I don’t recall who first poured us a shot of Riravo’s plum araki, or brandy, but I do remember the surprise at the subtleness of the cool spirit as it smoothly slipped over my tongue and down my gullet. Finally, someone was making a fruit brandy that didn’t smell like a soiled pair of grandpa’s socks.
Later, friends recounted a fabulous brandy tasting they attended at the Riravo distillery in Saguramo, a village just north of Tbilisi. I tightened with pangs of envy from missing out. “You have got to meet Goga, the owner,” they urged, and I agreed, wondering whom I could get to be my designated driver out to his place. In the meantime, I’d sip a Riravo pear or persimmon brandy as a digestif when opportunity called and remind myself to get out to Saguramo soon.
Quite recently, we learned from our friend Daria Kholodilina, a travel operator and co-author of Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine, that Riravo was not only delivering their brandies, but had also started manufacturing hand sanitizer, which is understocked in Tbilisi, given the surreal circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic. I had to visit Saguramo now, virtually speaking, and finally meet the man responsible for this brandy I suddenly loved even more.
Forty-four-year-old Giorgi “Goga” Tevzadze established Riravo Distillery in 2013, shortly after returning from California where he earned his master’s in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis and worked as assistant distiller at St. George Spirits, in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. Georgia is a country full of many different varieties of fruits, he thought, so why not distill them?
“Georgia has a great culture and tradition of fruit distilling, as well as winemaking. In the 19th century, many fruit spirit producers and distillers were producing world standard Georgian alcohol drinks,” Giorgi wrote by email.
The most famous brandy maker was David Sarajishvili, who introduced French-style grape-based brandy to Georgia in 1886. Later, the Soviets arrived and nationalized the company and industrialized alcohol production while craft distilling from wild fruits continued in backyards of family homes across the country.
Following the homegrown tradition, Giorgi bought an 85-liter Austrian still and started cooking in the backyard of his Saguramo family house. The first batches were locally grown quince, feijoa, persimmon, plums and apples. To meet the growing demand, Giorgi added three more commercial German stills (800-liter, 643-liter and 257-liter, respectively). “They enable us to produce larger volumes and a much higher quality of distillates, as well,” he added.
Presently, Riravo sells around 7,000 bottles a year in local “premium range restaurants,” bars and specialized wine and spirits shops. Giorgi exports to Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Baltics and China, and is preparing the company’s first export to the U.S. Over the years, he has played with different fruit distillates, with the most popular being quince, feijoa and pumpkin. We haven’t been keeping up with Riravo and are anxious to try their wild pear from Racha, blueberry, and the cherry liqueur.
Two years ago, Giorgi started Tevza Qvevri Wines with friends from the U.S. They are one of a handful of Georgian wine cellars making quality Shida Kartli wine, focusing on three local grape varities: chinuri, goruli mtsvane and shavkapito.
With so much fruit alcohol hanging around his house, producing hand sanitizer was a no-brainer for Giorgi. “Alcohol has been used as an antiseptic at least as early 1363,” he wrote. Unlike our friend Vato, who simply pours 160 proof chacha on his hands as a disinfectant (60 percent alcohol is considered sufficient), Giorgi’s recipe includes glycerol to prevent dry skin, sterile distilled water, and hydrogen peroxide, which he says eliminates bacterial spores that may be present in the ingredients.
“Some people add colorants and fragrances, but we don’t have to since our distillates are from pure fruit and are quite aromatic and intense in flavors,” he wrote.
Giorgi began bottling Riravo Hand Sanitizer around March 13 in small 200ml polyethylene flasks (spray bottles were not available in Georgia) and gave samples to family and friends, who, together with a Facebook video, quickly spread the word. Currently, they sell some 200 bottles a day and are starting to take bulk, unpackaged orders from various local companies and organizations.
“I shared this [undertaking] with many of my colleagues [craft distillers] in Germany, South Africa, US, and Austria,” Giorgi wrote. “They all really appreciated the idea and some even mentioned they were thinking of doing the same thing.”
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