Monsaraz is a quaint, medieval town placed neatly in the heart of the Alentejo region of Portugal. It has a forgotten feel about it – as though the wheels of time simply stopped turning some centuries ago; this is especially felt when one peeks upwards towards the castle and its imposing towers.
It’s fitting, then, that a town such as this has a fairy-tale to tell: that of daring to dream big and of having your dreams realised. This particular tale belongs to Sharish Gin, and while founder António Cuco isn’t your typical cartoon prince, he’s most certainly the star of the show.
Coming from such a traditional region – especially one that has worked so hard to preserve its heritage – it wouldn’t have taken a Magic 8-Ball to guess that any local with an interest in alcohol production would fall into wine making; Reguengos do Monsaraz, after all, is famous for the stuff.
António Cuco, however, is no easy man to predict. Instead of wine, he flung himself head first into gin, ending up with a vast portfolio that includes a bright blue, colour changing edition amongst its many offerings.
A teacher of tourism by trade, from time to time António helped out at his parents’ restaurant, Parque da Cicade, where he amassed a collection of 50 or so gins behind the bar. This interest, teamed with a gap in his teaching calendar (and a little prompting from friends and family), is what lead him to start experimenting with the juniper-laced spirit.
Hard graft has obviously been at the heart of this, but António knows that luck has been on his side too. “Sharish Gin was my way out of unemployment,” he said. “I’ve never been in any other distillery and in two years my life changed completely: everybody knows who I am, people ask me to take pictures with them, to sign bottles and invite me to events and parties.”
The rapid success here is demonstrative of the speed at which António works; the idea to make his own gin struck in September 2013 and by October he was working on his first gin recipe, tinkering away with botanicals on a pressure cooker in his kitchen. Despite the relatively crude methods, 15 litres of Sharish Gin was being sold each week.
By 2014, António was a certified distiller and before long Sharish Gin was being made in a much more refined manner – now operating on two 300 litre copper pot stills (lovingly nicknamed The Minions).
Somewhat a jack-of-all-trades, António also has a 16,000 square foot estate in which he cultivates oranges and lemons – both of which are picked, peeled and – like a pre-midnight pumpkin carriage – transformed magically into spirit by his very hands. The other local botanical is apple, Apple Bravo de Esmolfe, to be precise – they’re a matter of Alentejo pride and, along with the orange peel, lemon peel and lemon verbena, are macerated when fresh.
All ingredients are cold infused separately in a Portuguese NGS base formed of 50% molasses and a 50% mix (30% rice and 70% wheat). The seemingly strange mixture of base spirit actually came by chance – he had begun by using molasses, but a friend introduced him to both rice and wheat based neutral spirits. Enjoying what each brought to the underlying texture of the gin, he decided to blend them together.
Each botanical element has a different maceration length too; the minimum is 30 days, but some can take up to nine months! When we visited in the middle of May, the lemons being used had been placed into their NGS bath the previous November.
All of the botanicals – bar the vanilla and cinnamon – are distilled separately, with each distillate going into the still at 60% ABV and coming out at around 85 – 90%. The distillates are then watered down to 40% and blended together in a 210 litre tank, wherein the vanilla and cinnamon are added to infuse.
Sharish Gin to taste…
The apples are the first thing to come through on the nose – the gin has a really familiar, fruity Summer Cup smell, though a piquancy from the cloves and cinnamon sits just behind. The apple comes straight through to the tongue too, along with a woody juniper. Coriander warms up the fresh citrus, followed swiftly by the cloves and cinnamon. While the apple and vanilla bring a certain sweet quality to the gin, the spicy elements conspire to overthrow them.
Spice dominates at the end but apple is the lingering flavour, remaining long after the drink is done. This would be complemented well by a thin slice of apple in a G&T and would put the drink right at home in an apple-based cocktail; our Cinco de Mayo punch, with its gin, cloudy apple juice, fresh chilli and coriander for example – would suit both the fruity and spicy elements of Sharish Gin and is certainly one for fans of the spirit to try.
Initially, António included his name and number on the card with each bottle of Sharish Gin; a move that saw word of mouth growing enormously and endeared him to the drink’s early adopters, of whom there were only around 200. They each helped to spread the word, somewhat expressing the gin to its current status.
That status, as it stands, is vast; António’s plan for Sharish Gin’s first year was to sell 7,000 bottles. This goal was met within three months, with 23,000 bottles sold in total over the year. For 2016, António is projecting 70,000 bottles sold, and considering that current market leader Bulldog sells around 100,000 bottles in the country, it’s fair to say that his gin – a relative baby on the market – is accelerating towards behemoth status.
Projections aside, to date, Sharish has sold over 100,000 bottles and is being sold far and wide in Portugal, a feat of which Antonio is understandably pleased. “The thing I’m most proud of,” he says, “is to talk into a bar, restaurant or liquor store and see my gin on the shelf.”
The sales are helped, of course, by branding – the Mahe bottle certainly stands out; it’s wide shape is slightly reminiscent of the round Bocksbeutel bottles that so often house Portuguese wines and it comes close to representing the town’s topography, a point emphasised by Sharish Gin’s logo, which is a scribble of Monsaraz’s silhouette.
With that locality in mind (the gin even takes its name from the 8th Century occupation of Monsaraz), we’re curious as to how Sharish Gin will fare internationally. While provenance is an increasingly common consideration for those making gin, those drinking it are – quite rightly – primarily occupied by taste and quality. Unfortunately, with so many gins on the market, its easy for a new one to drown in all the noise.
That said, adding considerable might to the Sharish Gin corner is the distillery’s Blue Magic Gin; it’s an impossible product to ignore, featuring an all-natural flower extract that transforms it from an almost chemical blue to a light, dusky pink when mixed with tonic. A gimmick perhaps, but one that will sell and sell and sell and sell…. It’s a neat trick and helps breakdown some barriers. Even if it just opens a few doors for their flagship gin to then take over, the release will have been worth while.
António has grand plans ahead of him – while gin will be the focus for the next 5 – 10 years, whisk(e)y is in the works and with a back catalogue already consisting of vodkas, a sloe gin, a limited edition pear gin and one in the works with Champagne producer Cattier House, it’s safe to say he’s keeping busy.
With all this going on, he’s lucky to have his wife Patricia to hand. She deals with daily records, customs and taxes, and also has the job of keeping António’s feet on the ground. “My wife… is my soul mate,” he told us, she “is the person that brings me down to earth when I start dreaming. She’s also my number one taster and the person in charge of keeping everything in the right place in the distillery.”
So our fairy-tale is seemingly heading towards a happy ever after. We can’t wait to see what they go on to next!
For more information about Sharish Gin, visit their website: www.sharishgin.com
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