Rain in late September and early October is the sign of a good harvest for the distillers of aguardente de medronho: it helps ripen the fruit. But regardless of whether the blessed rain comes or not, the picking season always begins in October, when the strawberry tree branches are packed with red-orange bunches.

The work starts very early and is normally done in groups. Relatives, friends and neighbours get together to pick the berries on their own land or on leased or borrowed land located in the council or nearby. They drive as far as the land allows them; then they do the rest on foot. Whoever owns or knows of sunny strawberry tree groves has an advantage. This is where the sweetest fruit can be found.

Once at their destination, the men push through the woods in pursuit of the best bushes. The berries are picked one by one, with no stocks or leaves, until they fill the bucket or sack they carry around their necks or waists, emptying it from time to time into a common barrel. On the same tree there may be flowers and fruit at different stages of ripeness. The distillers are only interested in the fire-coloured berries, the only ones that have reached the desired level of maturity. One of the golden rules in this phase is to pick only the fruit that is ripe. Not only will it produce more of the drink but it will also be smoother.

Only when the area has been cleared will the day come to an end. The group can then return to the same spot two or three weeks later to pick the medronho berries that had remained on the bushes because they were still green. Should everything go well, i.e., if they are not caught out by early frosts, the distillers will carry on with this task until the month of December, the time when they focus all their attention on another phase of the process, the fermentation.




f when picking the medronho human intervention is limited to almost only picking the fruit, in the fermentation process the distiller must be scientific and precise in the proceedings. In this phase Mother Nature only intervenes in questions of environmental temperature and humidity. All the rest is in the hands and senses of men.

The biochemical process to transform sugars into alcohol starts at the picking stage by transferring the medronho berries picked into large pots or tanks. A part is poured in on one day and on the next, now at a lower volume, more fruit is added and so on until the recipient is full. However, for the chemical ebullitions to be perfect, it is not enough just to throw in buckets one after the other. It is essential to keep the medronho mash humid otherwise all the mash will go bitter and the drink will fail miserably.

This desirable humidity is obtained by spraying the medronho berries every day, there existing no precise amount for the added water. It is the distiller’s experience and observation that determine this gesture. Once the barrel is full and there is a balance between the solid material (the mash, consisting of the pulp) and the liquid material (the must, consisting of the fruit juice and water), the medronho starts to bubble – in the words of the distiller, to boil. This means that it is in full fermentation, and shall be for a period of 45 a 60 days, at the end of which the lid is closed.

There are several ways to close the lids; the lid can be made of wood or plastic. What is important however is that before placing the lid, with the use of a hand the mash must be smoothed down, leaving a thin layer of must on the surface, and that the sack or lid be firmly settled on the fermented material. Some people place weights to press down the lid, thus preventing air from getting in and preventing the first layer of fermented fruit from going sour. If it does occur, however, the distiller will have to remove this layer of the mash before moving on to the distillation of the medronho and its transformation into aguardente.




The third production phase of aguardente de medronho, the most solemn moment of the whole process, starts with the unsealing of the boiler. At the end of each processing season the official authorities place a steel seal on the boilers, which can only be removed in the following season. Once this inaugural gesture has been performed, the washing ritual starts. The cleaning of the boilers and their corresponding heads is an essential condition to obtain a good end product. As the still is made of copper, it easily creates what the distillers call zinabre (copper hydrocarbon), which in addition to being harmful for one’s health makes the drink bitter.

Now with everything ready the distiller can fill the boiler with the mash of fermented medronho. A 120-litre boiler has a capacity for seven arrobas of mash, or a little over 100 kilos, beside one or two cáceres of water and some litres of low percent proof aguardente obtained in the last phase from the previous distillate. Once the pot is full, an element now comes into play that is essential to separate alcohol and fermented fruit: fire.

With the heat of the fire, after placing the cap or head on the still, the medronho mash in the boiler begins to release vapours, which are prompted into a tube that is plunged into a tank full of cold water. In contact with the cold water, the vapours liquefy and on the other side of the tank the first drops of aguardente drop into a bowl. Known as the “header”, this first drop is not yet that desired. The liquid that is really good runs out a few minutes later when the drink starts to flow smoothly. Then the good “run” can be said to have begun.




Of the three types of aguardente extracted from a distillation – the “header”, the “good”and the “weak”– only one is of sufficient quality to be marketed. The aguardente from the “header” is the first to leave the still, after the head has been placed on the boiler. It runs for a few minutes, depending on the quality of the fermented fruit. This first distillate is thrown away or mixed with the last aguardente taken from the boiler but has no commercial value.

The true aguardente de medronho, known as good aguardente, is that which runs after the header. The distillers distinguish it by way of the rhythm of the liquid leaving the tube of the still. When, instead of dripping, the distilled medronho runs out smoothly and at a regular rhythm, it is time to change the bowl for the good aguardente. From here on and for at least another two hours, all attention must be on controlling the fire as the secret of a good run lies in how to control the fire.

After this, and after the graduation of the product has been calculated, the bowl is changed once again, this time to receive the weak aguardente, an aguardente of low percent proof, used to strengthen the following batch. After all the alcohol has been extracted form the fermented medronho, and the drinkable from the non-drinkable, the end product is sent to the Algarve University that analyses and assesses it. Only once this has been done, can the producers begin to bottle, label and market their aguardente de medronho.