Monday, February 1, 2016

Distilled Alicantino drinks

After eleven years in Pinoso I came across a bar that I had never been in before. I was on coffee but the locals were drinking something new to me; Cantueso. It turns out that Cantueso is a typical Alicante drink protected by Denominación de Origen or D.O. status which means that there are specific rules about what goes into it and how it is made. I now know there are four distilled alcoholic drinks prepared in Alicante that have this same status.

Cantueso is traditionally linked with Elche and Monóvar where it has been produced since around 1800. It is obtained from distilling grain alcohol and thyme. After distillation the liquor is left to stand for at least two months before being transferred into wooden casks to age for no less than two years. The finished drink is from clear to golden brown in colour and contains between 25% and 35% alcohol with nearly 100 grammes of sugar per litre. Because it is so sweet it is usually drunk after meals but, as my experience in Pinoso proves, not always.

Tradition has it that the wool weavers of Alcoy started to take hot coffee to work in the 19th Century. It can be cold in Alcoy so they often added a splash of cane sugar liquor, rum or brandy to “warm  it up”. As the spiked coffee went cold it acquired a distinctive taste. The D.O. drink now known as Aperitivo Café de Alcoy is a direct descendant of that tradition. To produce it arabica coffee is roasted and left to soften in grain alcohol for at least ten years. The distilled liquid is anything between clear and buff brown in colour with the alcohol content usually a little below 20%. It can be drunk neat but it is often mixed with soft drinks like cola (plis play) and Fanta type lemonade (mentira)

Nobody is quite sure about the origins of another Alicante drink called Herbero de la Sierra de Mariola. The most romantic idea is that it has its beginnings centuries ago with the Moorish alchemists. As you may guess from it's name it's a herby drink produced from the plants which grow in the Sierra de Mariola. The drink must include at least four of the following: sage, camomile, penny royal, lemon verbena, milk thistle, peppermint, bulrush, fennel, aniseed, melissa, agrimony, savory, felty germander, thyme, and French lavender. The plants are softened in grain alcohol and then distilled to a greeny tinged drink with an alcohol content of between 22% and 40%. Normally it is drunk chilled either as a shot or sometimes mixed with cantueso (mesclaet) or Fanta type lemonade.

Aniseed flavoured drinks are produced all over Europe. Some of them, like Pernod, contain licorice. Anís Paloma de Monforte del Cid is the Alicante variety and has been made in Monforte since 1895. It is made from distilling the seeds of green and star aniseed in grain alcohol. Natural extracts from the same varieties of aniseed, water, sugar, and sometimes flavourings like lemon, are added to the distilled liquor. The finished mixture must contain at least 20% of the pure distillate. Once mixed, the liquid has to be left for ten days before being bottled. The resulting drink can have up to 50g per litre of sugar and usually contains between 40% and 50% alcohol. It is normally drunk with chilled or iced water which turns the liquor milky.

Now we all know about the strange alcohol that we drink on holiday. Usually it comes in oddly shaped bottles and tastes fine. Back home, in our own living room, it tastes foul and is quickly dispatched to the back of the drinks cupboard. The Alicante varieties must be proof against this phenomena. After all our drinks cabinets are now in, or very close, to Alicante!

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