A Visit to Bodegas y Destilerias Carmelitano – The Monks Still Produce Liquors and Spirits!

Products from Carmelitano.

Products from Carmelitano.

Throughout history Monks have been associated with alcohol, whether it be brewing beer, making wine, steeping wine with herbs or distilling spirits and whilst today most such processes are in the hands of commercial companies there remain independent pockets of activity such as the Carmelite fathers from the Monastery  of the Palm Desert in Benicassim.

Valencia, Alicante and Castellon all have traditions of producing wines associated with the mass, today carried on under licence from the ArchBishop of Valencia by Baronia de Turis and Mamerto de la Vera.  Vermouth is also produced, the result of steeping wines with wild herbs, in Valencia by Cherubino Valsangiacomo, Mamerto and spirits are distilled in Alicante by Tenis, in Utiel-Requena by Pago de Tharsys and Castaro have major interests in this field as well. Indeed a little known fact is that Gordon’s Gin used to source their base alcohol from the Union Viticola del Oeste in San Antonio. Alicante even has its own controlling body the CRDE which oversees production and quality in the Province.

Actually the practise used to be much more widespread with many small bodegas producing their own spirits for home consumption in small alambiques, or stills. Some towns had distilleries until more recent times. Montroi had an Anis distillery, there was another in Utiel and under Franco´s rule when production was `rationalised´even Vilamarxant had one of four authorised liquor production distilleries! Today sadly the bodega is a shell with only part of the Co-op name visible above the door and the town has no wine production, oranges having taken over.

Old Still in the Museum.

Old Still in the Museum.

Traditions die-hard and Terra Deus, a new company, has sprung up in the nearby town of Benissano making a wonderful liquors from mandarine fruit grown locally.

The tradition of the monks carries on in Benicassim where Bodegas y Destilerias Carmelitano now have their bodega on the edge of town as you enter along the N340.

As the bodega is being added to the Wine Tours being developed around Vilafamés, Les Useres, Benlloch etc I thought I would go and take a look at this addition to wine-tourism in the region.

€2.50 buys the visitor a ticket to one of the shorter bodega visits but one which has significant differences to others in the group. The monks have been at work for a long time but production in this building dates back a 100 years to 1912.

The bodega has no vineyards of its own now but once the monks would have tended their own vineyards, picking herbs in contemplation and plying their skills in making wines and distilling some for spirits, before eventually going out and selling them……no doubt spreading the word as they went. Today the grapes are bought in from the vineyards around Cheste before being put through the various processes.

Old Oak Cones for Ageing Liquors.

Old Oak Cones for Ageing Liquors.

The guided visit begins in the bottle museum, displaying examples of the traditional ceramic Barraca, grape-bunch shaped bottles for moscatel as well as glass bottles of many shapes and sizes for their comprehensive range of products. From here you pass along an access passage through the museums old machinery, to the room with the stills, bright copper alembics still working ( no pun intended!) the huge boiler which heats the water, now oil-fired,  the cone-room, oak barrels in which all the liquors are aged before bottling in the plant next door. From here you descend to the cellars where a historical models shows the whole process, past vast empty rooms which once housed barrels to the tasting room. The entry ticket here allows you take a shot glass and help yourself to as many different samples from those available as you would like!

Do not expect to find simple white or red wines down here. The only `wines´were the Moscatel Carmelitano, a 15% ABV Vino de Licor a `pudding´ wine to enjoy with cakes, fresh fruit or foie  and the `vino de missa´, a darker aged wine, more subtle and less sweet than the moscatel fermented with special yeasts which would make a very pleasant aperitif.

Active Shiny Copper Stills.

Active Shiny Copper Stills.

Hereafter you will find a wonderful vermouth, a deep red wine steeped with magical herbs, flowers, spices, roots and aged in oak.  Initially sweet it has a perfect bitter foil and as well as an aperitif could be used for cooking special dishes…….wild rabbit springs to mind.

Beyond this and you are into a range of fruit liquors such as apple, peach , hazel-nut( 20%ABV)  and coffee ( 30%ABV) . Each of these popular drinks, served in many restaurants and bars at the end of a meal throughout Valencia and called `chupitos´ had its own character……the hazel-nut was by the best of this variety I have tasted, the apple very true to the fruit and the coffee very rich and full, almost with the depth of Kahlua whilst being watery clear!

Perhaps the best was the wait at the end for the Liquor Carmelitano. Herbs, roots and seeds give this liquor its unique flavour and deep rose colour ( 34%ABV) . Very distinct, satisfying, a good digestif.

After all these chupitos it is time to ascend to the exit via the bodega´s well stocked shop, of course.

Here you can purchase any of the products you have tasted below as well as Anis, a coffee-cream drink, vodka with red fruits and a gin Ginself as well as tourist knickknacks, but take cash as they do not yet have a credit card facility.

Downloading Samples in the Tasting Room.

Downloading Samples in the Tasting Room.

`Ginself´ is one of the better trendy gins, new to the market and incredibly popular here in Valencia currently. It is a double distillation of various botanicals, the addition to the base liquor which impart the flavours and smells of the drink before the addition of tonics etc. Here they include sweet and bitter orange, lemon peel, angelica root and seeds, orange blossom, chufa ( tiger nut) bay and mandarine. It is 25€ a bottle and 40% ABV.

For a different bodega experience this is highly recommended and although the bodega is currently staffed by volunteers there are plans to expand the production and visitor experience. Wines start at around 6€ a bottle and the liquors are not much more ( the Avellana is 8€).

In the meantime if you fancy finding out where chupitos come from, this is a good start and a nice reminder of the contemplative life!

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