Spain's Ancient Spirit: Rustic Pacharán Aims for Top Shelf
By William R. Snyder
May 16, 2008
Before entering the cordoned-off cobbled street in Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls at 7 a.m. on a weekday last July, a group of young Spanish men, still weary from their carousing the night before, toasted one another and took a shot of a strong, electric-red liqueur. "It's tradition," one of them said, "and pacharán calms the nerves."
Doctors take note. For centuries the citizens of Spain's Navarre region have relied on pacharán, a concoction of aniseed-based alcohol and sloe berries, as a favored home remedy for stomach pains, nausea, aches, nerves -- and even hangovers.
Of course, consumed in large enough quantities, the beverage itself may have led to many of those aforementioned maladies. Pacharán -- also known by its Basque spelling, patxaran -- isn't just a medicine; it's also the regional tipple of choice, a drink with a long, mostly homemade history that now has more upscale ambitions and is finding a market outside of Spain. A growing number of digestif enthusiasts are reviving pacharán, calling it the perfect after-dinner drink. This is big thinking for a liqueur that was, until recently, thought of as little more than medicinal moonshine.
Like most folklore, the drink's origins are shrouded in mystery. People here just know that pacharán has always existed. First written about in 1415 as being served at the wedding of the king of Navarre's son -- it was to medieval Spanish royalty what champagne was to the French monarchs -- pacharán later appeared in the medical records of the Monasterio de Santa María de Nieva in 1441 as a reliable antacid. Then for centuries it faded from prominence, relegated to toasts at family celebrations.
Pacharan Tasting Notes
Since medieval times pacharán has been a medicine, a digestif and a celebratory tipple. But like the peculiar Basque language, it remained isolated in Navarra. As such, finding the drink in a liquor store outside of Spain can be a challenge, unless you're in a capital city. France, England and Belgium are the largest export markets in Europe, and specialty stores in each stock a variety. A solution, though, is to buy online. Productsfromspain.net carries the major producers and ships globally. Some producers also sell directly to online customers.
The common practice is to drink pacharán on ice or chilled, but take it warmer, between 15 and 18 degrees, for critical tasting. Too cold and the anisette overpowers the palette; too warm and you'll be swallowing fruit candy. At a mild temperature the alcohol and bouquet should be in harmony. And because a unique serving glass doesn't exist, a cognac snifter or a cordial glass suffices.
Judge pacharán by assessing three qualities: color, nose and mouth. Experts consider color to be the quickest indicator of quality. It should be an intense red. Cloudiness and rust or orange shades imply old age, while brightness is a sign of youth. As for the nose, neither the sloes nor the alcohol scents should stand out. A good pacharán has a fruity bouquet with a light undertone of anise alcohol. The texture should be soft and the taste sweet, though not in excess. If a sip leaves a film in your mouth comparable to soda, too many sweeteners were added. Ultimately a good pacharán will be subtle in every quality but the color (the louder, the better).
Here are four pacharáns considered to be top-shelf:
La Pacharán Green Label
Made of sloe berries with a diameter less than seven millimeters, this brand is bottled in green glass to protect it from light. By using select berries, La Navarra creates a sublime velvet texture with a deep fruitiness.
The full body of the Gold Label comes from the complexity of the blend, which can include vanilla, sugar or coffee to complement the flavors of the berry. The numerous yet subtle scents make this pacharán's nose more like a wine than a liqueur.
Pacharan JV 1810
Blending both wild and domesticated sloe berries, the craftsmen at Azanza use a recipe little changed since 1810. The combination of different sloes creates a drier pacharán that doesn't linger on the palette like the sweeter labels.
By far the sweetest of the four tasted because Zoco employs more modern distilling techniques using sugars to accentuate the sweeter elements of the fruit. But with the sweetness comes a lack of complexity, which is noticeable in the lighter color
Spain has no shortage of signature drinks. Compared with the global followings of sherry, Jerez brandy, cava and Rioja wines, pacharán is more of a rustic rural cousin. But the people of Navarre, says author Jorge Sauleda, believe there is nothing superior.
"It is one of the most genuine products to come from the earth," says Mr. Sauleda, who has written essays on pacharán and on Navarran cuisine. "The taste is a gentle sweet that doesn't stick to the palette. Brandy is too harsh and pastis tastes too much of anise. A young pacharán is the perfect blend."
Featured prominently as the exclamation point after a long Basque meal -- considered the best cuisine in Spain -- pacharán is proving popular with the many tourists who visit the region and want to take home a bottle of their discovery. Madrid's Barajas airport duty-free shop recently added a pacharán section. Production of the drink by commercial distilleries is increasing, opening a global market for this once-local beverage.
The foundation of pacharán is deceptively simple. "Making it requires three raw materials," says Tere Arizaleta, owner of the award-winning Azanza distillery. "Liquor, fruit and time." The liquor is an aniseed base with an initial alcohol content of 35% to 50%. The fruit is the berry of the Prunus Espinosa, known in English as a sloe. The time element involves macerating the freshly harvested sloes in the liquor for one to eight months, after which time they are strained out. Other natural additives, such as vanilla pods, coffee beans, cinnamon and sugar, are included in small amounts to personalize the flavor before bottling.
Because of the ease of blending and the proliferation of sloe berries in the Pyrenees, for centuries the most common form of the drink was called "pacharán casero," which roughly translates as homemade hooch. "It is the original way of producing pacharán and it is reason why the drink is so popular in Navarra," says Mikel Berraondo, secretary of the Institute for Food and Agriculture Quality of Navarre, a nonprofit group that monitors quality control and promotes food and drink from the region.
In the cellars of farmhouses throughout the countryside, cases of bottles filled with anisette and sloes rest undisturbed in the darkness. In each cellar, though, the bottles will include other token ingredients, signatures of a family's recipe. Coffee beans are a popular addition to cut the sweetness of the sloe. Others prefer a syrupy-sweet finished product and will add refined sugar to the mix. Some prefer honey, though it doesn't dissolve as well as sugar. Additional flavors include cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla beans.
Of course, pride and private recipes result in local rivalries. "We don't have official competitions, but if one man declares he has the best, then his neighbors will challenge his claim," says Mr. Berraondo. This leads to a sort of unofficial contest: a group tasting in a bar. At first tempers flare and disputes are settled with more tasting. Mr. Berraondo even recalls seeing arguments erupt at weddings where one relative is unimpressed with another's pacharán. But, he says, "By the end of the bottle, everyone is friends again."
The fact that it is best drunk young creates a bit of a marketing problem for pacharán -- one that producers are working to overcome. Once the soaking process is finished, the pacharán will not improve with time. In fact, it will likely deteriorate. Spring and summer are the only times to enjoy pacharán at its peak. Unlike cognacs, ports and brandies, which can improve in quality (and rise in price) over time and in relation to particularly good grape harvests, pacharán doesn't have a vintage classification system. A good crop of sloes is not usually promoted as such.
Pacharán is a sweet drink, with an alcohol content ranging from 25% to 30% after maceration and aging, making it a little stronger than port. The sweetness should be dry, deriving from the fruit, not the added sugar. A good nose reflects a balance between the bouquet of the sloes and additives and the aniseed liquor. The mouth should be velvety, a sign of fresh berries. But the drink's most striking characteristic, and the quickest indicator of quality, is its unique color. Professional tasters can recite variations in hue with the nuance of an interior decorator discussing paint chips.
"The color should be a bright, deep red. The brightness reflects youth and pacharán should be consumed while young," writes Manuel Ruiz Hernández, a wine critic and spirits expert, in a research paper for the University of La Rioja. "If the color has a dull red brick hue or is yellowish, rust or orange, it implies old age and a loss of the fruitiness."
Yet even with royal origins and widespread popularity in the Basque country, the drink's modern history is brief and obscure. Pacharán was bottled regionally at the end of the 19th century, then commercially marketed in Spain in the 1950s. It was granted an official Denominacion de Origen status in 1987, putting it on a par with local wines and assuring a certain level of quality. The following year a regulatory council for quality control, the Consejo Regulador D.E. Pacharán Navarro, formed.
"Pacharán was then protected by [European Union] regulations and can only be made in an approved way," notes Silvia Villanueva, a member of the regulatory council. This upset some small-batch distillers. While home distillers consider themselves artisans and their drink as good as the large producers, the regulatory council is making it difficult for them to sell their product, saying they bottle in conditions that don't meet manufacturing-sanitation standards. Homemade pacharán can be still bought from restaurants and fairs, but it is becoming more difficult to find outside of a bar or restaurant. Visitors to rural Navarre should ask innkeepers and local bartenders for a pour of their house bottle. The villages of Estella, Abarzuza, Viana, Aribe and Aibar are well-known for exceptional homemade blends.
Two decades after getting official status, the pacharán producers' council comprises only five companies: Licores Azanza, Licores Baines, Ambrosio Velasco, Destilerias La Navarra and Vinicola Navarra. Even with a mark of quality and modernized production, the digestif remained a regional drink. But Navarre and the rest of the Basque country are seeing annual increases in tourists, many of whom come for the running of the bulls at the annual San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona or to sample the region's famous cuisine. Though more sangria and beer are consumed at the fiesta now, pacharán is the drink most closely associated with the festivities, like Pimms at Wimbledon or a stein of beer at Oktoberfest.
The Michelin-starred chef Juan Mari Arzak offers a variety of labels in his eponymous restaurant in nearby San Sebastian. And country inns here will include a copa of pacharán in the fixed-price menu del dia.
Since pacharán was not commercially available for so long, the challenge for distillers is to identify qualities that make a bottle a top-shelf selection like a fine brandy or cognac, two drinks considered competition. They're focusing first on the sloes.
"The condition of the sloe berries before soaking is the most important element to consider," says Ms. Villanueva. "The more mature fruits lose color and substance, but green ones are acidic and take too long to infuse their properties."
The skin of a mature sloe and a green sloe are almost identical, making it difficult to distinguish. To find out the maturity, the pulp is inspected by pinching the berry. As a rule, the preferred pulp color is ruddy red.
Destilerias La Navarra is trying to define top-shelf pacharán with its Green Label, by focusing on select sloes, using only berries with a diameter of less than 7 millimeters. The smaller size sloes generally come from younger bushes and are less acidic. The liqueur is packaged in a green bottle to protect it from light, which slows aging.
Also a consideration for top-shelf quality is the berry's origin, whether it's wild or domestic. Licores Baines' Gold Label pacharán recipe blends both wild and farmed sloes, which the company says creates a fuller body and justifies its higher price -- about €10 to €15 a bottle depending on the blend.
Currently, many producers still pick wild berries from blackthorn bushes in the foothills of the Pyrenees during a September harvest. "One goal of the regulatory council is to improve the domestication of the blackthorn," says Mr. Berraondo.
With a better-farmed crop, distillers can monitor the growth of sloes throughout the season, much like a vintner inspecting grapes on the vine. This will give producers more accurate quality and yield estimates.
Distillers are also promoting new ways of drinking pacharán, like mixing it in cocktails such as a martini or a wine spritzer, says distillery owner Ms. Arizaleta. One ambitious brewer in the French part of the Basque region, Oldarki, has launched a pacharán-infused beer that is finding an audience with fans of framboise.