Medronho 'firewater'. A traditional Algarve spirit. Not for the fainthearted!

One of the many wonderful things about Portugal is the abundance of uniquely Portuguese drinks of the alcoholic variety. Port wine may be one of Portugals most beloved celebrities but it’s far from being the only drink worthy of international attention.

Many visitors, including myself when I first arrived, are pleasantly surprised by the outstanding quality of Portuguese wines, especially those produced within denominated wine regions (DOC wines), e.g. DOC Douro. However, this article is not about the wonderful red, white and rosé wines that are produced throughout Portugal – you’ll be able to find them without much help.

So, if you want to venture beyond wine, what other drinks in Portugal should you try? This article will introduce you to other Portuguese wines and drinks that are worth knowing about, and tasting when you get the opportunity.

For example, some Portuguese wines are green (not with envy), others are sparkly and some are as sweet as caramel.

Portuguese liqueurs often make use of nuts or herbs including chestnuts, acorns or pennyroyal and it’s not unusual to be served a shot glass of complimentary homemade liqueur at the end of your meal in Portugal. Cocktails and mixers prepared with Portuguese drinks are often deliciously refreshing so feel free to explore and experiment. 

Without further ado, welcome to the world of Portuguese alcoholic drinks. Some you will only find here in Portugal, while others may be available in specialist shops in your country or can be ordered online.

Portuguese wines, beyond traditional table wines

Vinho verde

A bottle and glass of Vinho verde wine from Portugal
Vinho verde wine at the Interpretation Centre in Ponte de Lima 

If you have never heard of vinho verde, sometimes translated literally as green wine, it’s time to make room for a new acquaintance. It’s better translated as ‘young wine’ and is often slightly effervescent due to malolactic fermentation within the bottle and usually intended to be consumed within a year of bottling.

Because of this, many people tend to think of this type of wine as being less complex than red or white wines, but in fact vinho verde can be white (vinho verde branco), red (vinho verde tinto) or rosé and comes in more taste and grape varieties than I know the names of.

Tip: I am told that there IS such a thing as nice red vinho verde but I have yet to taste one – my advice, especially for novices, is to stick to the white or rosé.

After a misspent youth imbibing far too much cheap Lambrusco for my own good, vinho verde was my gateway back into the world of white wine. 

Vinho verde wine is typically light, refreshing and fruity and pairs well with salads, fish and shellfish, sushi, white meats and light snacks and is ideal for a summer picnic. 

The demarcated Vinho Verde Wine Region, the largest in Portugal, was defined in 1908 and extends across the area known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho, i.e. between the Douro and Minho Rivers in the north of the country, which tends to be green and fertile all year round and slightly cooler than some other wine regions such as the Alentejo or Douro, although there are many microclimates within the region.

I was surprised to learn that vinho verde is the secondmost exported Portuguese wine and it was actually exported to England before port wine! 

Espumante, sparkling Portuguese wine

Murganheira sparkling wine being poured into champagne flutes
Espumante produced in a winery near Ucanha, bordering the Douro wine region

Although Portugal may not be the first country that comes to mind for sparkling Champagne-like wine, espumante is actually produced in almost all of its wine regions. Most bottles of espumante come from the Bairrada, Dão and Távora-Varosa wine regions in Central Portugal and from Monção-Melgaço in the north.

In many wineries, bottles of espumante are still turned by hand – I learned about the full process of producing espumante using traditional methods on a visit to Muganheira winery near Lamego.

This type of wine pairs well with fish and white meats, with traditional leitão da Bairrada (suckling pig), a local speciality, and with some typical Portuguese eggy desserts.

In Portuguese homes you’ll usually find a bottle of chilled espumante being served on birthdays and New Year’s Eve. I don’t need much excuse to crack a bottle – spending time with another espumante-loving friend of mine is usually reason enough!

Agua-pé: “poor man’s wine”

Come late October, early November, agua-pé is one of the Portuguese drinks you’ll see popping up in any kind of social gathering in Central and northern Portugal to wash down roasted chestnuts, especially on St. Martin’s Day, one of many autumn festivals in Portugal.

Agua-pé is made from wine must to which water is added and the whole thing is left to macerate for a couple of hours. This used to be given to the workers at the end of the grape harvest and it’s easy to understand why it was considered a poor man’s drink. While I have managed to find a bottle in a supermarket in early November, it’s mostly a local production and is often homemade.

Fortified Portuguese wines

Moscatel wine

A bottle of Moscatel wine and glasses, Favaios, Portugal
Moscatel wine, Favaios, Portugal

Portugal produces two types of this rich, aromatic, sweet wine, namely Moscatel de Setúbal and Moscatel de Favaios.

The first comes from the region of Azeitão, just south of Lisbon, an area nestled between the ocean, two rivers and the hills of nearby Arrábida. 

Moscatel de Favaios originates from the northeast of Portugal, on the upper limits of the Douro wine region. 

Moscatel wine can be drunk chilled, as an aperitif, or at room temperature, as a dessert wine. It goes well with a range of flavours from cheese and nuts, to chocolate and orange, as well as traditional Portuguese cakes, as I discovered on a trip to Azeitão.

Tip: If you get the chance to try an aged muscatel wine, go for it. I bought a bottle of 10-year-old Moscatel de Favaios and, whereas the younger version is generally sweet, refreshing and slightly citrusy, this was deliciously toffee-like.

Madeira wine

A bottle of Madeira wine
Madeira wine

Of all the great things associated with the island of Madeira, wine is probably the most famous.

Madeira wine is a typical case of something that could have gone terribly wrong and ended up terribly well. In the 16th and 17th centuries ships would load up on wine from Madeira on their way to the American continent, which meant  a long voyage at sea.

To avoid spoiling the wine a little brandy would be added and the different temperatures during the time at sea worked their magic. The end result was a fortified wine that ranges from dry to sweet and which can be served chilled with starters or as an after-dinner drink.

I like the medium-sweet best but feel free to try them all and see which you prefer!

Port wine 

3 glasses of Port wine. A tasting at Graham's in Vila Nova da Gaia, Portugal
Port wine tasting at Graham’s in Vila Nova da Gaia, Portugal

One of the most famous Portuguese drinks is a fortified wine produced with grapes grown and processed exclusively in the demarcated Douro wine region. It comes in a variety of styles, like ruby (the most common), white, rosé and tawny. However, once you get into the worlds of aged and vintage ports, there’s no turning back. To begin with, I was particularly enamoured with the older tawnies but I’ve grown increasingly fond of the the velvety vintage ports. 

Port is usually served with dessert (or at the end of a meal, in any case) and pairs well with rich flavours, such as strong cheese, chocolate and caramel (best with tawny port). Port however can also be used to make reductions for savory dishes and don’t be surprised if you’re served a chilled tawny or ruby Port as an aperitif at a fancy social event.

In Portugal, port is the wine of choice for special occasions, whether it’s a family meeting or a fancy social event. I particularly like a white port cocktail on a hot sunny day, no special occasion needed.

Jeropiga

Just like agua-pé this is a drink that is mostly enjoyed around St Martin’s Day (Dia de São Martinho) and is generally homemade, although you’ll find it in the supermarkets, often beside the chestnuts. It’s prepared with wine must to which aguardente is added, to stop fermentation, and is sweeter and more alcoholic than wine but more refreshing and light than a red.

Portuguese liqueurs

Licor Beirão

Bottle and glass of Licor Beirão on table.
Bottle and glass of Licor Beirão

Licor Beirão is the first Portuguese drink that I fell in love with, many moons ago. Now one of the most famous Portuguese liqueurs, you’re guaranteed to find this sweet aromatic drink in any place that serves alcohol  in the country, including any fairs and festivals.

It’s made in a factory in Lousã in Central Portugal to a secret recipe with a total of 13 seeds, spices and herbs and, like other similar types of liqueur in other European countries, it used be considered medicinal.

Today it’s often served as a digestive, either straight or with ice, or used to make cocktails. I also use it to make sangria.

Ginja/ginjinha

A bartender pouring ginja at Ginjinha Sem Rival in Lisbon
Pouring ginja at Ginjinha Sem Rival in Lisbon

Ginja, aka ginjinha, is a delicious sweet liqueur made with Morello cherries, sugar and aguardente. Traditionally, it’s served in shot glasses as a winter warmer or digestive and the person serving will ask if you’d like your ginja com or sem, i.e. with or without the sour cherries in the bottle.

Today, in any relatively touristy place or foodie fair you’re bound to find someone selling ginjinha in tiny chocolate cups: drink the ginja and eat the cup. Doesn’t get much more eco-friendly than this!

Anis / Licor de anis escarchado

A bottle of Licor de anis escarchado
Crystallised aniseed in liqueur

Tasty and beautiful, this liqueur is made with aniseed, sugar and aguardente. Inside the bottle there’s a small branch of aniseed around which any undissolved sugar will crystallise, making it look frosty.

This very sweet, aromatic liqueur is usually drank at the end of meals, although some people prefer to add a splash of the drink to their after-lunch coffee. 

Licor de amêndoa amarga (almond liqueur)

If life gives you bitter almonds, you use them to make liqueur! This drink from the Algarve is actually quite sweet and definitely almondy. Serve it straight or chilled, with ice (my preference) and/or a few drops of lemon juice. 

Licor de Merda (shit liqueur)

3 bottles of Licor de Merda from Portugal
Licor de Merda

I have yet to try this but couldn’t resist including it as the name itself might tempt you to seek it out. Licor de Merda translates, literally, as “shit liqueur”. It was created in 1974, the year of the Carnation Revolution, in the town of Cantanhede in Central Portugal. Despite the unappealing name, rest assured that the actual ingredients are a mixture of milk, sugar, fruits, spices and aguardente. 

Chestnut and other liqueurs

Licor de alfarroba, carob liqueur, Loulé, Algarve, Portugal. Photography by Julie Dawn Fox
Licor de alfarroba, carob liqueur

If you go to a traditional restaurant, especially in one of the many Portuguese villages, or attend a food festival, you will likely encounter some unique liqueurs made from all manner of ingredients, including chestnuts, river mint, mushrooms and carob.

Portuguese spirits

Aguardente (Portuguese brandy)

Aguardente is loosely translatable as “fiery water” and it’s a drink that will make you grow hair on your chest – even if you don’t want to! I’m not keen on spirits, so I rarely drink this but I have tried a few in the name of research.

There are several types of aguardente in Portugal – if it has no other word associated with it, it refers to the spirit most often used to fortify wines like port or Madeira wine.

If it has been aged, it’s called aguardente velha and can be very good quality, while aguardente bagaceira is made from pomace and is sometimes drunk with a coffee after lunch.

Medronho

Bottles of Medronho 'firewater' in baskets. A traditional Algarve spirit. Not for the fainthearted!
Medronho ‘firewater’. A traditional Algarve spirit. Not for the fainthearted!

Medronho, or aguardente de medronho, is a distilled spirit made from a small fruit called medronho, which grows on what looks like a strawberry tree and is found mostly in the Algarve and in some parts of Central Portugal.

The town of Monchique is famous for its medronho and, even today, a lot of local families will produce their own. You can get different variations – I’ve tried one with honey that was a little easier to drink but generally speaking, it’s too strong for my tastes.

Portuguese cocktails

White port tonic

Gin and tonic may be a classic combo but I’m not a fan of gin so I much prefer mixing white port with my tonic. White port is less intense and drier than red or tawny ports and the citrus that is added over ice and tonic water make it a refreshing aperitif. Play around with it – you could add a slice of fresh ginger, a sprig of rosemary, or whatever you have at home.

Caipirão and Morangão

2 glasses of Morangão: Licor Beirão and strawberry cocktail
Morangão: Licor Beirão and strawberry cocktail

These are two popular cocktails made with Licor Beirão, mentioned above. Caipirão is a twist on Brazilian caipirinha and is made by adding lime juice and crushed ice to Licor Beirão istead of cachaça.

Morangão is a mix of lime or lemon juice, crushed ice, Licor Beirão and pureed strawberries so you can pretend you’re being healthy.

Poncha da Madeira

Long tall glass of Poncha served with lupin beans and peanuts
Poncha served with lupin beans and peanuts

If you can’t go to the island of Madeira any time soon, perhaps you can pour yourself a glass of Madeira’s most popular drink instead. The origins of poncha are a bit obscure but they seem to date back to the 16th century when sailors drank it to avoid scurvy.

The original recipe uses only sugar, lemon juice and sugar cane aguardente. Today you’ll find several variants of this drink (using vodka and passion fruit juice, for example). Be warned, it’s quite potent so don’t plan on driving anywhere afterwards!

Portuguese craft beer

3 Glasses of Craft beer on a Porto food tour
Craft beer on a Porto food tour

For many years, Portugal suffered from a bad case of boring beer with two major brands, Sagres and Super Bock, dominating the market with not much besides lager. I enjoy both brands but craft beer fans like Mike were left sadly wanting until the recent boom of Portuguese craft beers.

Over the past few years the words cerveja artesanal (craft beer) have become increasingly popular in bars and restaurants, albeit so far mostly in cities. Many of these beers are produced by small companies and several brands pride themselves on making natural beers, free from preservatives or colourings.

There are so many brands and varieties that it would be impossible to cover them all here. Suffice it to say that I have become a convert to the world of craft beer and never pass up a chance to go to a beer festival.

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