Cantueso Alicantino, or often simply called Cantueso, is a liqueur which is made in the province of Alicante, and in particular, in the city of Elche. In fact, the drink has a long history in this city, as it has been made there since the year of 1867.
The drink is made by distilling the flower and the stalks of the Cantueso plant, a small and rare member of the thyme family, with a neutral alcohol made from grain. It must then spend a minimum of two months ageing before being stored in wooden barrels for a minimum time of two years. The resulting drink has an alcohol content of between 25 and 35%.
The drink also has a high sugar content which gives it its characteristic super sweet taste which means that it is often enjoyed after a meal as a digestive and stomach settler. The colour of Cantueso Alicantino is normally ranges from transparent to a grey-brown colour. The aroma of the drink should be of thyme which is the drink's main ingredient.
This liqueur from Alicante is also often drunk as part of a cocktail from the region called 'mesclaet'. This cocktail is made of half cantueso alicantino and half herbero. If you ever happen to visit Alicante, keep an eye out for this cocktail in the bars as well as the liqueur by itself as well.
History of Cantueso Alicantino
Just like the rest of the Iberian peninsular, the lands that now form the Spanish region of Valencia, also fell under the rule of the Moors. Moorish alchemists, who dedicated a lot of time to the art of extracting natural aromas from plants in order to make perfumes and other products, were therefore the ones who taught the people of the region the process of distillation. From then on, people in the community would distil plants that they would find in the surrounding areas and mountains.
The exact date of the invention of this Spanish drink would is unknown, probably because it was invented in someone's house. However we do know that the first factory dedicated to the production of the early ancestor of this Spanish liqueur was set up during the 19th century in Monovar. Here they distilled the stalks and the flowers of the cantueso plant in alambiques, which are copper stills. The resulting product would then be transferred to oak barrels, in which the liquid would age.
Today, the main ingredient is still the cantueso plant which is grown in the local area, especially in the more mountainous places such as Sierra de Monalba, Sierra de Bernia, Sierra del Cid, and Serreta Negra. This particular variety of thyme grows well in the area as it prefers the acidic dry soil found in the region.
The flower is usually picked when it is flowering and its fullest. Both the stalks and the flowers are picked together before being washed and left to dry. It is traditional to collect the plant on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, also known as Ascension Thursday which celebrates the ascension of the body of Christ. In the region of Valencia and Alicante, this day is also known as the 'día de fer herbetes' or 'Day of Making Herb Liqueurs'.
The process of making Cantueso liqueur starts with the maceration of the thyme flowers and stems in an alcohol which will have been produced by fermenting a grain. After this, the mixture is then distilled in copper stills. During this process, they remove any of the impurities which float to the top or sink to the bottom of the liquid.
From here, the basic cantueso liquid is then placed into oak wood barrels and stored for ageing for a minimum of two years. Following this, the cantueso alicantino is then filtered and allowed to rest before being bottled for distribution.
This process and the drink itself is regulated by the denominación de origen 'Distilled spirits of Alicante', the same body that also protects the other drinks produced in the region including the anise paloma, herbero, and the café licor of Alcoy. If you ever decide to visit Spain, make sure you try out some of these Spanish spirits and liqueurs - you won't be disappointed.