The day two airliners flew into the World Trade Center, we were in Lagodekhi, an east Georgian village on the border with Azerbaijan. We had been in a total daze trying to comprehend the scope of the tragedy from a village halfway around the world where our hosts were offering solace through the bottle. Zaur, a neighbor, showed up the morning of the twelfth with a Borjomi mineral water bottle of his chacha and made breakfast toasts to the victims of New York, to peace, to bloody revenge and so on.
Needless to say, we were well under the influence by lunch time and ended up arm-in-arm at a local stolovaya (canteen) with a platter of frankfurters and bread before Zaur put us in a minibus home. Instead of passing out on that long bumpy ride, we gently came back down to earth as easily as we had left it. No headache, nausea or any of the side effects related to intoxication. We stepped off the van three hours later sober and coherent. Such is the magic of chacha.
That is because chacha is clean, our Georgian friends say with pride, yet we all know how gnarly a chacha hangover can be. It is only as clean as its maker. And because this hooch comes in old plastic bottles from god knows where, drinking it is a crapshoot. There is nothing worse than the aggressive hospitality of a grinning man forcing you to down a water glass full of rotgut that sears like acetone and tastes like skunk butt. We call it the “chacha ambush.”
On the other hand, at dinner parties we would sometimes come across both a fevered and smoothly layered chacha that tasted like the grape and the earth it came from. “Whoa, if only somebody bottled this,” we would say. And then someone did.
To be clear, chacha is pomace – the fermented grape skins, stems and seeds left over from the winemaking process. Distill this and you have the sweltery and lusty spirit known as chacha. The big wine companies were the first to properly bottle it, but we found it hard to pay the same amount of money for a shot of mediocre chacha that a good liter costs, providing you have a good source.
“That’s because you can’t be a good winemaker and a good chacha maker at the same time,” states Vato Botsvadze, owner of Chacha Corner, Tbilisi’s first exclusive chacha shop.
Once a lawyer working for the government, Botsvadze found himself unemployed when the government changed in 2012 and everyone connected to the former administration was fired. He had been watching how the country’s wine culture was changing and wondered why no one was promoting the national spirit. Thus, he found his second calling.
“Chacha has great potential,” Botsvadze affirms.
“Georgians come in surprised that there are so many different kinds of chacha.”
His small shop is a “chachaista’s” dreamland packed to the gills with scores of mind-altering chachas and brandies – and more soon to be added to the collection, he promises. “I consider this a chacha museum,” Botsadze says with a hand raised towards a wall shelved with dozens of bottles of family labels. He pulls one down and sets it before us.
“You’ve heard of Nutsa’s Marani?” he asks. “Her family has the tradition where the men make the wine and the women make the chacha.”
The most common chachas are made from Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grapes and are either clear or aged in oak, which gives it an amber color. Here, however, we find chacha made from blends and a wide variety of grapes, including the rare Chkhaveri. Some chacha is made from whole grapes and from distilled wine, in cognac fashion. Others are aged in mulberry barrels.
There is also local gin from wild juniper growing in the mountainous Racha region, a grain alcohol from Svaneti, a honey vodka from Guria, and brandies made from plums, apples, quince and feijoa. There is also a modest selection of cognac on the shelves.
Botsvadze explains that each region of Georgia has its own traditional distilled spirit, which he would like to see get developed more.
“The culture was lost during Communism. It was illegal for small makers to distill anything, the state had a monopoly on spirits,” Botsvadze maintains. “Today, people only know chacha.”
The average price of half a liter of good craft chacha is around 35 lari ($15), quite a substantial sum for the typical Georgian pocket. The majority of the bottles at the shop are made for export. It’s tourists, he admits, who do most of the shopping here, but the trend, he says is changing.
And it is. We are finding more restaurants offering quality craft chacha on their menus as an aperitif or digestive. Chacha is not just for knocking back to the bottom anymore. Botsvadze pours his own mint-infused chacha aged in oak that is remarkably smooth – but he stresses you shouldn’t drink too much of it. In the villages, people drink 50 grams in the morning to keep the doctor away.
“Georgians come in surprised that there are so many different kinds of chacha. I think that it will be very popular in about three to four years,” Botsvadze predicts. In the meantime, he plans to take over a neighboring space and make a chacha bar. And we intend to come back on payday and pick up a bottle of Nutsa’s chacha.