Words by Denny Kallivoka
Originally from: Meteora, Greece
Profession: Chief Winemaker/Master Distiller
Ioanna Tsilili is a chemical engineer, an oenologist (winemaker) and the master distiller for the Tsililis winery-distillery. If you follow her on social media, you will see her in many different places of the world, discovering and conveying the culture of tsipouro around the great bars of the world.
You are a citizen of the world. You travel, observe, taste. Do you consider tsipouro worthy of claiming a spot among the many bar scenes around the globe?
"I most certainly do and that is why we’ve been making all this effort for years, everyone in my family, including my father and uncle! I belong to the new generation: I got involved with this field eight years ago. It goes without saying that we all believe in this product, Tsipouro, the Greek grape marc distillate. I dedicated most of my studies and my scientific research to spirits: as a chemical engineer I wrote my dissertation on the “Study of the qualitative characteristics of tsipouro” at the National Technical University of Athens, a study to which no similar had been written before. Later on, I became a Master Distiller at Conegliano, Italy, in one of the very few schools where the art of distillation is taught.
If you want my feedback from my time studying and traveling to Italy, France, the States, Canada and UK, then that is the perception on what tsipouro really is. It was all the source of information and stimuli that made me understand that it is a spirit no less important than any of the other spirit in the world, like cognac, grappa, rum, whisky, mezcal or tequila!
This feeling or perhaps this certainty is also supported by our partners abroad and confirmed by our sales, mostly in the USA. A country where people don’t pair tsipouro with food like in Greece, but mostly use it as a base spirit for cocktails, either in its white unaged version or in its various aged versions."
Could you please give us a description of what tsipouro is and also the production process it follows?
"Firstly, I would like to make clear that I am going to speak about tsipouro, focusing on high quality bottled tsipouro as a result of many years’ experience, fine raw material, in depth scientific knowledge and of course exceptional technological equipment.
Tsipouro is the Greek grape pomace/marc brandy, analogue to Italian grappa, the Spanish orujo and the eau-de-vie de marc de raisin in certain areas in France. The main difference of tsipouro compared to other pomace brandies –mostly pointed out by the Americans- is its aromatic profile. This differentiation comes mainly from the raw material and the slightly differentiated method of production which is of higher quality, in the case of tsipouro. It is significant to mention that what we examine here is the bottled tsipouro and not bulk, illegally produced tsipouro.
With my frequent contact with spirit experts and mixologists in the US and Canada, I realized that bottled tsipouro is a far more aromatic distillate compared to other pomace spirits, fruitier, without the pungent character of similar products. It's clear, fruity and floral aromas and its smooth palate make it ideal for mixing up in cocktails [Editor - see Grappa Cocktails], something I’ve never seen happening with grappa, for instance, which is most commonly consumed as a digestif at the end of a meal.
Regarding the method of production that we use at the Tsililis Distillery: after four generations of experience, deep scientific research and know-how we have concluded to a certain qualitative method in order to produce fine spirits with respect to the consumer, spirits that win awards worldwide. A very important factor in the resulting spirit, is the selection of the raw material, the grapes: carefully selected grapes from the land of Thessaly mainly from the Muscat of Hamburg varietal. It is a dark-skinned Muscat, which has been cultivated in Thessaly for the past 80 years, that is ideal for making spirits due to its clean aromatic character with distinct aromas of roses and bergamot and the smooth mouth feel.
Another important factor is the qualitative processing of the grapes. It should be mentioned that the Tsililis Distillery has chosen to handle the entire production of tsipouro within our facilities in a holistic way, from the grape to the bottle. For most spirits around the world, the raw material (fruits/grains/vegetables) are produced at a certain place, then distilled at another location, then perhaps aged somewhere else and even bottled at a different place. We want to “curate” our spirits carefully during each and different stage of their creation.
So, in order to make a pure spirit -free of any hazardous substances like methanol- it is crucial to destem the grape bunches (to remove the stems). Then we crush gently the grapes so the juice can be released. This is what we call free-run juice and is intended for making wine. The remaining skins from the grapes is what we call pomace or marc. We have to make clear that it is a matter of choice of quality to keep the rest of the juice with the pomace together (and not just the pomace) at the Tsililis Distillery. Thus, pomace (after the alcoholic fermentation, which takes place in temperature controlled stainless steel vats) is going to have the ideal level of moisture in order to keep freshness and varietal aromas until distillation. Once alcoholic fermentation is completed, the pomace remains under nitrogen filled stainless steel vats to protect it from oxidation, bacterial and fungal infections. Therefore, pomace remains fresh, clean and aromatic till the moment they are distilled. Ideally, we are speaking of a time frame of less than 6 months.
While studying “Mastro Distillatore” or master distiller in Conegliano, where the heart of grappa production beats, and studying the production process in several grapperie, Ι identified the points of difference between fine-made tsipouro and the rest pomace brandies. The majority of the distilleries distills dry grape pomace, bought from wineries that they usually pile up in the open air. Obviously, in this way pomace becomes food for fungus and bacteria. The exposure to the above parameters leads to the spoilage and degradation of the quality of the raw material that which consequently leads to high production of methanol, a substance very hard to eliminate. This also brings unpleasant odors to the spirit, reminiscent of distinctive pungent vegetal aromas that provoked the disapproval of many consumers for many years. Therefore, it was the bad production practice that established grape marc brandies as old-fashioned, rough and unrefined spirits and not the products themselves.
This brings us to the most important -and let me say “most artistic”- stage of tsipouro production, the distillation. At the Tsililis Distillery, the distillation is discontinuous, batch per batch, and takes place in copper pot stills.
We should stress that the pot still in which the pomace is placed, is heated by steam- like a bain marie, and not over direct flame. This way, the pomace doesn’t risk to get burnt- a very common odor that we identify in most of bulk tsipouros. So, the pomace is heated and afterwards the alcoholic vapors ascend towards the top of the pot still, pass on to the “swan’s neck” and then they are redistilled in a fractional column of 8 different plates, in our case. This way, we are able isolate with precision the best cut of the spirit, the heart.
Thus, we can choose exactly which volatile substances we desire and which not, according to their boiling points. This approach enables us to successfully remove the foreshots/heads which contain acetaldehyde, a dangerous carcinogen, and the tails/faints that downgrade the final spirit due to their heavy odors and flavors. Removing methanol –highly toxic and dangerous substance- is also imperative, however because of the high quality of our grapes, it only exists in very low concentrations. In the end, what is left is the heart of the spirit, the best and most aromatic part. It is only the heart that makes it into becoming either our classic Tsilili Tsipouro, or its aged versions, Ayioneri and Dark Cave.
Being unable to control all the above as well as the lack of scientific expertise is what makes bulk tsipouro unpleasant to the palate but also extremely dangerous for our health."
Is the legal framework in Greece adequate to support the industry when it comes to tsipouro?
"It is adequate when it comes, once again, to the bottled tsipouro produced by legally operating distilleries - and it strictly determines the method of production, the inspection and the taxation of the product.
Both the General Chemical State Laboratory and Customs authorities are very strict concerning the legitimate distilleries. In our case, inspections on quality occur often to ensure the consumers’ health, by measuring levels of methanol, acetaldehyde, heavy metals and other health hazardous substances, along with quantitative inspections regarding excise taxes. In the case of bulk made, and largely illegal, tsipouro the legal framework is obsolete where no provision has been made for such inspections. As a result, apart from having to deal with unfair competitive practices against bottled tsipouro, consumers’ health is put at risk and the image of all Greek spirits is inevitably downgraded: tsipouro’s image and prestige is affected in a negative way especially when we are talking about the international trade."
Since you were the first to create an aged tsipouro, I would like you to tell us how you came up with this idea.
"To begin with, I’d like to say that even our fresh, white tsipouro undergoes aging for about three to six months in stainless steel vats. It’s a process that contributes to the mellowing of the spirit, knitting aromas together and making the spirit smoother and finer. So, even the classic Tsilili Tsipouro is practically aged.
Our long-term aged tsipouro is a result of many years of work, experimentation but most of all love for this spirit. My father Makis Tsililis and my uncle Kostas Tsililis, have been experimenting with aging tsipouro in oak casks in our cellar since early 90’s. With them being humble and low-profile people, it’s been years that they have been studying the qualitative characteristics of the aged tsipouro, the latter being a non-traditional distillate to the Greeks. They worried a lot about how the Greek and the international consumer would embrace an aged tsipouro.
This is where I get in the picture: started seeking the way in which tsipouro could become an international alcoholic drink and especially a global aged spirit which would share the shelf with the most expensive and complex malts, rums and cognacs. After finishing my studies at the National Technical University of Athens, at ENITAB in Bordeaux (with several educational visits to Cognac), at WSET and Scuola Enologica in Conegliano, I came back eager and inspired and just said: “Yes! Let’s do it! Let’s make a great Tsipouro! Let’s create a great Greek spirit!”. So, we started opening up our casks, tasting, noting down aromas and flavors, making several blends and after a year of creative research, our beloved Dark Cave 5-year-old Tsilili Tsipouro was born. This January, it will be 5 years since the launch of Dark Cave, the first tsipouro to be aged in oak casks. I think it is safe to say that Dark Cave cleared the way for other tsipouros of long or short-term aging and changed the consumer perception of Greek spirits.
Some people ask me how it is possible for a tsipouro to have this warm amber color. I tell them that even whiskies and cognacs have water-white color before the aging process. All aged spirits, change dramatically their appearance and their aromatic profile after the contact with the oak.
People’s acceptance in Greece and abroad was a very pleasant surprise! We were aware that we had created a very well-made spirit of high quality, nevertheless we had not predicted that it would get appreciated by aficionados and amateurs, male and female consumers or even the younger crowd and the more mature ones at the same time. In 2014, Dark Cave was awarded as one of the best 14 spirits in the world after Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in China. Spirit tasters around the world describe it as “robust like a malt whisky, aromatic like a cognac; yet with a warmth found in aged rums”.
Since 2013, I’ve been experimenting mainly with French oak casks, from different forests, different levels of toast and barriques in which Vinsanto wine had previously been aged in. I always use oak and casks destined for wine aging. The usual casks used for spirits have a larger wood porosity that makes spirits taste coarser, woody and less elegant. What we seek for aged the Tsilili spirits is elegance, complexity, depth and that’s why we use casks from the best forests with tight grain and fine toast."
And so last year Ayioneri was created, which is also an aged tsipouro, but of shorter term. What was the need it came to cover?
"From the moment we realized how successful the Dark Cave became and how much people loved it in Greece and abroad, we leaned towards further experimentation which is for me the beginning of all things. So we thought: “Why not try to make a tsipouro with a shorter period of aging, with a lighter touch and impact of the oak?” In other words, to create a tsipouro that shows the sophistication and elegance that come by mellowing with aging; yet without having intense toasted aromas of caramel, coffee and spices- which render it difficult to pair with food- and at the same time with a more approachable price for the client. So, we started to experiment on aging our tsipouro in barriques previously used for aging white and red wines from Theopetra Estate. Thus, Ayioneri tsipouro from Meteora was born, bearing I might say, a reposado tequila kind of vibe."
So why ex-wine casks?
"For two reasons: firstly, because the wine brings elements like aromas and flavors to the barrel that respectively enhance the spirit’s complexity, and secondly and most importantly because the wine absorbs the first intense toast of fresh wood that was, by no means, a desirable characteristic to be found in this specific spirit. We want it to be smooth and elegant. So, we let the tsipouro rest in oak barriques for twelve months, then opened up some of them, we blended it and we realized that what we had was our well-known floral and fruity, aromatic Tsilili Tsipouro, maybe one of the most aromatic and smoothest in the market, but with a finer style with light vanilla, chamomile and stone fruit notes and a rounder mouth feel. It’s a spirit in the likes of a reposado tequila, made for mixing up in drinks but also to pair beautifully with food. In other words, without drifting so much from the “classic” profile of a tsipouro, Ayioneri mixes old and new and the traditional and the cosmopolitan spirit, such as the Dark Cave."
How would you suggest someone drinks it? How do you drink it?
"Look, generally I really like my tsipouro in cocktails. That’s the way I drink it. For the Dark Cave in particular, I would say it is works great in specific cocktails, with few mixable ingredients. On the other hand, I would mix Ayioneri up in any classic cocktail to bring an extra depth. It is complex without lacking in freshness."
Give me a couple examples.
"In all classic cocktails that contain citrus fruits, either their juice or oils. Like a Margarita that would get a whole new dimension with Ayioneri replacing tequila. Or in a Negroni with citrus bitters to enhance the bergamot aromas found in Ayioneri. On the other hand, Ayioneri is a spirit also suitable to be enjoyed by the not-so-fond-of-tsipouro drinkers, because of its refined taste. I like it a lot when paired with charcuterie like jamon or seafood like smoked salmon."
In which of your trips did you try a tsipouro based cocktail that you won’t forget?
"In Philadelphia, I remember I had an amazing Negroni with Tsilili Tsipouro and a citrus vermouth. I really loved the Mediterranean character it had, even though I am not a huge fan of Negroni. Also, in a bar in Tribeca, New York, there was this Manhattan cocktail with a twist: it was made with Dark Cave and it had such an exotic depth! Yet one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had was in a very famous bar in West Loop, Chicago, when I tasted a Sour cocktail with Dark Cave and violet liqueur!"
How does it feel when you travel to the States and other countries and you find Greek spirits in their bars? How often does that happen to begin with, and how do you feel at that very moment?
"When speaking of famous bars and their mixologists it is quite expected to find spirits from all around the world. You see these people seek exactly this: What’s going to be the next big thing? What is the next exotic spirit?
After the huge hype created around mezcals, there’s a new love for grape and wine spirits that are seriously making a comeback as very trendy. Hence, they come up with cocktails based on pisco from Peru, singani from Bolivia, tsipouro in both aged and un-aged versions and also cognac. America is in this phase, yes. It is pretty common to find it in the kind of places that do make an effort for something different. You wouldn’t easily find it at a neighborhood bar for instance, but it makes me happy to see tsipouro on many lists because it tells me that those people are not afraid to include an “unknown” spirit in their list, meaning that it is not coming from an established brand. On the contrary, they seem quite proud to be suggesting anything of high quality that breaks free from the obsession on mainstream choices."
With tsipouro coming from grapes, it is fair to say that it is quite 'alive', given it varies from vintage to vintage. What happens or can happen in order to maintain the demanded consistency? Or maybe stability is not a challenge in this case?
"In spirits, consistency is exactly what we are after, which differs a lot when it comes to wines. We are the only tsipouro distillers to declare the vintage on the label and that was our conscious decision to make clear that our tsipouro’s quality is based on the quality of the grapes. High quality grapes have a soul and a character that varies from year to year depending on the weather conditions. At the Tsililis Distillery, what remains consistent is the quality and the style: since 1989 the consumer has been able to identify the Tsililis signature with a sip. Throughout these years we have evolved and experimented, but most of all, we have remained true to our values. Each Tsilili spirit has a distinct seductive aroma and a well-balanced structure. It is up to a master distiller’s ability to respect the raw material, make the best out of it, distill it patiently and create the most balanced blends in order to make spirits with personality and high quality."
Is there a feedback available to you on how bars are exploiting Greek spirits? How are things going with that?
"Clearly, there has been a change, particularly in important bars that innovate and set the trends –the early adopters- that have shown a positive outlook on tsipouro or grape distillate. Tsilili Tsipouro and Ayioneri enter the market more and more. There is still however some resistance from most bartenders regarding the Greek spirits.
Nevertheless, if you ask me, given that five years ago the bar scene was so much different, I think they are slowly starting to believe in it. I also believe that the more the Greek mixologists and bartenders travel abroad the more they’ll feel confident to present something Greek, because direct comparison really does contribute in showcasing the high quality of the Greek spirits."