In Catalonia around the summer solstice, we make one of our most traditional liqueurs, ratafía, for which the herbs, fruit and flowers that are macerated in alcohol must be collected on Saint John’s Eve, or June 23.
This highly aromatic digestif has long been believed to have medicinal properties. There’s even an old Catalan rhyme along those lines: Ratafía, tres o cuatro al día (“Ratafía, three or four per day”). Different versions of the liqueur have been made for centuries in eastern Spain and some regions of France and Italy but, like the other herb liqueurs throughout Europe, they originated from the Ancient Roman and Greek custom of macerating fruit and herbs in wine, from Arabian perfume distillation and from the sophisticated medieval distillations in monasteries and convents that created the first aguardientes, or grape-based, medicinal liqueurs.
The name of the drink is thought to have come from those medieval convents and monasteries, where the liqueur was probably used to make a toast after signing and closing an agreement or contract – an occasion denoted by the Latin phrase Rata fiat (“So be it”).
Catalan ratafía, which was recognized with an IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) in 1989, is made of white grape alcohol in which green walnuts and other aromatic ingredients are macerated over a period of at least three months. The resulting drink is about 26 to 29 percent alcohol by volume. The green walnuts have a singular fresh aroma and are the one constant among recipes that may differ according to local customs, family recipes and personal taste. Other ingredients might include anise, nutmeg, mint, thyme, rosemary, verbena, carnation, lavender, cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel, basil, juniper, lemon balm, sage, etc. – the number of herbs in a recipe may sometimes total 80 or more! The amount of walnuts and how they’re prepared can also vary: one recipe might call for a dozen per liter, while another might only require three or four; some recipes use whole nuts, others use pieces or just the green skin covering the nut. Family secrets, a personal touch and fortuitous experimentation make each handcrafted bottle unique.
The process of making ratafía begins around the summer solstice in June and concludes, if we are patient enough, in January — or, if we are not so patient, around All Saints’ Day (November 1). Tradition calls for collecting the ingredients in the morning or evening of Saint John’s Eve to guarantee that extra bit of magic in our ratafía and also to ensure that our green walnuts are going to be at peak freshness. Once all the ingredients have been gathered, the herbs are cut up, and everything is added to a bottle of aguardiente or a sweet, anise-flavored liquor.
The mixture must then be allowed to macerate for 40 days a sol y serena – under the sun and the night dew, or out in the open. This also implies that if we have one cloudy day, we must add another sunny day to the duration. We might mix the contents or move them around in this time, and then, at the beginning of August, we strain the liqueur, add water and sugar to taste and decant it into bottles. Three to six more months will give the drink its definitive flavors and caramel color.
In Catalonia, especially in the countryside, many people still make ratafía at home, but a few commercial wineries also produce their own versions. The most popular brands are Ratafía Russet or Ratafía Bosch, but wine and liquor shops in Barcelona and across Catalonia may also offer bottles from smaller producers. The drink is also served in traditional Catalan restaurants mainly as a digestif at the end of a meal or in bars as an aperitif. (It’s also used to flavor ice creams, marmalades, desserts, sauces and many other dishes.)
And if you find yourself in a village away from the city, we recommend that you ask around for an artisanal bottle of ratafía. For a little taste of midsummer magic, it’s always worth it!