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By Malkhaz Kharbedia

No-one really knows when the Georgians learnt how to distill spirits, but the first Georgian spirits must have been made from chacha (grape marc and stalks – in Georgian, chacha also refers to the spirits distilled thereof) i.e. the ancestors of the Georgians distilled what was left after making wine. There is documentary evidence of Georgians distilling spirits dating back to as early as the XVIIth century A.D. – a fact confirmed in the reports of the contemporary Russian ambassadors Tolochanov and Ievlev, who expressed surprise and regret in their book at the fact that the inhabitants of the western Georgian region of Imereti 'only drink wine; they have spirits, but do not drink them'. It is clear that in Georgia people used to only use spirits for medicinal purposes, and this tradition has fortunately been maintained in Georgian villages to this day, where old people often drink 50ml of spirits in the morning before their breakfast.

The best chacha spirits should be the result of a single distillation. They should need neither a second distillation, nor to be softened by the addition of pieces of oak or mulberry wood or large quantities of kaklis ughlebi (the cross-shaped membrane which separates the two halves of a walnut).

Chacha spirits are traditionally distilled in the following way: the grape marc and stalks are poured into a qvevri and are left for the winter, and distillation only begins in the early spring. When the marc and stalks are ready to be distilled, they are removed from the kvevri and are decanted into a large copper cauldron which is placed out in the open and covered with a copper lid. The still is then smeared with clayey soil mixed with ashes, and the condenser (a long trough of cold water with a pipe running through it) is attached. The joints between the cauldron, the lid and the condenser pipe are then sealed with dough made of maize flour, and a piece of cloth is also wrapped around the joint between the condenser pipe and the lid. The firewood under the still is then lit, and the distillation begins.

The classic place in which to distill spirits is of course the Kakhetian distillery – called zaod or zaot, from the Russian word zavod, "factory" – a large stone building which really does work like a factory i.e. day and night. The time to distill spirits (zaotoba) resembles a holiday in Kakheti, with entire neighbourhoods gathering in their local zaod to distill their chacha together.

The owners of these distilleries receive a fee for their services, which vary from village to village. For example, a person who provides his own firewood only owes the distillery 1 in every 10 litres of the chacha he will distill, whereas one who will use the distillery's firewood will owe more. This fee is also sometimes paid in money. As a rule, only last year's wine is drunk during zaotoba; the only chacha to be drunk is that which drips – still warm – out of the still and which needs to be tasted. Pigs are slaughtered and their meat is skewered and roasted, and the entire process becomes a long, drawn-out feast which lasts as long as there is chacha to distill. Neighbours very often only meet during zaotoba – particularly in large villages like Bakurtsikhe, Shilda and Akhalsopeli – and the vapours of freshly-distilled chacha sometimes help to reconcile former antagonists.

Nowadays, many Georgian companies produce chacha spirits of reasonably high quality, and which will hopefully one day be as famous a drink as Italian grappa. The practice of distilling chacha from specific varieties of grape is also beginning in Georgia, and customers can already try chacha distilled from Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Chinuri or Chardonnay grapes.

The best producers of chacha

Telavi Wine Cellar, Teliani Valley, Château Mukhrani, Kindzmaraulis Marani, Vazi+, Pheasant's Tears, the Kindzmarauli Corporation, Mildiani, GWS, Askaneli.

© Malkhaz Kharbedia, Wine Club, Georgian Wine Guide - 2014

Georgian Wine Map
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May 2022