Santu Lussurgiu, the Sardinian city with an alcoholic secret

(CNN) — It’s super strong, flavored with fennel, as transparent as water – and in many homes in Sardinia it’s still produced illegally.

Filu ‘e ferru, or “iron wire,” is an old drink with a dangerous past and an alcohol concentration of up to 45% knocking out even those with a high tolerance.

Rosa Maria Scrugli was barely 23 when in 1970 she was sent on a work mission to the small town of Santu Lussurgiu, located in the wild region of Oristano in western Sardinia, amid rocky hills and caves.

For 400 years, this place of just 2,000 people has been making potent filu ‘e ferru locally nicknamed “abbardente” – a Latin-derived word that aptly means “burning water”.

The mayor – the town’s cobbler – greeted Scrugli at noon with several welcoming shots, but the moment she shot the second, she nearly collapsed, falling on top of the mayor who was just a little tipsy.

“Next thing I knew someone dragged me and I woke up in my hotel room with the worst hangover of my life. The mayor wasn’t feeling too well neither, but he used to drink filu ‘e ferru. It was my first time, and it was a shock,” Scrugli told CNN.

Santu Lussurgiu is considered the birthplace of the oldest Sardinian tradition of “acquavite” – literally “vine water” in Italian, and indicating a premium alcohol distillate.

A secret code

Villagers have been brewing filu ‘e ferru for 400 years.

Lussurgesi Distillery

“Acquavite and abbardente are just synonyms for filu ‘e ferru, which is a metaphor, part of a secret code later invented to designate acquavite in order to escape police checks”, explains Carlo Psiche, the only (legal) distiller of Santu Lussurgiu. .

It became an “outlaw” drink in the 19th century when the Italian Royal House of Savoy introduced taxes on alcohol production, triggering an illegal trade which at Santu Lussurgiu continues on a large scale.

Until a few decades ago police raids were common, farmers had to hide bottles of their filu ‘e ferru either in a secret place in their home or underground in their garden, marking the spot with a piece of iron. Hence the name “wire”.

In coining such a nickname, the locals may have also been inspired by the nearby rocky mountain range of volcanic origin called Montiferru – the “iron hill”.

What has always made Santu Lussurgiu’s aquavite exceptional, as opposed to those produced in the rest of Sardinia, is that it is distilled from wine and not from pomace, an alcohol made from the residues of grape skins and seeds after wine extraction. . It is therefore not a grappa, the Italians’ favorite after-meal shot.

Psiche claims that its Lussurgesi distillery, with copper pot stills used for old-fashioned distillation processes, is the only one of five filu ‘e ferru distilleries in the region to use real wine instead of pomace, or ” vinacce”.

Meanwhile, families in the village have been brewing filu ‘e ferru at home since the late 16th century, after monks from the local abbey introduced this potent alcoholic distillate to the region.

“At first it was used for its medical and therapeutic properties, especially for toothaches, then people realized it was also a good alcohol,” says Psiche.

Police raids and secret signals

Santu Lussurgiu is in the hills west of Sardinia.

Santu Lussurgiu is in the hills west of Sardinia.

Courtesy of Michèle Salaris

Everyone in the village still secretly does Abbardente at home. None of them pay taxes on it, except for Psiche, who runs a business.

Today, things are less risky than before. After all, many Italians brew wine and all sorts of liquors at home, and the authorities won’t be knocking on people’s doors anymore unless they’ve established a large-scale business.

Psiche recalls that until the 1960s, when tax police were patrolling the village looking for clandestine producers, people were rushing to hide their bottles and stills, shouting the emergency code “filu ‘e ferru” among themselves. . It was like a curfew signal.

“I was just a kid, but I remember the elders describing the police parking their cars in front of the town hall and walking around looking for illegal growers.”

Fennel seeds are added to filu ‘e ferru to sweeten the pungent flavor, and given its intense fragrance, the smell of fennel seeping from homes has sometimes helped police track down illegal activity.

“Before, there was a village messenger whose job it was to announce local laws, events and measures through the trumpet. When the Abbardente raids happened, he used another key to warn people,” says Psiche.

Italians and foreigners who knew about the secret filu ‘e ferru flocked to Santu Lussurgiu to buy whole bottles of it, Psiche says, but they asked too many questions at the risk of exposing the producers. So, finally, the locals decided to go completely underground.

The village had some 40 distilleries in the late 1800s, when filu ‘e ferru had become a popular drink and was exported throughout Italy. However, the distilleries were closed at the beginning of the 20th century and the production became only “domestic”.

Psiche, a former mechanic, decided to recover the old village tradition of acquavite 20 years ago. Its Abbardente, made from fresh local white grapes, comes in two versions, both aged for at least 12 months.

The clear-as-water Abbardente has an intense, enveloping taste with a light flavor of dried fruit and almonds, and is diluted with water from a nearby village spring. It is aged in steel tanks.

The amber-colored Abbardente is rather aged in oak barrels. The maturation of the wood gives it a sweet flavor reminiscent of honey and homemade bread.

A women’s affair

Psiche uses traditional copper stills in its distillery.

Psiche uses traditional copper stills in its distillery.

Lussurgesi Distillery

Psiche’s Craft Distillery features old distilling artifacts and an original bottle of aquavite from 1860. He has several American customers in Ohio and Chicago, where many villagers have emigrated.

“Our village has always used wine instead of marc because the vineyards here tend to over-render, so the best way to avoid waste was to use the wine to make abbardente,” says Psiche.

While the men took care of the fields, the production of filu ‘e ferru in Sardinia was the business of the women. Wives, daughters and grandmothers have become experts in distillation. At first, huge copper pots, traditionally for milk, were used and sealed with flour batter to heat the wine. Later, the ladies turned to copper stills.

The Sardinians love their “hot water”, just as the Neapolitans love coffee.

While it’s great as an after-dinner digestive, whenever it’s time to toast, a shot of abbardente works well.

According to Psiche, it is also a drink to observe death: when someone dies, it is customary to enjoy a glass of filu ‘e ferru during the night vigil to honor the deceased.

Filu ‘e ferru is as fiery as the Sardinians who continue to make it at home, just like their ancestors, respecting tradition. They believe it can be drunk like pure water.

A woman from Santu Lussurgiu, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested by authorities, said it’s not just for special occasions: “Those who love it drink it at any time of the day, even at breakfast”.

Making filu ‘e ferru strictly for personal consumption, she uses a huge still owned by her grandparents that has been in the family since the 1960s.

“I need half a day to distill the wine, which grows on our land. Apart from fennel, I often add absinthe,” she explains.

The woman says she has now also involved her son in the daily preparation of their homemade filu ‘e ferru – perhaps a sign of the changing times that men like Psiche should play a key role in preserving the legacy alcoholic.

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