What have pigs got to do with gin? We visit Black Pig Distillery in Portugal’s Alentejo region to find out.
The UK has been in a gin-haze for the last decade, meaning that we are no strangers to the spirit. With new brands popping up right, left and centre, it’s quite rare that one catches our attention quite so much as Black Pig Gin.
Why “Black Pig”?
The two-year-old brand was 14 years in the making due in part to its namesake, the black pig. Founder, Miguel Nunes, bought the land back in 2006, built up an ethical farm where black pigs roam freely over 15 hectares, and started to toy around with producing madrone (strawberry tree fruit) brandy. Fast-forward to 2018, Miguel and his friend Ricardo Miranda decided that it was time to branch out, and started making their own truly unique gins (and one rum) with the black pigs as their inspiration.
Located within a pig farm, the distillery benefits from the animals’ ceaseless raking, tilling, clearing and fertilising of the soil, giving the earth essential qualities necessary for native plants to flourish on site. These botanicals are then picked and used to create the gins’ unique flavour profiles. However, what is truly exciting and unusual about these gins is that they are not produced using neutral spirit, but instead, a carob and acorns ferment. Aromatic and distinctly characterful, this distillate elevates the usual, humble starting point of most gins, as well as linking back to the pigs (who eat these pods and nuts, and whose muscles are tenderised by the oleic acids, giving their meat a higher quality).
We meet Ricardo at the distillery as he is unpacking boxes. The ex-lawyer-turned-distiller has a self-assured and practiced manner fronting an accommodating and passionate heart. He takes us to the distillery room – it really is just one small room – candidly explaining that they are in the process of consolidating the company and will shortly expand their building to be bigger and more visitor-friendly. For now, however, it is enough.
A cute, 150 litre alembic copper pot still takes centre stage, framed by a number of stainless steel vats. “We had the financial power to buy large column stills but we didn’t want to do that”, Ricardo states. “We instead wanted to something that produces small batch, artisanal products of great quality, so we designed this – the Granny’s Pot still.” Having so far won eight awards for their gins alone, they must be doing something right.
“Everything we do is entirely natural: no added sugar, no chemicals. We just chop up the carob and acorns, and then ferment them outside below the cork trees. Out there, the mix gets the benefit of the warm and cold weather, as well as wild yeast. We are very environmentally conscious people; we don’t want any added chemicals here. The only thing we produce here that is hazardous is the methanol that is collected, goes to a lab and is destroyed.”
The smell from the fermented carob and acorns is far from the sterility of neutral spirit. Nutty but fruity cocoa notes and a light earthy scent, we can’t wait to see how this affects the end products.
Ricardo tells us how the still works for six hours, with someone coming in from time to time to spray the hot elements with a hose as a rudimentary cooling system. The liquid is collected at around 48% ABV before botanical maceration occurs. The gin is then watered down to the correct percentage before being bottled.
“We produce everything that we use in our spirits except for the molasses our rum is made from. This is from Madeira”, says Ricardo. “This is a spiced rum for cocktails but we have plans to do aged rums down the line.” The molasses is distilled before being infused with tobacco leaves, coffee grains, peaches and vanilla. Ageing is a hybrid process divided between the stainless steel vats in the still room, and it resting in bottles for six months, 60 metres below sea level.
Our tiny tour completed, we venture out into the wild farmland to truly get to the heart of what makes the distillery what it is.
As we pass under cork trees labelled with the years they were last extracted from, we notice a small wooden bar. Ricardo explains how this will soon have chickens around it and will serve up cocktails and free range omelettes for visitors lounging around it in hammocks in the Summer months. Behind it, we spy barrels of fermenting carob and acorns, as well as madrone seedlings. These take seven to ten years to grow into evergreen bushes and produce their superfood berries, which are left to ferment on the branch before being picked and distilled to make Black Pig Distillery Medronho Aguardente. The team gives these seedling to local visitors to help in the fight against the non-native eucalyptus trees that are plaguing the area and causing forest fires.
“It is very important for us to be able to show visitors – especially kids – the land and the pigs”, Ricardo tells us as he beckons us through the gate to the pig’s sprawling domain. “We want them to be amongst nature and have contact with the animals so they respect both. We set up trails for them so that they can explore and find the botanicals we use in our gins.”
As he chats away, we’re greeted by a few of the farm’s inhabitants. Unbashful to the point of brazen nonchalance, Gina – the famous pig depicted on the gin bottles, snuffles up to us, snout forever to the ground in search of food. The tag in her ear means that she will never be sold to Spain like the others, as she is a reproducer; once her mothering time is up, this place will become a sanctuary to her until her natural passing.
Lucky – a much smaller pig – roams around our feet, spurring Ricardo on to tell us the bittersweet story of her mother escaping and birthing her litter on the Montado Alentejo. It was thought that all of the piglet had been eaten by boar and foxes however, two days after Miguel and a German tour group found and rescued the squealing Lucky who had hidden herself in a hole and heroically survived.
The pigs let us passed and we wander through the beautiful scenery. Four guesthouses sit amongst the untouched land. Some have pools and gardens, others controlled private access for researchers to come and go as they please. The pig’s own homes are made from wood and zinc. These become cool in the Summer months and have special light bulbs that warm them in the Winter, glowing red and “making it look like the red light district in Amsterdam at night.”
Ricardo points out the water dispensers located around the property, that the intelligent pigs utilise, and the upturned stones that they crunch in order to aid their digestion. The extensive region over which they can roam freely is important as it means they use their muscles, which helps the quality of meat. Whilst no pigs are killed on site, after six-months, they are sent to Spain for slaughtering.
“Obviously the pigs eventually get killed for their meat, but whilst they are here they have a happy life. Black pig farms have very bad reputations and many pigs often die from stress. However, in over six years of having a farm, we have had no deaths and the animals live very comfortable lives.”
It certainly seems that way and the money the farm raises helps keep the pigs and the distillery going. Luckily for us, we get the chance to witness a more pleasant cycle in the circle of life as Ricardo points out some boisterous two-week old pigs, as well as quietly giving us a stealthy peak into the home of a mother who just gave birth to litter of adorable, squealing piglets three days ago!
Hearing the squeals, “the most hardworking” member of Black Pig comes ambling up. Neco the “Hipster Pig” – so called because of his impressive ginger beard and apparent good-looks – is the only adult male amongst 16 females, and the father of all the young pigs in the farm. Three years of age, he has another four to go till another young male is selected to help him out in his tireless endeavours.
Unexpectedly, Neco is the friendliest pig on the property, loving humans and patiently allowing himself to be manhandled by visiting children. He even happily tolerates the wild boar that lives on the farm. Ricardo clarifies her unusual presence:
“We like animals so much we adopted a wild boar. We speculate that hunters killed her parents. She heard the pigs and arrived here. She’s wild so we gave her some food and thought she’d leave, as roaming is in her nature. The next day, she was still here so we just kept feeding her, thinking ‘she’ll leave next week when she gains independence’. She’s now a one-year-old and we’ve adopted her.”
Founder – Miguel Nunes
As we wander back, we run into Miguel, who is holding his young daughter in one arm, and a new sign for the botanical trail in another. Like Ricardo, his background has nothing to do with distilling or pigs – he was a computer engineer by trade, before packing it in go back to nature. Their friendship is obvious, with Ricardo readily celebrating Miguel’s humble character, hard-working nature and genuine passion for the project. “Most people who get their first pay-check for their business will go to Ibiza or something to celebrate. Miguel spent his on the trees he planted over there, and he hasn’t stopped.”
Ricardo goes on to throw out examples of Miguel’s kinship with the pigs, who he calls “niñas” (translation: children), resulting in them flooding to him. He is also responsible for domesticating the wild boar, who often sat on his lap and slept by him as he worked. The pigs are not the only place where great care is taken. Black Pig Distillery has cultivated great contacts within the Alentejo so to be sure that it “only buys from the ‘old guys’”. As supermarkets give lemon, orange and nut producers such low prices for their wares, most don’t even bother to pick up all their fruit. “We have our own lemon and orange trees but we go to the old guys and say we will pay them extra for their fruit. In this way, we have started relationships with them and we give back to the community that the big supermarkets don’t care about. This is very important to us.”
We get a first-hand look at the incredible care Miguel puts into everything as we’re taken over to a revamped horse box that has been transformed into a gin bar.
Black Pig Gin Perfect Serves
As Ricardo makes us two gin and tonics – one with the premium Montado Alentejano Gin and one with the Costa Alentejana London Dry Gin – before giving us the chance to try the rum and madrone brandy. As he talks us through the serves, Miguel rearranges the bar, turning bottles to the optimal angle, picking fresh rosemary and wiping surfaces to ensure the perfect photos. He goes back and forth no fewer than eight times, softly setting the scene for us and watching with quiet pride as we try Black Pig’s spirits for the first time.
Our tasting over, we chat about the future. Ricardo has made no secret about the fact that they have plans to consolidate the business, growing in size without straying from their ethos of small batch production and community sourcing. The V.I.Pigs will always have pride of place a the distillery and will continue to be lovingly taken care of.
The main changes will come in terms of product variation and the sky really seems to be the limit when it comes to their plans. Whilst we have been sworn to secrecy regarding a few, all of their upcoming ideas continue to place Alentejo produce at the centre. Ricardo throws out a few teasers of “a blueberry version of the gin and a grape gin” as well as “aged rum and whisky aged in Port barrels”.
“We are open to experimentation and the evolution will be natural!”
We can’t wait to see what the Black Pig Distillery does next and would whole-heatedly encourage anyone making their way to Portugal’s Alentejo to pay Miguel, Ricardo, Gina and Neco a visit. You won’t be disappointed.
Black Pig Distillery, N261, 7500-011 Santiago do Cacém, Portugal