to his garage where we had been told Sr Zé would be getting on with distilling our bagaço. There was the smell of burning olive wood and perhaps mimosa, and a faintly yeasty aroma.

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Sr Zé had already filled the 150-litre copper vat of his still with our grape must, added a few litres of water and lit the wood fire beneath it. The grapey fermenting mass was heated and stirred. When it started to boil, he fitted the beaten copper cabeça (still-head) to the alambique and sealed it with a paste of wet ash.

Now we had to wait. This is a good time to simply sit and talk, because the process takes as long as it takes, it can’t be hurried.

Making aguardente is widely practised in rural areas. We encountered it in France where a small lorry will arrive (by appointment) at the back of your house. The lorry is in fact a mobile distillery and the owner distils your cider to make calvados, applejack brandy.

In Ireland and Poland, many smallholdings have a distillery in the garage. The Irish make undrinkable potato wine which is distilled to make “poteen”, and the Poles do the same with potatoes and malted grain to make vodka.  Here in Portugal most folks make good drinkable wine which can be distilled to make vinicula aguardente, but is usually kept as wine. The waste material from the fermentation, bagaço, is what is distilled. The large mass of grapes pass on their flavour to the distillate, giving the superior type of aguardente called bagaceira.

The alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it is the first vapour to pass through the still-head into the copper spiral immersed in running cold water.

The neat alcohol is not safe to drink – Zé offered me a small glass of our tepid liquor and I drank a mouthful. It really was like drinking fire – aguardente literally translated is fire water!  It took my breath away and burned my throat; my eyes watered, I coughed a lot and sweated. Not recommended. Far too strong!

Now I could understand why it has to be diluted with the weaker distillate which trickles over later in the process to make a drink with around 40% alcohol. The subtle flavours and a little sweetness are in the later fraction, which makes the difference between mediocre commercial aguardente and top-quality liquor.

We had brought so much bagaço that Sr.Zé could make a second batch, with a top-up brought over by farmer Zé. We were invited to lunch by his wife, but as the distillation was running we had to wait for it to finish, arriving for lunch well after 2pm when the farm workers had eaten and returned to their bean-picking.

We returned to transfer the bagaçeira into five-litre garrafões and to enjoy Sr. Zé’s company whilst sampling the delicious contents of his cellar!

The finished product, 36 litres of top-quality aguardente – ready for drinking, for making next year’s xiropiga and for preserving fruit.