Cold stabilization testing of Singani
prior to bottling, icy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Making Singani

 

The standards and practices described here are unique to Bolivia.  They are codified and controlled by the government and all Singani producers must follow them.  To make their multiple-award winning Singani, Bodegas Kuhlmann has developed procedures to significantly exceed these standards, which makes their products so highly acclaimed at the international level.


Wine country

There are approximately 20 varieties of grapevine grown in Bolivia, but only one is used–first traditionally, and then encoded in law–for Singani.

Locally grown whites include: Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Macabee, Riesling, San Juanino, Colombard, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Pinot blanc, Ugni blanc, Pedro Ximenez, Torrontes.

Locally grown reds include: Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Barbera, Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Tempranillo, Grenache, Tannat.

Singani is exclusively made from the muscat Alexandria variety of white grape. It is believed to be the most genetically unmodified vine in existence, sometimes called the "millenial strain".  This, along with muscat Frontignan, are considered to be the most aromatic of all grape varieties. The aromatic terpenol profile is stronger and less uni-dimensional than others.

The term "alexandria" in the name means that this variety was first known from that city, founded by Alexander of Macedonia. It is based on still older cultivars enjoyed by the royal court of the Pharaos, thus the pedigree of this variety is perhaps the oldest known.


The Goal of making Singani

The goal of making Singani is to extract and preserve the original characteristics of the fruit.  Therefore, the process must start with an extra-ordinary ingredient, and care must be taken to ensure its character is not reduced by the making.  Aging is out of the question for this reason.


The characteristic profile

The organoleptic characteristics that distinguish Singani are

Aspect
clear, clean, brilliant
Color
colorless
Aroma
terpenol profile of alexandria muscat predominates
Taste
fine, soft, smooth, with balanced structure

There are hundreds if not thousands of compounds that give the grape its complexity, but it is the very high concentrations of terpenols that provide the signature profile.


Terroir

Singani is produced from grapevines growing in scattered valleys in the Andes mountain range within traditional boundaries established since its origin in the 1500's.

The ground on which the vineyards stand ranges from 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) to 2,900 meters (9,514 feet) above sea level.

Micro-climatic conditions are established by the surrounding mountains which provide shelter to the valleys from major weather elements.

The soil is alluvial, with good granularity and clay components as carried by rivers washing down over millenia from glaciers and snowpack higher in the mountains.

Summers are temperate yet hot enough during the day to mature fruit.  Evenings are cool.  Winters are cold but do not drop below freezing.  Given the extreme altitude and thin air, air temperature is almost always less than solar radiation temperature.  Massive solar luminosity with cooler air provides great conditions for growth, the development of aromatics, and an increase in anti-oxidants. [more]

Tending the vineyards

Tending the vineyars is a year-round concern.  Whether the vineyard is part of a major winery or it is a family plot of an hectare or two, the process is the same, the vines must be pruned and tended, and the lines weeded and cleared every season.  Pruning often becomes a daily operation once leaves begin to grow in the spring.  It seems there is always something to snip at.

Preparation

Prior to harvest, it is important to get the physical plant in order.  Singani manufacturers are a combination of winery and distillery.  The wine is made first, then distilled into Singani.

All practices are codified by the government, and among the preparation steps are clearing the plant of non-essential items; cleaning and sterilizing the equipment and floors; sterilizing the water lines, slurry lines, and all other channels and lines; cleaning, sterilizing, and inspecting all fermentation and holding tanks; cleaning and sterilizing all fermentation and distillation equipment; correcting and adjusting all openings, controls, and valves.

Harvest

The annual Harvest festival is called the Vendimia, usually around late March (fall season in southern hemisphere).  The harvest is an intense few days, as all fruit needs to be collected at its peak ripeness.  The chief oenologist visits the fields twice a day as this time approaches measuring the sugar, acid, and moisture content of the fruit.  Each row is different, and each field different still.  Thus the grapes are collected row by row as they reach their peak.

Harvest is a family affair, and as it is short and intense, entire families participate.  Picnic lunches are brought out and young children not in school play between the rows while their parents work. 

A Singani picker is looking for several things before selecting a bunch or "head" of grapes or "berries" to be placed in a collection basket.  They will reject berries that look dehydrated or limp on their stems, that are discolored or don't have the proper shade or translucency, that are immature or malformed, or are cracked or damaged.  A picker is looking for a translucent berry with soft color, berries that pop off their stems while leaving the stem intact, and where seeds separate easily from the pulp.  The grape should also taste soft, sweet and pleasing, and the juice should be viscous and sticky.

To achieve these standards, which are codified practices, each head of grapes must be carefully inspected for flaws, and the berries that don't make it removed.  This is tedious, but is essential to producing Singani, which cannot tolerate inferior fruit being introduced in the mix.

Pickers hold the grape head in their left hand and using shears similar to what a barber might use rotate and trim away until the head of grapes is clean.  Only then do they sever it from the vine and place it in the collection basket or box.

With practice, pickers learn that doing all this on harvest day is not easy due to the need to get things in quickly at peak ripeness.  This is why they are always trimming and snipping away well ahead of time, so that harvest day can go smoothly.

Transportation

Once there are enough grapes to put on a truck, they must be quickly transported to the winery.  Trucks are continuously entering and leaving the fields.  The goal is to minimize damage to the fruit on the way, and to get it there quickly as possible.  Once fruit is cracked or damaged in transit it begins to form undesireable phenols, thus the need to get it in quickly and processed is paramount.

De-stemming and crushing

On arrival at the plant, the grape-heads are de-stemmed which separates the berries from all that stem.  This is important, because it would be fair to say that no one wants the taste of stem in their drink.  Yet there are well-known spirits made with crushed stems, the subject of which won't be described here.

At a Singani plant, the piled up stems are recycled as compost.  When de-stemmed, the berries are washed and sent to the crusher.  There are various mechanical types of crusher, but all have the goal of expressing the fruit and removing the seeds without in any way damaging or scratching the seeds.  Like stems, seeds can introduce bad tastes into the product.  The crush is always with modern equipment.  Traditional methods such as feet stomping or using screw presses are not used, not just because they're impractical, but because in no way can they be sanitary, and bad sanitation is a major factor in bad tasting spirits.  Traditional or "artesanal" methods frequently sound better than they are in practice.  Furthermore, it is important that both the grapeskin and the pulp be separated from seeds and stems, not just juice, otherwise the result will be thin and superficial rather than rich and deep.

Finally, the slurry is filtered to remove any leftover particles that might make the end-product bitter.  It's worth remembering that there will be no barrel aging to fix any problems that occur at any stage along the way.

Fermentation

Fermentation, holding, and distillation are the three most complex and important steps in making a fine spirit.  Much of what makes Singani different goes on here.  There are a number of things that have been codified for the industry, but in reality, much of what the makers do is held confidentially, as that's what makes their product what it is.

Fermentation starts with the proper treatment of the grape slurry and the use of selected patented yeast strains.  The selection of yeast not only dictates the amount of ethanol that will result, but also the chemical profile, consisting of substances you do want and those you don't want.  Singani manufacturers have learned to adopt a number of other practices that minimize the formation of fusel oils and other disagreeable substances while maximizing the retention of desirable aromatics.  This is something they do well where many other spirits makers do not.  For example, there must be no pesticides or sulfurants in the fruit because that will unbalance fermentation by disturbing the activity of the high-strung yeasts.

Holding the wine

The fermentation is held for a period of weeks in holding tanks.  Both the fermentation and distillation holding stages use European seamless stainless-steel tanking such as Chalvignac.  Nothing is ever held in clay, cement, wood, or non-stainless vessels as these are essentially impossible to clean let alone sterilize.  After a year or two of use, such vessels will start to fester and introduce unwanted odors and tastes into their products.  There are a number of things that go on while the Singani wine is in repose such as precise temperature control.  Manufacturers are quite mum about it, but insist it is key to their quality.

Distillation

Distillation is considered the "decisive step".  The stated goal is to "separate out the volatile compounds that provide the characteristic taste and aroma defined in the Singani profile".  In other words, the goal of Singani distillation is to concentrate the good stuff and discard the rest.

Stills are discontinuous, meaning everything is processed batch by batch and by hand under constant 24-hour control by the master distiller.   Continuous computerized Coffey stills which supply much of the worldwide industry with liquor would be an anathema.  There is always a small dormitory in the Singani plant so that the master distiller can be there around the clock during the distillation of Singani. Stills typically in use for Singani are Charentais, Egrot, and Arnold-Holstein.

In the wine spirits industry, there are three parts to the distillate, the head, the heart, and the tail.  Here is a simple explanation of what they are.

  • HEAD      Consists of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and methanol
  • HEART    Consists of ethanol and aromatics
  • TAIL        Consists of fusel oils and water

Distillation is an art, and there is too much to it to get into here.  In practice, the head is discarded, the tail is discarded, and the heart is carefully "cut" or "coupe" to get the good stuff and eliminate the rest.

Distillers nearly always (but not always in un-regulated countries) remove the head in order to remove the methanol and formaldehyde that's in it.  Many people, such as Eau-de-vie and Singani manufacturers, also remove the tail because that's where all the foul fusel oils are found.  However, some liquor producers cut into the tail, either to recover water so they don't need to proof later, or because they don't want to waste anything.  Cutting closely inside the "heart" as Singani does is a very expensive process because you get to keep so little.  Once again, Singani makers are reticent to talk too much about what they do here because they know this is what makes them special.

Holding the distillate

The cut from distillation is held in stainless steel tanking for about 6 months.  This allows higher order esters and ethanol to interact thereby intensifying aromas.  Why stainless?  Well Singani is deliberately kept away from wood so barrels are out, and anything other than stainless just doesn't clean up as well, and cleanliness is key to creating a good unaged spirit.  There are a number of things to play around with including temperature control and monitoring the ethanol content which varies as chemical changes continue to occur.

Proofing and final filtering

Singani comes off the still at a higher ethanol content than it is bottled.  This is nearly always true no matter what liquor is being made or who's making it.  The reason is that the heart from the still has all the ethanol, the tail has all the water.  To take the distillate directly at 40% would require taking more water than the heart has, which means dipping into the tail.  But the tail has all the nasty smelling stuff. 

As a result, to bottle at 40% (80 proof), some water has to be added to most spirits just before bottling.  Sometimes the water is a matter of a taste, such as the limestone river water said to be used in some vodkas.  More often distilled water is used as that will add no taste of its own to the product.  This is true of Singani.

Singani is also filtered one last time at this stage using micro-pore filters.  This is a mechanical not a chemical filtration.  Chemical filtration such as activated charcoal would remove all the taste and aromas, that is not what Singani is about.

Bottling and labeling

At this point the Singani can be bottled and labeled.  Labeling is prescribed by law and must consist of

  • name of manufacturer
  • alcohol content in Guy Lassac (°GL)
  • zone of origin (what area as defined in the Geographical Indication is this from)
  • purity registration (SENASAG)
  • volume
  • NIT number (national tax)
  • market (internal or external)