Orulisa is a distillery located in the Liébana valley in Cantabria, part of the green and lush Northern Spain. It was founded in 1986, becoming the first registered orujera (grape marc distillery) in the valley and releasing the first artisanal orujo (grape marc) in Spain. Named el Orujo de los Picos, it has become one of their bestsellers.
1986 was the year that Spain joined what was then-known as the European Economic Community, and had to adapt long-standing agricultural practices to the EU-wide policies. In Liébana valley, that meant renouncing their traditionalitinerant-distillery model. Each village had a copper still called an alquitara that local women would pass from one house to another in order to produce 15 to 30 liters of aguardiente. This orujo would be used to fortify wine to bribe the doctor in the nearby city of Santander or to be brought along for manual labor. “In a mountainous area like ours, sufficient caloric intake is very important, and alcohol has got more calories than sugar,” says Isabel García Gómez, currently head of the distillery and the third generation of this family business. This model became extinct due to the EU regulation and strict control and in particular, to the requirement for distilleries to have a fixed location. But Isabel’s mother, Carmen Gómez, wanted to preserve old methods.
The distillery opened with 24 large copper alquitaras, exact copies of the ones that traveled within Carmen’s family. All of Orulisa’s production starts in these tanks. The alquitaras are a type of alembic still, and are even thought to predate current design, as they were brought to Spain by Arabs in order to create essences. The still consists of three parts: the pot or boiler, the column, and the collection vessel. The distillation starts in January, with a load of 150 to 200 kilograms of grape pomace, boiled up to 75 to 80 degrees Celsius, with the boiler steam rising through the column to the collection vessel. There, it is finally condensed when it touches the cold water surrounding the vessel’s walls. The whole process takes place in a closed and sealed circuit, with limited human intervention; and, in a traditional fashion, the stills are sealed with clay. It takes about an hour to produce a liter of orujo, and after distillation, it is aged in 20,000-liter, stainless-steel tanks for at least a year.
The portfolio is split between the more traditional “Los Picos” range which includes Aguardiente de orujo (grape marc spirit), Licor de orujo con miel (grape marc spirit with honey) or Licor de té (literally translated as ‘tea liqueur’, but is a distillation of the Sideritis Hyssopifolia plant, grown in higher-altitude areas of Picos de Europa in Cantabria and known as ‘Té del Puerto’ in the area ). The other is the more innovative line called “Justina de Liébana.” Isabel inherited the distillery or orujera from her father, who had been managing it for 20 years after Isabel’s mother had left him in charge due to health issues. Isabel spent her childhood admiring the impressive alquitaras, playing on Liébana family vineyards and gradually getting familiar with all the distillery’s operations. Taking control of the whole company was a big step. The award-winning Los Picos products were very successful when she did so, appearing on the beverage lists of over 30 Michelin-starred restaurants. So eventually, Isabel wanted her own personal project, choosing the name of Justina de Liébana, an homage to her grandmother.
Another strong-spirited woman in this Cantabrian family saga, Justina loved to say, “There is a great woman behind a great orujo.” The range that carries her name is made of 100 percent organic orujo, made with organically-certified grape pomace from Mencía, Palomino Fino, Albarín, Garnacha Tintorera, and other varieties that are mostly harvested at the family’s vineyards or sourced from trusted grape growers.
It comes unflavored, as Aguardiente de orujo ecológico, Licor de arándanos ecológico (made with organic blueberries from Cantabria), and in other flavors, such as lemon, raspberry, honey, and coffee cream. Most of the liqueurs are also significantly lower in alcohol (averaging at 20 percent abv), contain less sugar, and use grapes and fruit grown by small farmers—most of them Isabel’s friends. Those are not just some trends that the company picked up to make the product more marketable: the story is much more personal, with Isabel’s daughter having an extremely rare genetic condition that shaped her life and eating habits from a very early age. It made Isabel increasingly aware of the importance of sustainable ingredients, free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
“Orujo is like a parachute. If you don’t open it, it’s useless” was another piece of wisdom from Grandma Justina that seems to summarize the current state of orujos, aguardientes and licores consumption in Spain. All of them are perfect companions for a sobremesa. It is one of those wonderful Spanish words that hardly translate into English, but roughly designates a period of slowly consuming food, exchanging ideas and conversations, always best enjoyed with a digestif or a cocktail.
At Justina de Liébana there is a dedicated cocktail club, where the best barmen from all over Spain create innovative recipes with our orujos, just like this Caipirujo, a take on Caipirinha, using lemon liqueur instead of cachaça. Enjoy this recipe, brought to you all the way from northern Spain by one of its best bartenders, Oscar Solana!
- 1 ounce Licor de limón
- 1 ounce Aguardiente de orujo
- 1/2 lime
- 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons of cane sugar (to taste)
- Crushed ice cubes
Slice the lime into 1/2-inch rounds, cube them, add sugar and Licor de limón (lemon liqueur) and muddle them in a glass. Add most of crushed ice and pour Aguardiente de orujo. Finish off with the remaining ice and garnish with sugar.