Man drinking Filu E Ferru out of a glass

Filu E’ Ferru: the Prohibition Distillate from Italy Steeped in History

For centuries, Italy’s island region of Sardinia has been making an iconic distillate with an alcohol content of 45%. It’s a type of grappa but not the kind you might be familiar with…

The distillate has many names, but its distinctive quality is the potent energy shot it gives you with just one tiny sip, lingering on the lips.

It’s called Filu ‘e Ferru, or ‘iron wire’. Though locals simply refer to it as “acqua vite” (‘vine water’) or “abbardente” (a Latin-derived word meaning ‘water that burns’) as it has the power to inflame palates and uplift the spirit. Only selected marc from indigenous vernaccia, cannonau and vermentino white grapes is used to make this refined distillate, inside huge copper alembic stills, which is then also aged in wooden barrels. 

It can be called grappa when marc is distilled, but when distilled wine is used instead, it’s more like a brandy

Filu ‘e Ferru Varieties

filu e ferru

There are three different varieties: translucent pure, dry Filu ‘e Ferru; a yellowish-golden aged one, and an aromatized twist with the addition of fennel seeds which gives it a flowery flavour.

In some areas of Sardinia die-hard addicts who make it at home stick to a ‘primeval’ traditional recipe, adding also lamb or kid rennet to give an acrid aroma to the distillate, making it appear veiled. In the old days, this ‘wild’ variety was a shepherd’s main drink during cold rural winters.

Even though Sardinians have been homemaking Filu e’ Ferru since the dawn of time, also as a medicine and antiseptic passed down through old monastery recipes, region-wide production was fueled by prohibitionism in the late 1800s. When in 1874 the Savoy kingdom, who then ruled over the island, forbade domestic distillation for commercial purposes, families turned cellars and storerooms into secret, illegal small distilleries.

In fact, the name of this spirit recalls the clever ways with which locals would hide the alembic stills from authorities who would regularly check their homes, by burying these underground in orchards, woods or inside pumpkins, marking the spot with a long stick of iron (filu e’ ferru) so they could then easily recover their favourite booze.

Also interesting: Great Drinks and Cocktail Names & Ideas.

Traditional Recipe

filu e ferru

Nowadays in villages where traditions survive housewives keep making it at home, helped by their children—and are still very secretive about this ‘domestic business’.

Sardinians are bred on this ‘fiery water’, they have at all times of the day—for breakfast, after a nap to wake them up, as a post-dinner digestive, and even to bless the dead farewell at funerals. Filu è Ferru is perfect for “cumbidare”, which is the art of celebrating special events, welcoming guests or simply inviting others to enjoy together a shot of fine alcohol.

The most sophisticated variety of Filu è Ferru is found in the remote ancient village of Santu Lussurgiu, in the wild Montiferru area. For four centuries locals have been distillating this sublime ‘burning water’.

There’s just one ‘authorized’ distillery in town, called Distellerie Lussurgesi, which instead of marc uses wine to make it. That’s why here it is not defined as a grappa (for all grappas are made from marc), but as ‘Sardinian brandy’.

The Distilling Process

filu e ferru

The distillery owner, Carlo Psiche, explains that distilling wine rather than marc makes a huge difference, and produces a higher quality distillate. Psiche explains how the drink is made, and the steps are the same even when marc is used. His abbardente, made with fresh local white wine, mainly vermentino and nuragus, is aged for at least 12 months. 

“The wine, roughly 500 litres, is poured directly into the alembic copper stills, where the distillation lasts from 4 to 5 hours, allowing the extraction of about 60 litres of distillate at a 60-degree Celsius. It’s then refrigerated and filtered, and brought to an alcohol content of 46% by adding re-mineralized water. We do a two-step distillation process, using the same old-style procedure of our ancestors.”

Psiche’s distillery also makes flavoured Filu è Ferru with wild fennel seeds, which are macerated and added to the wine before it is distilled. 

“This addition gives the distillate an additional softness as well as a pleasant, refreshing taste of nature”, he says. Psiche claims he is the only commercial distiller in Sardinia to use wine instead of marc, which has contributed to spreading the popularity of his abbardente’s unique taste even abroad, where he has many clients.

Prohibition Grappa

Santu Lussurgiu village used to have 40 distilleries in the early 1800s, the Filu è Ferru made here had become such a popular drink it was exported across the kingdom but when the prohibitionist era started, all distilleries were shut and production went ‘underground’. Psiche, a former mechanic, 20 years ago decided to revive Santu Lussurgiu’s oldest tradition, which has always been a source of pride for locals.

The abbardente made at Distillerie Lussurgesi can be tasted in three different varieties: crystal-clear as water, straight and dry; golden-amber coloured aged in oak and chestnut wood barrels with a sweetish flavour of honey and home-made bread; and a spicy, fennel-aromatized one. The dry abbardente, great to refresh one’s palate after a seafood meal, has an intense enveloping taste with a slight dried fruit and almond flavour. 

Plus, Psiche’s glass bottles have an elegant roundish design and are great as extra virgin olive oil cruets once the ‘fiery water’ has all been consumed.

Finally, tasting Filu ‘e Ferru involves a ritual. Sardinians love to spend hours in winter in front of the fireplace, sipping ‘abbardente’ before they go to sleep, but many who wake up early in the morning to go to work can’t start the day without a shot of it – just like it was an espresso. 

Try it yourself with a bottle from Distellerie Lussurgesi, or head to the villages or Sardinia to sample the homemade stuff that will set you back about €15. 

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