Top | The Culinate 8

Fruitful association

(article, Margarett Waterbury)

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Some brandies are famous — Cognac, Armagnac, pisco. But these brandies, distilled from wine, are made solely from grapes. There are dozens of other brandies made from many kinds of fruit, and they're too often overlooked.

One obstacle to sampling fruit brandies is simply tracking them down. Liquor stores tend to tuck them away in back rows and corners. Even the upscale vendor where I do most of my shopping buries its fruit brandies on the bottom shelf, where they're easily missed by the casual browser. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Fruit brandy is common in many cultures."]

It’s a shame, because fruit brandy gives us a chance to celebrate our cultural diversity like no other spirit. Just about every part of the world with a tradition of distillation has a group of spirits made from fruit. 

This global variety can make fruit brandy feel exotic and foreign — and yet it’s not bourbon but applejack, a type of apple brandy, that ranks as the United States’ original spirit, preferred and produced in the Colonial era. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, virtually every European group that immigrated to the United States brought a rich tradition of fruit distilling, from German schnaps to Italian grappa. 

Today, wine-making regions throughout the world produce not only the familiar grape-based brandy (aged in oak, which turns the drink dark and mellow) but also a group of spirits made from pomace, or the skins, seeds, and stems left over from the grape crush. Tsipouro, grappa, and marc brandies are all members of this category. Usually consumed unaged, pomace brandies are aromatic and assertive. 

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h1. A few American fruit-brandy distillers

In Portland, Oregon: Stone Barn Brandyworks and Clear Creek Distillery

In Scobeyville, New Jersey: Laird and Company

In Alameda, California: St. George Spirits

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The term "fruit brandy" covers everything else distilled from any fruit with enough sugar in it to ferment. These brandies range from the relatively well-known (the French apple-based Calvados, the Italian and Croatian cherry-based Maraschino) to the rather obscure (the Central European pálinka, made from a variety of fruit).

Buoyed by the craft-distilling movement, fruit brandies are more prevalent now in the United States than at any time since Prohibition, but they’re still a bit of an enigma. Extraordinarily subtle spirits that take time to get to know, fruit brandies are strong and complex, designed for sipping, not shooting. They’re not often paired with food or featured in cocktails; instead, they lend themselves to a style of drinking that feels unfamiliar to most of us.

Here are eight fruit-brandy facts to digest.

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#(clear n1). Fruit brandy is ancient. It's perhaps the oldest distilled spirit on earth. According to R.J. Forbes, in his 2009 book [%amazonProductLink asin=0982405545 "Short History of the Art of Distilling" newpage=true], alcohol distillation was first recorded in Salerno, Italy, in the 12th century, when wine was placed in the boiler of an alembic still used to create tinctures and remedies, resulting in an aromatic liquid called “acqua ardens.” While it's likely that the first distillation occurred long before this, it's true that early distillation was heavily associated with medicine and alchemy, not after-dinner drinking rituals.

#(clear n2). Europe has strong fruit-brandy traditions. Every fall, when Europe's farmers and orchard owners find themselves with too much fruit on their hands, some of that excess finds its way into beverage bottles. Home distilling isn’t always illegal in Europe, and contract distillers offer an opportunity for even the smallest growers to take home a few bottles of the strong stuff made from their own fruit. 

In rural France, each fall brings the arrival of the bouilleur de cru, a mobile distillery that travels from village to village distilling surplus fruit crops or unsatisfactory cider or wine. Many are still wood-fired, towed behind a truck; customers are encouraged to bring their own fuel. Although the French government levies a tax on the end product, it’s only been in effect since after World War II. Those born before the war carry "droits de distillation" (distillation rights), entitling them to skip the tax.

#(clear n3). America's fruit-brandy traditions are just getting started — again. Although the 19th and 20th centuries saw enormous immigration from the major brandy-producing regions of Europe, those Old World traditions have fallen away on this side of the Atlantic. Prohibition weakened our relationship with fruit brandies, and the migration of Americans from farms to cities has further separated us from autumn fruit traditions. 

#(clear n4). [%image pearbrandy float=right width=400 caption="Pear brandy from Oregon."] Fruit brandies can be shocking. Out of the still, fruit brandies are strong and clear as water, shocking people who expect them to be sweet like a liqueur or share the color of their fruit base. Aging in oak can round any harsh edges and add the woody notes and rich brown color that’s more familiar to Americans, but the unaged product has charms all its own. Good pear eau de vie, for instance, has not only the smell but somehow the texture of a perfectly ripe pear, skin and all. 

#(clear n5). You can drink fruit brandies alone or in cocktails. Traditionally, fruit brandy is drunk as a digestif after dinner out of small glasses. That’s a lovely habit to adopt, but it’s not really how we drink in the U.S. Fortunately, fruit brandies can be used in mixed drinks, too. Champagne is a good companion, adding bubbles and a subtle sweetness that can support a drier, aromatic spirit. When first experimenting with cocktails, try using barrel-aged brandies in place of other brown spirits, and unaged brandies in place of (or in addition to) clear spirits. Just remember that fruit brandies are subtle, so don’t overwhelm them.

#(clear n6). Fruit brandies can go sweet or savory. Fruit macerated in a combination of sugar and its own brandy (try cherries with kirschwasser) is multidimensional and complex, absolutely delicious spooned over cake or ice cream, or baked in a clafouti. And a pan sauce can be made more interesting by using brandy for deglazing instead of stock or wine. Apple brandy and pork is an especially promising combination. 

#(clear n7). Fruit brandies are an expression of terroir. A true “farm-to-bottle” product, fruit brandy is more closely linked to place and season than any other spirit. While the grain used to make whiskey or vodka is relatively stable and easy to transport, ripe fruit is too soft and spoilage-prone to make it very far. Perfect ripeness is essential; distillation amplifies flavor, including off-flavors from rot or spoilage. That means the window for making great brandy is narrow, and the produce must come from local farmers. Some producers, like Stone Barn Brandyworks in Portland, Oregon, even partner with nearby fruit growers to keep fruit ripening on the tree longer before use in order to develop better flavor. 

#(clear n8). Fruit brandies vary widely. Fruit brandy, like fruit itself, is rarely the same twice, generating a more laid-back approach to connoisseurship. It offers an ethereal glimpse into the terroir and weather of a specific time and place. Like wine, no two vintages of fruit bandy are ever alike, even from the same distiller using the same fruit from the same field. Instead, a good fruit brandy is a way to capture and savor the ephemeral magic of the seasons, transporting a single moment in time far into the future.

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p(bio). Margarett Waterbury is an Oregon-based writer, editor, and employee at Gathering Together Farm.


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