Sometimes it takes someone in the business to show you how something is done. In this instance, I wanted to learn how zivania is made. What’s a girl to do? Buy a distiller and experiment herself? Well, in all honesty, I am actually looking for a small distillation apparatus. But, for now, I sought to learn the basics. Enter: the knowledgeable and kind Thanasis Ignatiou of Kalamos Wineries who spent some time with me touring me around his winery and showing me both how zivania was made in both the traditional and modern way. Zivania is an alcoholic beverage. It is colourless with the light aroma of – in my opinion – grapes and/or raisins. The alcohol content varies, but typically it is around 45% by volume. Read: it’s very strong. Case and point: its other uses in Cyprus include treating wounds, massaging sore body parts and curing colds. Zivania contains no sugars or acidity. It’s a drink that everyone in Cyprus knows, have tried and that stubborn old grandmothers, like my own, swear by to keep them strong.
So what makes a good zivania? Thanasis explained that the most important factor when making zivania are the quality of the grapes. Good quality grapes are a must. The grapes can not be blemished or under ripe when picked. Thanasis added “It is better for them to be a little more ripe than normal because this means that the grapes will have a higher sugar content. More sugar content, means a great alcohol content and more aroma.” Traditionally, zivania was made with the local grapes in Cyprus, these being the “xinisteri” and “mavro” grapes. At Kalamos Winery, the “zivania” is made with the xinisteri grapes and the white grape “malaga”, otherwise commonly known as “muscat of alexandria”. “Malaga” grapes, when properly ripened, have an intense aroma of grape and this makes the zivania ultimately more aromatic. All bottles of zivania must have the type of grape used to make the zivania clearly labelled on the bottle.
When I met up with Thanasis, it was at the winery itself where the production of zivania was being carried out in the large stainless steel cylinders surrounding the us. While the large stainless steel cylinders made buzzing noises surrounding us he pointed to a corner where a small stream of clear liquid was pouring out. “That is zivania”, he said. We decided to go to another location in the village where zivania was being made the “old-fashioned” way. I half-expected to see a small distillation apparatus sat on a table, snug into the corner of a traditional house, but was met with, and impressed by, a large black distillation apparatus – taller than me – sitting outside in a field called a “kasani”.
Inside the “kasani”, the grape must is being boiled. This creates bubbles and the bubbles create steam. The steam produced then rises and makes its way through a large pipe which connects to a distiller, a large cylinder filled with cold water and more pipe. Inside the cold tank is a winding “cooling condenser” pipe where the hot steam condenses into liquid zivania.
Behind the “kasaini” was a traditional stone house, that happened to be Thanasis’ grandparent’s house, filled with barrels of fermenting grapes. Thanasis explained that at Kalamos Winery the zivani is made from the grapes itself, not the residue of grapes that had been crushed when making wine which consists of the leftover grapes and skins. The former method produces a much better quality of zivania, whereas the latter approach is the method commonly adopted when making zivania at home. Thanasis explained that the grapes are run through a machine that crushes the grapes and everything is put together (save for the stems) into large blue barrels. The grapes are kept in these large blue barrels for around 10 days. He shook one of the large blue barrels and it started to make a fizzing sound, sort of like a gigantic can of coke. Thanasis explained that inside the yeast eats the sugar from the must and these creates bubbles, carbon dioxide, which become trapped. When you shake the barrel, the carbon dioxide escapes, which is what produces the fizzing sound.
Once the liquid starts to come out the distillation apparatus, it is tested for alcohol content. Zivania must have an alcohol content of 45%. When the liquid first comes out, the first 2 to 3 litres are very high in alcohol content. In fact, the liquid that first comes out is methanol. So to ensure that the right alcohol content is obtained, the first 5 litres are discarded or put to the side to be sold on as methanol. Even after the first 5 litres come out, the alcohol content of the zivania produced isn’t exactly 45%. It may be higher, but it is collected and distilled water added to bring the alcohol content down to 45%. In addition, no zivania is collected once the alcohol content drops below 40%, because it is not of good quality.
At the end of our talk, Thanasis makes an interesting point. In order to sell zivania a producer must have a government licence. Thanasis explained that in older times, many people would produce zivanaia because the government would pay to buy it. But, if you wanted to bottle and sell zivania on the public market you need to have a license, which is very expensive. Thansis believes the Cypriot Government needs to revisit the issue of zivania. “Zivanaia is a locally produced and important drink for Cyprus. The Government needs to ensure that it is properly promoted and supported. At present, zivania and whiskey are sold at roughly the same price, partly as a result of the high cost that producers must pay for a zivania license. As a result, many people opt for buying whiskey – or other drinks – instead of zivania. If the cost of zivania was lower, the demand for it would increase and more people would drink it. Ultimately this would benefit the Government, who would receive an increased tax amount from an increased number of distilleries as the demand grows.”
Having seen this process, I think this is one traditional Cypriot drink that I will be leaving to the professionals for the time being. Zivania is a product which is Cypriot through and through. And despite what I initially thought, it is not just a drink that can be enjoyed ice cold with meze or nuts. It is actually possible to make some nice cocktails with it. One only has to visit some of the best bars in Cyprus to get a first hand taste. If you find yourself in Limassol, stop by the bar In Theory and ask to try one of their zivania cocktails. You may quickly be hooked. Move over tequila, it’s zivania’s turn.
6 Kyra Eleni, Amargeti, Pafos, Cyprus
Winery: (+357) 25 723 324