Eau de vie is, simply, fermented, distilled fruit—an unaged, colorless spirit. These liquors make amazing after-dinner drinks: They’re not sweet, but they convey the flavors and aromas of sweet, full fruit with a fiery intensity. And Americans are stepping into the territory once reserved for old-world maestros like G.E. Massenez in Alsace, France; Schladerer in Germany; and Zwack in Hungary.
Distilled fruit is always brandy, but it breaks down into subcategories: grape brandy (e.g., Cognac), pomace brandy (grappa), and fruit brandy (eau de vie). Eau de vie began as something fruit growers could do with their extra harvest so the produce didn’t go to waste. Cooler, fruit-growing areas of Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and Poland developed their varieties—eau de vie is the French term for fruit brandy (it means water of life)—Kirschwasser, slivovitz, and Schnapps are all regional variations on a theme.
In the 1980s, Alsatian native Jörg Rupf of St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, and Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, started distilling fruit brandies and now have established brands. Westford Hill in Connecticut released its first brandies in 1999, and they’re fantastic. Westford Hill’s Margaret Chatey and her husband sought out Rupf after returning from an eau de vie–soaked trip to Europe. Rupf helped them buy and learn how to use a Holstein still (the kind he uses in Alameda); they make cherry, pear, and raspberry brandies. (This year Westford Hill released its first barrel-aged apple brandy—otherwise known as Calvados, though Chatey makes the distinction that she uses New England apples, not old-world fruit.)
“Perhaps most important,” Chatey says, “is the quality of the fruit you have when you go into the fermentation. Pure, ripe, and no rot. We put the apples and pears through a hammer mill, which makes it look like a coarse applesauce. You want it to ferment quickly and completely, and that’s a little more challenging when you’re talking about a mixture the consistency of applesauce.” She sources her apples and pears from nearby farms in Connecticut, her cherries from farmers in upstate New York, and her berries from the Pacific Northwest.
Fermentation takes about three weeks; afterward the fruit wine goes straight to the still, where it is distilled once. “Things like vodkas take many distillations,” says Chatey, “but each one strips away flavor. ... We do one fairly broad distillation to capture everything we can get.” The product is then held for a while in the bottle, where it transforms from a raw, evanescent spirit to a refined, nuanced eau de vie that holds the essence of the fruit. The results are delicious.
You can use fruit brandies in cocktails, but that makes for an expensive cocktail. Clear Creek owner McCarthy prefers that his products be served straight up. He was quoted in a recent column in the New York Times (registration required): “We get these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed bartenders who’ve invented something, and that’s great. Maybe I’m dead wrong, but I’ve sought out the fruit and gone to great lengths to insure their purity.”