Money doesn’t grow on trees, but 19th-century farmers claimed to have found an even better solution. Most of them were constrained by poor soil, small plots, lack of funding, and crude tools and equipment. Suddenly, though, the Corinth grape or currant appeared like manna from heaven. This little black fruit was harvested and then dried and aged under the sun until it became dehydrated (without losing most of its sugars though). When French vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera blight in 1878, Greek farmers took advantage of the vast European market to produce ever-increasing quantities of currants. The production shot up from 6,000 tons in 1821 to 100,700 tons in 1878. The Corinth grape literally became “black gold” and carried the Greek economy on its shoulders; in 1887 currants accounted for 17.8 million francs worth of exports, out of a total of 18.3 million francs!
As spectacular as the growth was, the collapse was even more dramatic. In 1892 the French government imposed a high tariff, Greece lost its largest market, and the Greek government went bankrupt. By 1896 farmers were in despair. The prices had dropped 50% almost overnight, the property had lost all its value, and despite their perseverance and fighting spirit, most growers were now at their wits’ end. Emigration soared while financial institutions, commercial houses, and agricultural enterprises failed in alarming numbers.
The farmers of Eleusis were also affected by the agricultural crash. For many years visitors to the Thriasian plain had commented on the picturesque sight of the vineyards on either side of the highway that connected Athens to Corinth. But now, they had a product they could not sell. The government had adopted a series of measures to alleviate their distress, including attempts to monopolize the currant trade and limit production, but to no avail.
A knight in shining armour
During this period of turmoil, Epameinondas Charilaos, a chemist who had already taken advantage of the industrial potential of Eleusis to expand the Charilaou soap factory, decided to invest in a distillery. In 1898 he founded the “Charilaos & Co Wine and Alcohol Distillery” in cooperation with Leontas Oikonomides. Their manufacturing plant was located to the north and west of the soap factory; within a decade, and with the financial assistance of Athinon Bank, the company grew to become one of the most important industrial units in Greece. Just before the Second World War, it employed 2000 factory workers and 300 administrative and scientific staff, while an additional 3000 people were indirectly employed as agents, producers, or shippers.
Votrys, as the distillery was popularly known from 1906, bought vast quantities of raisins to produce wine, spirits, vermouth, brandy, and carbon disulfide. The company introduced denatured alcohol, as well as the associated equipment, that created a brand new market, which was competitive to petroleum products and justified Charilaos’ reputation as a tireless innovator. The great success of its products enabled Votrys to open additional plants in Athens, Piraeus, Kalamata, Patras (the old heartland of the currant export trade), Pyrgos, and Thessaloniki.
The whistle blows
Work started at sunrise and ended at sunset, but there were periods of intense productions when the machinery worked around the clock. The factory whistle announced the beginning of the workday. Vacation time was an unknown concept in the early days, but the pay was good and there were few accidents. There was also a dining room, where workers could enjoy their humble meal (potatoes and legumes were very popular) and take a nap if they had the time (their lunch break lasted for an hour).
The cooperage was of paramount importance. Oak and chestnut staves were used to make large 400-or-500 kilos barrels. The currant was placed in large tanks with hot water; the pulp was taken to the distillery for the final processing. The skin of the currant was removed on trolleys and was taken to a location outside the factory, close to the archaeological site, where it was left to rot.
During the Second World War, the factory was requisitioned by the Germans to make wine for the army. They brought currant from Corinth on sailing ships and fishing boats that unloaded their cargo at the dock. Workers then brought it to the factory in sacks and carts. During the terrible famine of 1941, employees were systematically searched to prevent them from removing currants from the factory grounds. Their pay was half a loaf of poorly baked rye bread. Eventually, the workers demanded and earned the right to receive a quantity of alcohol that they could sell or exchange for food.
The postwar period presented Votrys with a new set of challenges. The equipment was old and there was intense competition from smaller or more technologically advanced factories. People turned towards beer and the consumption of industrial wine fell. The owners were eventually unable to repay the loans they had received, so in 1974 Votrys ceased operations. For a few years the facilities were used for the storage and reloading of chemical products by a company called “Sintra” but today most of the buildings remain abandoned.