Aguardente de Medronhos is a traditional brandy from the fruit of the Medronho tree, or Arbutus unedo. Medronho trees grow wild on the rocky soils in rural regions of the Alentejo and the Algarve. The fruit is mainly collected by local farmers, so good Aguardente de Medronhos is not easily found . When sweetened with honey it is called Brandymel. Boom! It is STRONG!
Few are the people in Portugal who do not know the drink of the Algarve mountains, and still less are those who have never tasted it. According to experts, the harvesting of the arbutus is the most important part of the whole process of manufacturing the much loved brandy.
Even today, this is true. Whenever you go up to the mountains to visit family members, or at times of leisure among friends, the conviviality is watered with medronho or, not less famous, honeyed. But we will go there
How, then, is this precious nectar produced? Each one has its own way of making the brandy, but the truth is that the manufacturing process is basically the same, not having been changed by the norms that oblige the legalization of the distilleries, nor by the passing of testimony between generations.
Picking, fermentation and 'style'
The medronho harvest takes place between October and December. The fruit must be ripe and be caught without feet or leaves. For many, this is the essential part of the whole process as it will influence the quality of the drink at the end. Then, the fermentation is continued until March / April. During this period, the medronho is conserved in plastic barrels or in wooden tanks. The shells should be covered with crushed fruit and be well sealed to avoid contact with the air.
There should also be a small vent for the gas to come out. Finally, the 'stylus', the actual manufacture, of the arbutus brandy follows. At this stage, the fermented fruit is slowly distilled in copper stills, preferably straight-barreled because it is easy to clean. The boiler must also be always well cleaned prior to each 'style,' since this only prevents the copper from passing into the brandy. In the furnace is advised the use of thick wood of arbutus or cork oak.
After the collection, the brandy is bottled. There are those who age it in barrels for approximately eight years to increase its quality. The medronho spirit has a characteristic flavor and is highly appreciated by those who know it as quality when it is transparent and with the smell and taste of fruit. Normally, the graduation of medronho spirit is around 50% alcohol, although there are some that reach around 56%. However, their marketing is between 40 and 50%.
Melosa, a well kept secret
A typical Algarve alembic consists of a copper boiler, a head made of stainless steel, a tube or a serpentine and a container where the water circulates that will cool the system. Between the boiler and the head it is common to find a filter of calcium carbonate, if it is to attenuate the acidity, or of natural activated carbon, if there are aromas to be withdrawn to the distillate. The refrigeration system can be a straight tube (used in Monchique) or a serpentine (used in the Serra do Caldeirão). The tube is indicated to obtain a good cleaning and, consequently, obtain a medronho spirit with less copper content. On the other hand, the serpentine system is what allows a more efficient cooling and with less loss of aromas.