Patxaran would seem to be the last drink on which to base macho memories, but in northern Spain everyone from Basque woodchoppers and daredevil bullrunners at Pamplona to the star chefs of El País Vasco’s great Michelin-rated restaurants drink this stuff - - often over ice. I first tasted Patxaran in 1971, when my old friend José Ramón Jorajurría, the “printer’s devil,” as I called him (he worked in a print shop), decided to make me only the second American to be invited into the Peña Anaitasuna (the other was the famous bullrunner Matt Carney, who was featured in James A. Michener’s Iberia; Joe Distler, the great bullrunner and my dear friend was the third).
But, at midday on DIMASU, they retire to their clubhouse, which is like an Elk’s Club, only much bigger and with a health club, an Olympic swimming pool, plenty of rooms and facilities for family activities. There the men of Anaitasuna have a gargantuan lunch followed by cigars and heroic amounts of Patxaran. Among the few things I remember about that day, aside from feeling supremely honored at having been invited, was that I didn’t like Patxaran. That was then, this is now. Like Scotch, drinking Patxaran is an acquired taste. Over the years I have acquired it; I love Patxaran. It’s nutty, sweet red fruit and anisette flavors are a great counterpoint for a good cigar.
One year, while touring the Basque Country with Chef Mark Miller (who then had Coyote Cafes in Santa Fe, Austin, and Las Vegas and Red Sage and Raku in Washington), on a cool misty afternoon at Kaia, a fabulous seafood restaurant in the port of Getaria near San Sebastián, I ordered a Patxaran after a stunning meal that featuring fresh house-cured anchovies, grilled sardines, and a whole wood fire-grilled turbot. Our server poured, over ice into a large brandy snifter, a very generous portion of Baines ‘Etiqueta de Oro (gold label),’ the Aston Martin of Patxaranes. A fine Montecristo completed the picture and all was well with the world by the time we finished lunch - - at 6:00 p.m.! (Some other brands of Patxaran to look for are the easier-to-find regular bottling of Baines, Basarana, Etxeko, and the brands you are more likely to find in the United States, Atxa and Zoco).
Then there was the glorious afternoon of the 14th of July, 1998, I believe, when John Ewing and I brought two liters of patxaran that we had been given by the sisters at Restaurante Hartza. I got the fine folks at Hotel Maissonnave in Pamplona to partially fill a garbage bag with ice, put the jug of patxaran in it and put that into a wine box. Somewhere we procured a couple of dozen plastic copitas so we could share the patxaran with the whole tendido. We took the box with us to our seats in Tendido 9 and after the merienda, we began distributing the iced-down, Hartza house-made patxaran to about 20 people around us. We indeed, lit up the whole tendido. After most of our tendido had cleared out Ewing and I lingered in our seats, telling stories and drinking more patxaran.
Remember the Sloe Gin Fizz? Patxaran, which once a homemade concoction, has become one of the most popular drinks in Spain, bit it has only a remote relationship with that American sloe gin sensation of decades past. Patxaran, a ruby-garnet colored, Navarrese-Basque destroyer of brave men and levitator of adventurous women, is made by macerating sloe berries (called endrinas, arandanos, or arañones in Spanish; patxarán in Basque) in a sweetened, anís-flavored aguardiente. Patxaran de Navarra (from Navarra) even has its own protected Denominación Específica (DE - - which refers to the method of production, whereas in wine, denominación de origen (DO) refers to the area). The endrina fruit grows wild throughout Europe, but 110 experimental hectares of sloe berries have been planted in Navarra to insure a continuous supply from within the denominación for some of the nearly eight million liters of Patxaran produced annually.
DE Patxaran de Navarra, which averages 25 to 30 percent alcohol by volume, is produced by infusing orujo (aguardiente or marc) or agricultural-based alcohols with the essence of anís oils, then macerating sloe berries in the anís-flavored alcohol for a minimum one month to a maximum of eight months for each liter of Patxaran produced. Old-timers back in the hills of Navarre say that eating the berries after they are macerated in the anís cause you to go loco or develop a permanent dislike of patxaran, the latter of which I personally do want to risk, so I don’t eat the sloe berries.
After a long, laid-back luncheon that featured almost every wine García has a hand in (Mauro, Mauro Vendimia Seleccionada, Maurodos San Román, Leda, Luna Beberride), coffees were ordered and cigars were lit. The proprietor then suggested post prandials. I ordered Patxaran on the rocks in a brandy glass (as it is often served in Spanish restaurants after meals). The owner was aghast. With a somewhat patronizing tone, suggesting that a foreigner should be properly instructed in what constitutes a proper drink to end a meal, he suggested that I couldn’t possibly want to drink Patxaran after having drunk Mariano Garcia’s superb wines, some of which are among the most expensive in Spain.
I held my ground, however, and asked him to pour my favorite, Baines Etiqueta Oro, if he had it. Garcia, who had been somewhat distracted in conversation during my exchange with the owner, chimed in, “Make that two.” Shaking his head, the poor man went off to get Patxaran for the foreigner and for Spain’s legendary winemaker.
Gerry Dawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Alternate e-mail (use only if your e-mail to AOL is rejected): email@example.com