NEW COUNTRY, NEW BOOZE! Okay, while the Basque don’t technically have their own country (for now), the region’s unique culture and geography have produced alcoholic specialties, many of which are not often imbibed elsewhere in Spain or France. Travellers eager to indulge in a local tipple have a great selection to choose from, and thankfully many of them are easy to find pretty much anywhere in the region. Here is a mostly-complete list of the alcoholic delights found in Euskal Herria.
Known locally as sagardoa, Basque apple cider tastes a little bit similar to the scrumpy ciders found in West England, ie: rough. They’re naturally fermented thanks to the yeast on the apple skins, and because no sugar is added the final product is dry and very acidic. Most sagardoa ranks in at about 6 percent and is uncarbonated; they’re traditionally poured from up high to let the liquid aerate, although nowadays this is more of a touristy thing and locals tend to pour theirs more unceremoniously. Cider is available at any cafe or bar for under 1€ a glass, but for those looking for more than a sample, a visit to a sagardotegi (cider house) will reward with all-you-can-drink cider along with a course of traditional dishes (salted cod, steak) for around 30 euros. Here, the cider flows freely from gigantic casks, and guests queue up to fill and refill their glasses at will. It’s a little bit messy and of course a little bit touristy, but for cider fans this must be heaven on earth.
Pronounced “chakoli”, this is a dry and acidic white wine with a relatively low ABV that’s produced along the Atlantic coast but consumed pretty much everywhere in the Basque area. There are three regions producing Designation of Origin-certified txakoli (Gipuzkoa, Biscay, and Alava), each of which have their own special cultivation techniques and grape combinations that create subtly different wines. Txakoli is mildly effervescent and, similar to sagardoa, it’s also poured from a height and served in small amounts to retain some carbonation. Even if you’re not a white wine fan, the acidity and hint of sparkle make it worth a try. Keep an eye out for rarer red and rosé versions too.
Produced only in vineyards surrounding the village of Irouléguy in very southwestern France, these wines are renowned for being full-bodied and fruity. While the majority of wine produced is red, the whites in particular are blended from rare grape varieties not found elsewhere, and the rosé is absolutely blockbuster if you believe this NYT article. A very limited amount of Irouléguy wine is produced every year due to the small size of the vineyards, so rather than struggle to find it elsewhere, load up when you pass through Biarritz and the Pyrenees.
While the famous La Rioja is very obviously not Basque Country, the southern tip of the latter is territory of Rioja Alavesa, a small region that produces around 21 percent of qualified Designation of Origin Rioja wines. Rioja Alavesa wines are said to be slightly more acidic than others due to the cooler temperatures of the high-altitude vineyards, and the poor-quality clay and limestone soil is said to produce a fuller body. Even if you’re not big into wine and all the snobbery surrounding it (and in La Rioja, there’s a lot of both!), there’s something to be said for getting sauced at the source.
If you’re an 80s or 90s kid from The States, this one looks kinda like “purple stuff”. Patxaran (pronounced “pacharan”) is a liqueur made from anisette, sloe berries, coffee beans and vanilla that is native to the Navarra region, although it’s become popular throughout Spain in the past 50 years. Around 25-30 percent ABV, it’s usually served over ice or as a digestif and has an unusual sweet berry taste that rounds out to what most say is a spicy finish, though I thought it was almost a bit salty-savoury. Even though I wasn’t a fan, I could rest assured that at least it was probably good for me—patxaran packs a good vitamin C punch and reputedly has medicinal properties.
Pronounced “pachaka”, this is similar to patxaran—the same anisette with the berries switched out for wild apples instead. It’s produced on both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees and is usually consumed by shepherds and farmers, although in Navarra it’s traditionally imbibed at breakfast along with churros during the San Fermín festival. Patxaka is tangy and mild, and I thought it was surprisingly similar to plum liqueur in both flavour and colour. Because it’s usually homemade and only produced in a particular area, it’s difficult to find and much less well-known than other drinks. Some people we asked had actually never even heard of it, but we managed to find a single bottle at a vinoteca in Pamplona hidden among rows of patxaran. It’s also known as basaka, sagarbasa or sagarmiñe depending on the region.
Produced in Basque France by the people who make Cointreau, Izarra is both a type of beverage and its brand name. The beverage is supposedly based on an old Basque recipe that was purchased in the late 1800s by a botanist who began manufacturing and selling it himself. Izarra is a sweet herbal liqueur that comes in green (made with 16 herbs and with a peppermint flavour), and yellow (made with 13 herbs and with an almond flavour). It’s 40 percent and usually consumed on ice or in cocktails. We easily found it at a Carrefour in Biarritz, but couldn’t commit to paying 27 euros (!!) for an entire bottle of the stuff. #realjournalism
Not technically a special type of drink, but the craft beer movement is steadily gathering momentum in the Basque region, and it’s pretty easy in larger cities to find an artisanal alternative to the region’s watery pale lagers. Basque breweries to look out for include Naparbier, Laugar, Bidassoa Basque, Basqueland Brewing Project, Sesma, Brew & Roll, and Biribil. For craft beer bars, we can personally recommend Bihotz in Bilbao, Mala Gissona in San Sebastian, and Manneken in Pamplona, but there are definitely more places out there. Like those in the rest of the country, Basque brewers don’t shy away from the extra-hopped and extra-malted punch of a good ol’ imperial, so don’t pass up the stronger stouts and IPAs!
Last and least is this disgusting combination of red wine and cola favoured by kids with no money and people who don’t like wine. Although the drink is available pretty much everywhere and there’s no clear evidence where it came from, the name kalimotxo was supposedly coined in the 1970s in Basque Country. If you don’t want to commit to the massive glass of “poor man’s cuba libre”, at most bars you can ask for a katxi (ka-chi) to get a smaller size.
Know any awesome Basque drinks we missed? Let us know in the comments!