No vindima in Portugal is complete without the last part of the process of wine production. Once the wine has been separated from the skins and pips and put to ferment in casks or bottles, the remaining must is distilled to produce aguardente.
It was never my intention to get into distilling – I rarely drink spirits – but while discussing matters spiritual with two of the area’s greatest exponents in the village above us, it emerged there was a surplus alambique in the village which the scrap man had his eyes on. With what seemed ridiculous haste, I found myself a short while later the owner of a venerable 80-litre copper alembic or pot still, scratching my head over what I was going to do with it, but somehow certain it was a Good Idea to have rescued it from certain meltdown. If nothing else, I was thinking biofuels …
It was never my intention to use it this year either. With so many projects on the go at the moment it was something for future years. But 3 days of rain was preventing further progress on the cob bathroom … and if the skins and pips from the winemaking weren’t already vinegar …
Distilling isn’t rocket science, but a good – and safe – end product depends on having a controllable fire, so we couldn’t just build an open fire and set up the still. Having seen the setup in the master distillers’ shed in the village above us, it seemed an ideal situation for a variation on a cob oven. Almost inadvertently I found designs for this running round my head until it seemed there was nothing for it but to get to work.
Yesterday evening Simeon and I collected some pieces of schist from the piles around the main house and I set about building a plinth for the oven/stove in a likely-looking location under the rear roof with space for the drainage channel to run underneath and into which we could also run the cooling water for the still’s condensing coil. Mindful of the haste I was doing it in, the whole thing was built dry so that, if necessary, it could be unbuilt just as quickly. I never had it in mind to turn the area under the rear roof into a booze shed either, even though in many ways it’s ideally suited.
I love life here. It’s so full of surprises.
Once the schist was in place, bridging the drainage channel and forming containing walls, a base of sand was laid in which to bed the firebricks for the fire and to provide a thermal break between the firebricks and the schist stonework.
This morning we got to work on the fire itself.
The circle of firebricks was sized to just less than the circumference of the alambique pot, so it will sit comfortably into the top of the oven/stove, sealed in with cob, but without dropping down into the fire once filled with must for distilling. Whether the cob and bricks alone are capable of supporting the weight remains to be seen …
Now we wait until the cob is dry enough to remove the formwork from the oven doorway so we can set a small fire to help cure the cob.