There are cognacs, armagnacs, grappas, and brandies. And then there is a wild, exuberant spirit called “aguardente de medronho.” Aguardente means fire water and medronho is the fruit of the “medronheiro,” a small shrub know in English as the strawberry tree.
Pliny the Elder was not fond of medronhos. In his Natural History he writes that “The fruit is held in no esteem, the reason for its name being that a person will eat only one!” The shrub’s botanical name, “arbutus unedo,” is inspired by the Latin version of the phrase “eat only one” (unum tantum edo).
What Pliny did not seem to know is that, when the fruit is stored for one or two months, it ferments and can then be distilled to produce a clear, aromatic spirit.
Medronho distillers use the same copper stills favored by alchemists. The stills are heated slowly to separate the water from the alcohol. The resulting liquid comes in three parts. The first part (the head), is high in ethyl acetate and for this reason it is discarded. The last part (the tail) is low in alcohol. Only the middle part (the heart) is bottled.
Medronheiros grow all over Portugal. They are abundant in the Algarve where their spirit has been popular for more than a century. Medronhos ripen slowly, turning from green and yellow to red. They are harvested in the fall by workers who search hills and valleys for the ripe fruits.
Medronho spirit can be used in cocktails or drank straight as a digestif. At Lamelas, Ana Moura’s splendid restaurant in Porto Côvo, we tried a bewitching “Medroni,” a version of the famous negroni cocktail where the gin is replaced with medronho spirit. We also tasted some wonderful Medronho 42 and sampled three types of medronho spirit produced in Cova da Zorra: plain, with honey, and with lemon. They are all delicious, we only wish Pliny the Elder was around to try them!