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From the ADI 2009 Resource Directory - What’s That You’re Drinking? - The Least Well Known Spirits in the Land.

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What’s That You’re Drinking? - The Least Well Known Spirits in the Land.

By Jonathan M. Forester

Brandy, Eau de Vie, Grappa, Marc, Pisco, Palinka, Slivowitz, Tuica, Rakia, Singani, Chacha, they’re all fruit spirits. In Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and all over the world except North America, there is a fine, old tradition associated with them. Everyone knows about them, drinks them, and loves them. Every region makes spirits from every fruit imaginable. In France grapes in the regions of Cognac and Armagnac are made into brandies that go by those names. Pisco is what they call grape brandy in Chile and Peru, usually unaged and rough in nature, it’s still well loved. Grape brandies are also made in many other parts of the world: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Moldova, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and the Ukraine.

Then there are other fruit brandies, besides those made from grapes. In France apples are made into Calvados in Lower Normandy. Then you have other fruit made into spirits; pears, plums, peaches, cherries, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, apricots, rosehips, bilberries, quince, rowanberries, holly berries, you name it. In Sri Lanka, coconut brandy is made from the sap of coconut flowers. If it’s a fruit it can be distilled, or herbs and spices, and vegetables like asparagus or carrots; someone in Europe, or the rest of the world, is distilling it.

But here in North America, fruit spirits are surprisingly unknown. Micro-niche markets, small batch, regional, local, farm distilleries; these are all terms I heard when I was calling and emailing Distillers, Spirits Experts, Mixologists and Cocktailians around North America. You don’t associate fruit spirits with the average consumer in North America. Is it because the Big Boys of the liquor industry control all marketing and advertisements in America, with their focus on vodka and whiskey? Probably, but that still doesn’t explain why the rest of the world enjoys fine fruit spirits.

Now in some ways it’s strange to hear that fruit brandy is almost unknown to the general public in North America. Sure, folks know about brandy, but think of either the mass produced, (and sometimes even palatable stuff,) made from grapes in California; or else Cognac from France. But fruit spirits in general aren’t on the mind of the average American. Strange, since they were probably the first spirit distilled here, particularly peach brandy. Peach trees grow faster and start to bear fruit much earlier than any other type of fruit tree. Historically the first orchards planted were peach orchards. Apple as well, but they take about twice as long to set fruit. Peaches don’t make a great cider like apples do, but the excess fruit could be distilled into rough, and occasionally not so rough, peach brandy. This was one of the main spirits drunk throughout Colonial America. Most of this was unaged, what we would think of as an eau de vie, because barrel aging, especially toasted and charred barrels, didn’t really enter mainstream distilling until the mid-1800’s.

Eventually the apple orchards grew and hard cider was made, the drink of choice of the early colonists. Some of this would be made into applejack, the North American term for apple brandy, but until just before Prohibition peach brandy remained one of the main spirits drunk in America.

Sure, rum made from cheap Caribbean molasses was big for the first half of the colonization period, until the British Colonial Sugar Acts of 1733, 1764, and the final amendment in 1766; which directly led to the American Revolution. But rumbullion was mainly drunk near the coasts; peach brandy had a strong hold inland where it was made right at the orchard. After the Revolutionary War, rum lost popularity and slowly whiskey, first rye whiskey and then the corn whiskey that came to be known as Bourbon, became more popular.

By the mid-1800’s whiskey finally started to take over from peach brandy, especially as charred barrels came into use. Although peach brandy, unaged and aged in charred barrels, was still quite popular, drunk both straight, and as one of the main spirits used in cocktails, right up until Prohibition.

Surprisingly, I found out that the main commercial peach brandy made pre- and post-Prohibition, was at Jack Daniel’s Distillery, by Jack Daniel’s nephew, Lem Motlow. Lem took over running his uncle’s distillery in the late 1800’s, and in 1905 contracted with regional farmers to buy peaches and apples to make brandy. This was his pet project and he basically developed a monopoly on commercially produced peach and apple brandy from 1905 until Prohibition fifteen years later, and then after repeal from 1939 until 1946, with his Lem Motlow’s Peach and Apple Brandies.

After Repeal it seems that Lem Motlow was the only distiller making peach and apple brandy in the country, mostly because fruit brandy wasn’t originally a commercial product made by large distilleries, but a farmhouse product. After the end of Prohibition, farmers and other citizens weren’t allowed to have private stills and this directly led to the demise of peach, and other fruit brandies. Lem Motlow stopped distilling peach and apple brandy in 1946. It wasn’t commercially feasible anymore. In the years of Prohibition America lost its taste for, and knowledge of fruit spirits, and never got it back. Applejack almost suffered the same fate as peach brandy, with it slipping away as an American product, but Laird’s Distillery in New Jersey managed to keep strong, and makes a fine product to this day. Their 100 proof bottled in bond straight apple brandy is a pleasure to sip, especially in a fine cocktail.

But Laird’s apple brandy isn’t well known to the average American. So Prohibition, one of the great disasters of American lawmaking, killed fine fruit spirits in America; and it’s only in the past few years that artisanal distillers are painstakingly bringing them back. But, most of Mr. & Ms. Joe Public drink vodka, and some whiskey. Yes, brandy has become popular with certain markets; aspirants go for the imported French stuff, much of it mediocre, but sold at high prices. Look at Hennessey cognac and the urban, hip hop, rap star market who swill it by the bottle, paying $250-350 a bottle at clubs for the same Hennessey that retails for $30. Twenty years ago who would have guessed that success story? Then there are a few aficionados who pursue the finest and costliest Cognacs. Great, but they are a drop in the bottle. I won’t talk much about the mass-produced domestic brandy, usually sold either as a cooking spirit, or as a low end tipple. I still remember the three-day hangover when I got my hands on a bottle as a teen.

But, other than those I mention, who else knows about and enjoys fruit spirits? How many Americans drink eau de vie on a regular basis as Europeans do? How many have a fine aperitif before dinner or digestif after? Not many.

So here we have somewhere around 80+ artisanal distilleries making fruit spirits in North America, and no one knows anything about them. Well, not in the big picture sense like vodka or whiskey. Sure, our products sell. But it’s a battle. Artisanal distilleries need to educate the public. Education, this is what I heard time and time again from everyone I spoke with about this subject, from experts to regular folks. I asked who the producers of artisanal fruit spirits are and only a few names come up. Clear Creek, Germain-Robin, St. George, Laird’s, and those in the know may mention their favorite local product. Maybe that is, if they have even heard of or know their local distiller.

There is one other small but growing group who know about fruit spirits. A small but powerful fan base, who know quite a bit about fruit spirits. They aren’t being used as a tool or mechanism by many of the small distilleries, although the big boys take full advantage of them. They are the high-end bartenders and mixologists. These are the ones who seek out the best spirits to use to create the next hip, cool, fancy cocktail. These are the ones who create buzz. They are constantly looking to create fine libations using the best spirits as their base. I’m not talking about your average beer slinger or candy-flavored shot shooter. I’m talking about the mixologists who cater to those with discriminating and adult taste in cocktails. I say, seek them out, form friendships with them. You don’t have to hand them cases of product or pay them huge sums to create signature cocktails. Let them taste your spirits, let them know how to get their hands on them. Encourage them to experiment. Why? Because besides using your spirits to create amazing cocktails that will bring that purified fruit out to best advantage, they are also educators of the public. Let the mixologists and fine bartenders sing your praises.

Then there’s the next big step. It’s up to the local and regional distillers who haven’t yet made the big name, that have to get out there and educate the public. Sure, it’s a tough battle. But that also means that the average person is a blank slate. Think back to when you were in first grade. You sit down in the huge and scary classroom. The teacher is up front; ready to fill your mind with all kinds of new and exciting things. She picks up the chalk and walks up to the big, long, and completely empty chalkboard and says, “Today we are going to learn about Fruit Spirits” and proceeds to put it all up there. Handing you the information in such a way that you can easily acquire it, learn about it, to make it part of you.

So it’s time we fruit distillers come together, band together, work together. We need to educate the public about American artisanal brandy, eau de vie, grappa, etc. We need to seek out writers, TV producers, internet media, and get publicity to become known. We need to teach folks that fruit spirits are the “anti-vodka”, full of flavor, made with care. That they are special, unique, made from local produce, reduced through craftsmanship into the pure essence of America.

I suggest that ADI and its members who make fruit spirits work together this year and make it the Year of Fruit Spirits. We should reach out to the media and teach them what’s special about artisanal, North American distilled fruit spirits. We need to do it on multiple levels: As a national group, with state distillery associations, and each distillery and distiller on their own. We need to market ourselves to a country, to fill in that huge blank slate that sits in front of Joe Public. We need to fill the average person’s mind with knowledge about who we are, what we make, and why it’s so special. So besides being distillers, let’s become teachers. Let’s educate our country; so we too can join the world in appreciation of fine fruits, distilled into their pure essence.

Jonathan M. Forester is a food and beverage writer & consultant, chef, winemaker, distiller, brewer, and world traveling bon vivant! He was born with a cocktail shaker in one hand and a book in the other. (His mom didn't find that comfortable on several levels.) www.JonathanForester.com

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