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Distill of the night

I came to Val Müstair for the monastery, but stayed at the distillery.

To be precise, it's the Antica Distilleria Beretta, licensed in 1792, though the license was transferred from Ticino to this alpine valley just a few years ago. It's a 100+ year-old building, the former post office and restaurant where stage coaches changed horses for the big pass to the west, and where travelers would eat. A waterwheel in back produced the first electricity in the town, which powered the first radio. Locals used to pay by the hour to drink coffee and listen to the miracle of radio.

Now it's an exquisite B&B with a miraculous still, designed by the owner, that turns edelweiss into liquor. The edelweiss are raised on farm especially for harvest, and are but one of the many species that Luciano Beretta turns into some 28 varieties of fine liquor that have won 24 different awards. The tastes are from heaven, though Luciano only knows this in the abstract – he doesn't drink a drop of alcohol himself. For him distilling is a passion that includes everything from designing the still (built by a German manufacturer) to printing the labels and hand carving the wooden gift containers for guests to take home.

I have some familiarity with stills from my years in Mexico, where I've visited primitive facilities deep in the hills of Oaxaca as they turn agave plants into mescal. The distilling process and the product it makes is a passion of mine with many fine nuances. Unlike Luciano, tasting the product helps to fuel my enthusiasm.

Luciano has shown me just how many different plants can be fermented and distilled, from gentians to special mountain grasses and – I kid you not – pine cones, which make a fantastically flavorful brew with a hint of pine resin. Each plant carries its own special properties from harvest to liquor.

Over dinner last night we also discussed smuggling, as Luciano's grandfather had been a border guard in Ticino. It seems his grandfather's name still can't be mentioned in some regions, as his duty had included shooting smugglers who didn't surrender after the legally prescribed two warning calls. Surprisingly, among the most active smugglers were the border guards’ wives, who knew when their husbands had left for the hills. Though the wives kept their illicit activities on a small scale so as not to arouse suspicion, and in Luciano's grandmother's case it was mostly to put more meat on the table and give her cigarettes to smoke. The trade was all rooted in deep poverty and apparently continued until just 30 or so years ago in some places, particularly Ticino.

As to the historic and famous monastery? That will have to wait for a day of reflection when I get tired of describing the grayness of rock and fog. Probably not more than a few days from now....

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