In our modern industrial world of plenty, many forget the importance of the people behind a product. Certainly, few consider the faces of workers or instigators alike when they twist open a cold stubby from such-and-such brewery or pour a glass of appropriately chilled and vintaged wine from so-and-so winery. This is often the fault of the producers themselves as they mechanize and industrialise in the pursuit of the promise of ever-widening profit margins. Directed by the bean-counters and fuelled by the expectations of share-holders, mainstream commodities invariably become faceless and detached, even while their marketing departments do their utmost to vie for your custom. Sadly, the logo, brand name or trademark becomes paramount at the very same time that you become a statistic in their sales-sheets and the human element is totally lost in the mix. It is, therefore, more than a little refreshing to find a popular product that is an exception to the rule; an authentic village Greek spirit called Tokali Tsipouro.
Just how 14th century Greek Orthodox monks originally conceived of distilling grape pomace and then not storing it in wooden barrels as their contemporary technology would otherwise dictate remains unknown. Elsewhere in Europe they came to use old wine barrels as wood storage, thus creating the likes of French brandy and Portuguese sherry but at the same time completely altering the original character of the distillate. Certainly, the ancient Greek alchemists knew about distillation and used it to derive alcohol from grape in Hellenistic times but it is unclear whether this tradition was passed down or forgotten and later rediscovered by the Mt. Athos monks of the Middle Ages. Not withstanding this historical uncertainty, the Greek monks’ ingenuity was unquestionably proven by their insightful addition of mountain herbs and aromatic plants such as fennel and anise to the distillate. This almost divine revelation was to give birth to tsipouro, a Greek tradition that is proudly upheld to this day.
In modern times, there are only a very limited number of Greek distilleries licensed to manufacture tsipouro and under European statutes, as a ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ product, it can only be authentically produced in Greece using local viticulture. One of those privileged distilleries is particularly noteworthy as it utterly forsakes modern production methods and economies of scale in an earnest bid to produce a totally genuine village tsipouro experience.
Tokali Winery-Distillery & Sons of Thessaly have long known that superior tsipouro is only possible if the quality of its ingredients and high standards of the production process are maintained. It is for this reason that they insist on operating in a ‘closed system’ under strict BIO Hellas and European ISO 22000 certification; from grape to bottle the entire manufacturing process at Tokali happens on site.
It all starts on the family vineyard where careful tending of the vines throughout the year using biologically certified organic methods produces a vintage of succulent grapes at summer’s end. These are subsequently selected, harvested and pressed. The resulting pomace is then left to ferment over time, allowing the rich organic sugars of the grape to slowly evolve into alcohol.
Distillation follows. Tokali & Sons have two copper stills which were hand-made according to precise specifications dictated by time-honoured tradition. Interestingly, they are the only registered stills in Greece with names; ‘Konstandinos’ and ‘Eleni’ and not numbers and fittingly enjoy their own celebrity status in the local area. Their shape, size and the fact they are actually made of cooper all ensure a superior result. So too does the speed in which they are run and precisely when and how the vapour is condensed and collected.
Distillation at Tokali is a long, deliberately slow operation that largely relies on the expertise of Nickolas Tokali, Owner and Director of Operations at the distillery. When the stills are fired up after the October harvest, it is his self-appointed job to keep a vigilant eye on temperature and continuity to ensure the perfect ‘middle cut’ of complex flavour compounds of the distillate.
“You won’t find computer screens and gizmos here,” he explains as he was noisily closing and opening values, thus varying the temperature this way and that. “No buttons to push or pdf instructions to download from central office, only stubborn handles to manually crank,” he adds breathlessly after closing off a value in a billow of hissing steam. Getting it “just right” is obviously a skill he is proud of.
“Kostas and Eleni can be very temperamental sometimes, but you do learn to deal with their little quirks,” he says while I am just beginning to understand what he means as I stand engulfed by the sounds, heady aromas and intense heat of the distillation process in the small hours of the morning. “Sometimes they behave just like naughty children,” he added with his smile widening, “but they always have their father close by to sort them out!”
Nick’s herculean efforts to distill the year’s harvest in a limited time-frame eventually result in a very high alcohol-per-volume distillate. Unless it is destined to become Tokali Original, anise and a secret and subtle combination of aromatic plant extracts are then added and allowed to thoroughly infuse over time.
“The very nature of our tsipouro is largely defined by that combination, but I can say no more! You wouldn’t want me to give up a family secret, would you?” Nick states, rather than asks. I shortly find out that there is also another secret. Unusually, at Tokali & Sons the entire distillate, not just ‘the top’ or ‘the tail’ of the first distillate is then reintroduced to ‘Kostandinos’ and ‘Eleni’ for a second time. While this adds considerably to the production effort in terms of time, logistics and cost, it is instrumental in guaranteeing the smooth, pure taste of the finished product.
“We do things differently here, or should I say we do things the way they used to be done before artificial fertilizers replaced organic methods or stainless-steel fractional columns replaced real copper pot stills,” said Nick as I pressed for more about the drink I’ve come to love over the last 25 years I have spent living in Volos, the home of ‘Tsiporadika’ or specialist restaurants where tsipouro is served with enticing portions of Greek food. He has a point. Most modern distillers in Greece use more efficient but far less authentic methods. Ouzo, the more famous derivative of authentic tsipouro, only has to be made of 20 per cent pure grape pomace distillate by law, with the rest of its ethyl alcohol inevitably derived from chemistry. Some brands even add sugar to make their ouzo more of a liquor.
“It’s simple; you want the real thing, then you have to do it the real way,” Nick exclaimed over the din of whirring pumps and bursts of escaping steam in the stillhouse. With his dedication and ‘larger than life’ presence, I cannot help thinking that his expertise can only result in something even better than “the real thing”.
After the second distillation, the Tokali process is finalised when fresh local water is gently added to reduce the high pure alcohol content of the second distillate to the desired (and more legal!) level of 42 per cent. The result is then left to cool and mature in huge storage vats. Eventually, the finished product is bottled, labelled and carefully packaged on site, ready to be sent to the consumers in Greece, the rest of Europe and as far field as Russia and Australia to enjoy.
When talking to Nick, you get the sense of immense purpose. He proudly boasts of Tokali Tsipouro being faithful to tradition. He is also proud to be a producer of an authentic Greek product. “Recent years have seen the Greek economy turned both upside down and inside out. Many blame the politicians, others the banks, yet others blame each other. But nobody blames the sunshine and the weather!’ he laughs. “Seriously, though, the way I see it, if we are to beat the crisis, we need to take what makes Greece and our unique way of life so special and use it to our advantage. Greek food is already well-known around the world but tsipouro is mainly only known to Greeks. That’s surprising, given that they complement each other so well. So, I’m doing my bit to produce an authentic Greek export and help turn the whole crisis thing around.”
Greeks are tremendously – if not overly – proud of their history, and rightly so. Among their countless contributions, they gave the world analytical science, the value of systematic education and even philosophical insights into understanding life itself. Indeed, they gave us the very foundation upon which our modern culture and way of thinking is based. The importance of this fact is easily forgotten in a world characterised by consumerism, profit and instant gratification, especially given all the recent bad press about Greece’s financial woes and its devastating fiscal crunch. And yet, the Phoenix and its legendary ability to be reborn from the ashes is originally a Greek myth. Could it possibly be that they have pre-destined their own path? It seems to me that Greeks like Nickolas Tokali have both the ethos and, quite literally, the spirit to make the age old myth into a new tangible reality and thus help make modern Greece into an entity worthy of renewed pride. If successful, as proven by the past, the Greeks themselves – not to mention all the rest of us – can only benefit.
If you would like to learn more about Tokali Tsipouro, visit, its exclusive Australian importers.