Ross Robertson, resident of Greece for the last 25 years, takes another look at one of Greece’s best kept secrets and the insights behind one of its renowned local producers
In our modern industrial world of plenty, many forget the importance of the people behind a product. Certainly, few consider the faces of workers or instigators alike when they twist open a cold stubby from such-and-such brewery or pour a glass of appropriately chilled and vintaged wine from so-and-so winery. This is often the fault of the producers themselves as they mechanize and industrialise in the pursuit of the promise of ever-widening profit margins. Directed by the bean-counters and fuelled by the expectations of share-holders, mainstream commodities invariably become faceless and detached, even while their marketing departments do their utmost to vie for your custom. Sadly, the logo, brand name or trademark becomes paramount at the very same time that you become a statistic in their sales-sheets and the human element is totally lost in the mix. It is, therefore, more than a little refreshing to find a popular product that is an exception to the rule; an authentic village Greek spirit called Tokali Tsipouro.
Just how 14th century Greek Orthodox monks originally conceived of distilling grape pomace and then not storing it in wooden barrels as their contemporary technology would otherwise dictate remains unknown. Elsewhere in Europe they came to use old wine barrels as wood storage, thus creating the likes of French brandy and Portuguese sherry but at the same time completely altering the original character of the distillate. Certainly, the ancient Greek alchemists knew about distillation and used it to derive alcohol from grape in Hellenistic times but it is unclear whether this tradition was passed down or forgotten and later rediscovered by the Mt. Athos monks of the Middle Ages. Not withstanding this historical uncertainty, the Greek monks’ ingenuity was unquestionably proven by their insightful addition of mountain herbs and aromatic plants such as fennel and anise to the distillate. This almost divine revelation was to give birth to tsipouro, a Greek tradition that is proudly upheld to this day.
In modern times, there are only a very limited number of Greek distilleries licensed to manufacture tsipouro and under European statutes, as a ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ product, it can only be authentically produced in Greece using local viticulture. One of those privileged distilleries is particularly noteworthy as it utterly forsakes modern production methods and economies of scale in an earnest bid to produce a totally genuine village tsipouro experience.
Tokali Winery-Distillery & Sons of Thessaly have long known that superior tsipouro is only possible if the quality of its ingredients and high standards of the production process are maintained. It is for this reason that they insist on operating in a ‘closed system’ under strict BIO Hellas and European ISO 22000 certification; from grape to bottle the entire manufacturing process at Tokali happens on site.
It all starts on the family vineyard where careful tending of the vines throughout the year using biologically certified organic methods produces a vintage of succulent grapes at summer’s end. These are subsequently selected, harvested and pressed. The resulting pomace is then left to ferment over time, allowing the rich organic sugars of the grape to slowly evolve into alcohol.
Distillation follows. Tokali & Sons have two copper stills which were hand-made according to precise specifications dictated by time-honoured tradition. Interestingly, they are the only registered stills in Greece with names; ‘Konstandinos’ and ‘Eleni’ and not numbers and fittingly enjoy their own celebrity status in the local area. Their shape, size and the fact they are actually made of cooper all ensure a superior result. So too does the speed in which they are run and precisely when and how the vapour is condensed and collected.
Distillation at Tokali is a long, deliberately slow operation that largely relies on the expertise of Nickolas Tokali, Owner and Director of Operations at the distillery. When the stills are fired up after the October harvest, it is his self-appointed job to keep a vigilant eye on temperature and continuity to ensure the perfect ‘middle cut’ of complex flavour compounds of the distillate.
“You won’t find computer screens and gizmos here,” he explains as he was noisily closing and opening values, thus varying the temperature this way and that. “No buttons to push or pdf instructions to download from central office, only stubborn handles to manually crank,” he adds breathlessly after closing off a value in a billow of hissing steam. Getting it “just right” is obviously a skill he is proud of.
“Kostas and Eleni can be very temperamental sometimes, but you do learn to deal with their little quirks,” he says while I am just beginning to understand what he means as I stand engulfed by the sounds, heady aromas and intense heat of the distillation process in the small hours of the morning. “Sometimes they behave just like naughty children,” he added with his smile widening, “but they always have their father close by to sort them out!”
Nick’s herculean efforts to distill the year’s harvest in a limited time-frame eventually result in a very high alcohol-per-volume distillate. Unless it is destined to become Tokali Original, anise and a secret and subtle combination of aromatic plant extracts are then added and allowed to thoroughly infuse over time.
source: Neos Kosmos