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Greece: Tsipouro time

Harvest season in the Mani is signalled by steam. As grapes and olives are gathered in from the stony groves that form a prickly patchwork over this otherwise barren peninsular of the southern Peloponnese, out come the steam engines.

Greece: Tsipouro time
Tsipouro production. Image: Sarah Barrell

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It may be 11 in the morning, but it’s Tsipouro time. Taking shots of this unique 40% proof Greek drink, it seems, is the thing to do when the autumn sun burns gold over the sea, the olives are netted and the wine-making process is coming to an end, leaving a pomace of skins, pulp, seeds and stems. This is the prized waste product from which Tsipouro is born.

Tsipouro production is an alchemy that dates back to the Ottoman era, as do many of the steam-powered ‘pot still’ home distilleries, found across the Mani.

The men gather around the contraption, giving the steam end a wide berth, while looking expectantly at the business end: a cylindrical cooling chamber fitted with a tap. Panayiotis checks the temperature gauge. Demi-john in one hand, he catches some water-clear liquid and dips in an industrial-sized alcohol metre, a thermometer-like instrument that resembles the kind of thing farmers torment cows with.

“Eighty per cent proof,” he grins. “Still not quite ready.”

That grin suggests this isn’t the first distillation of the day. It takes around three hours for Tsipouro to go from pomace to the perfect 40-45% proof tipple, and Panayiotis has been here for some time. Plates of matured sheep’s cheese and olive oil glazed propira bread, fresh from the outdoor oven, are laid out under shady trees as friends and family come and go for this all-day tasting session.

The heady mix of vine-scented steam, sun-warmed pine needles and yeasty bread mingles as the latest batch of Tsipouro bubbles to its boiling point of around 95C, the refining alcohol making its aerated journey around the still’s bends and curves to the cooling chamber.

Each copper pot still has its own distinct shape and personality; bowls and chimneys individually constructed to perfect the flow of steam, spouts and hoses that add both function and unintentional comedic flare. If Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Mr Potts had invented a distillery, it would look a lot like this.

But these over-elaborate feats of engineering are revered objects, and once the sole property of Ottoman landowners who would levy taxes for their use. And a serious superstition is attached to each dent and quirk of design, believed to bring a secret something to the distillation process, elements that should never be fixed, altered or even really understood.

We raise a toast — to the season and to Panayiotis’ hospitality. This local politician-cum-hotelier has revitalised not only this pot still but also the surrounding Byzantine-era mansion, a goat-grazed ruin until he and his family got their entrepreneurial hands on it, and painstakingly rebuilt it as a remote bolthole. It’s all exposed stone walls, wooden beams and a restored kinsterna water cistern whose underground aqueducts, pools and channels are as elaborate as the Tsipouro still.

It may be a four-hour drive from the capital, but a certain class of Athenian will happily make the pilgrimage to Kinsterna, journeying around the rocky foothills of brooding mile-high mountains, passing near deserted villages where bullet-pockmarked street signs are more common than cafes (local target practice rather than anything more sinister).

And here they will sit on Kinsterna’s tiered terraces, with coastal views fit for an Ottoman prince, and contemplate a simple life. Which is, after a Tsipouro or two, a seemingly timeless task.

kinsterna.com