(CNN) – It is very strong, fennel-flavored, as clear as water, and is still produced illegally in many homes in Sardinia.
Filu ‘e ferru, or “iron wire”, is an old drink with a dangerous past, and a 45% alcohol concentration that puts off even the most tolerant.
Rosa Maria Scrugli was just 23 years old in 1970 when she was sent on a work mission to the small town of Santu Lussurgiu, located in the wild Oristano area of western Sardinia, among rocky hills and caves.
For 400 years, this place of just under 2,000 inhabitants has been making a powerful filu ‘e ferru locally called “abbardente”, a Latin word meaning “burning water”.
The mayor — the town shoemaker — saluted Scrugli at noon by firing several friendly shots, but by the time he fired the second, he nearly fell, falling on top of the somewhat dazed mayor.
“The next thing I knew, someone was dragging me and I woke up in my hotel room with the worst hangover ever. The mayor wasn’t too well either, but he was used to drinking filu ‘e ferru. It was mine. It was the first time, and it was a shock,” he said. Scrugli tells CNN.
Santu Lussurgiu is considered the cradle of Sardinia’s oldest tradition of “acquavite” — literally “grape water” in Italian, which stands for a premium distilled alcohol.
A secret code
The villagers have been using filu ‘e ferrua for 400 years.
Distilleries to Lussurges
“Acquavite and abbardente are just synonyms for filu ‘e ferru, which is a metaphor, part of a secret code invented later to name acquavite to escape police checks,” says Santu Lussurgiu’s sole (legal) distiller Carlo Psiche. .
It became an “illegal” drink in the 19th century. In the 19th century, the Italian royal house of Savoy imposed taxes on the production of alcohol, starting the illegal trade that continues massively in Santu Lussurgiun.
Until a few decades ago, when police raids were frequent, farmers had to hide their filu ‘e ferru bottles in some secret place at home or underground in their garden, marking the spot with a piece of iron. Hence the name “iron wire”.
When creating such a nickname, the locals could also have been inspired by the rocky mountain range of volcanic origin in the area called Montiferru, “iron hill”.
What has always made Santu Lussurgiu’s acquavite exceptional, compared to those produced in the rest of Sardinia, is that it is distilled from wine, not from orci, a spirit made from the remains of the skins and seeds of the grapes after the wine has been extracted. . So it’s not a grappa — Italy’s favorite after-meal shot.
Psiche says his Distillerie Lussurgesi, which has copper stills used for old-style distillation processes, is the only one of the five filu ‘e ferru distilleries in the wider region that uses real wine or “vinacce” instead of paint.
Meanwhile, families in the village have been making filu ‘e ferru beer at home since the 16th century. From the end of the century, after the monks of the local abbey introduced this powerful distilled alcohol to the area.
“At first it was used for its medical and therapeutic properties, especially for toothaches, then people realized it was also great as booze,” says Psich.
Police searches and secret signals
Santu Lussurgiu is located in the western hills of Sardinia.
Courtesy Michele Salaris
Everyone in the village still does abbardente secretly at home. None of them pay taxes, except Psiche who runs a business.
Today things are less dangerous than in the past. After all, many Italians make wine and all kinds of liquor at home, and the authorities no longer go knocking on people’s doors unless they’ve started a big company.
Psyche remembers that until the 1960s, when the tax police scoured the town for clandestine producers, people would rush to hide bottles and alembics, shouting the emergency code “filu ‘e ferru” to each other. It was like a short signal.
“I was young, but I remember the elderly describing the policemen as they parked their cars in front of the town hall and went hunting for illegal producers.”
Fennel seeds are added to filu ‘e ferru to soften its pungent taste, and given its strong aroma, the scent of fennel that wafted from homes occasionally helped police track down illegal activity.
“There was a village messenger whose job was to announce local laws, events and measures with a trumpet. He used another key to warn the people when Abbardente raids happened,” Psich says.
Italians and foreigners who knew the secret of Filu ‘e ferru would flock to Santu Lussurgiur to buy whole flasks of it, Psich says, but they asked too many questions at the risk of exposing the producers. So finally the locals decided to go completely underground.
The town had about 40 distilleries in the late 1800s, when filu ‘e ferru became a popular drink and was exported throughout Italy. However, the distilleries in the XX. They were closed at the beginning of the 20th century and the production became “domestic”.
Psyche, a former mechanic, decided 20 years ago to revive the old tradition of acquavite in the town. Its abbardente, made from fresh local white grapes, comes in two versions, both aged for at least 12 months.
Clear water abbardente has an intense, enveloping flavor with a hint of nuts and almonds, and is diluted with spring water from the nearby town. It is aged in steel tanks.
The amber colored abbardente is aged in oak barrels. The aging of the wood gives it a sweet taste reminiscent of honey and homemade bread.
Psyche uses traditional copper stills in its distillery.
Distilleries to Lussurges
Psyche’s craft distillery features old stills and the original acquavite bottle from 1860. He has several American clients in Ohio and Chicago, where many citizens migrated.
“Our people have always used wine instead of paint, because the vineyards here tend to over-yield, the best way to avoid waste was to use the wine to make abbardente,” says Psiche.
While men looked after the fields, in Sardinia the production of filu ‘e ferru was a women’s business. Wives, daughters and grandmothers became experts in distillation. In the beginning, huge copper vessels, traditionally for milk, were used and sealed with flour dough to heat the wine. Later, the ladies turned to copper stills.
Sardinians have a love affair with their “hot water” just like Neapolitans do with coffee.
Although great as an after-dinner digestif, a shot of abbardente works well whenever it’s time to toast.
According to Psyche, it is also a drink to observe death: when someone dies it is customary to taste a glass of filu ‘e ferru at midnight in honor of the deceased.
Filu ‘e ferru is as passionate as the Sardinians who continue to make it at home, like their ancestors, keeping the tradition. They believe that it can be drunk like clean water.
A woman from Santu Lussurgiu, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity for fear of being violated by the authorities, says that it is not only for special occasions: “Those who like it drink at any time of the day, even at breakfast.”
Making filu ‘e ferru strictly for personal consumption, he uses his grandparents’ giant alembic that has been in the family since the 1960s.
“It takes me half a day to distill the wine that grows on our land. In addition to fennel, I often add absinthe,” he said.
The woman says that now her son has also participated in the daily preparation of the filu ‘e ferru at home; perhaps, as a sign of changing times, men like Psyche should play a key role in preserving alcohol’s legacy.