But what exactly are eaux de vie? French for Water of Life these spirits also go by many other names depending on their origin; cognac from wine, calvados from cider, slivovitz made from plums, palinka, schnapps, grappa, aquavitae, fruit brandies and edelbrand, to name a few. This diversity of names brings unnecessary confusion to what is essentially the same product: fruit that is fermented and distilled. The source material is wide, from pears to plums, grapes to quince and apples to Jerusalem artichokes! Most often, each eau de vie represents a single fruit. Produced well, these spirits are a beautiful preservation of the aroma and flavour that is only achieved for a few days at each fruit’s peak.
Let’s take a look at some of these spirits in a little more detail.
France has achieved some of the most internationally successful fruit brandies. Strictly controlled appellations dictate distillation style, source material and bottling. The most famous of these must be cognac. Here, wine is pressed from grapes that achieve modest alcohol levels and relatively high acidity (which reduces the chance of spoilage). The most famous of these grapes is Folle Blanche, much lauded, but unfortunately susceptible to the dreaded grape phylloxera. This parasite wiped out vast amounts of vineyards in the mid-19th century and pure Folle Blanche cognacs now carry a heavy price tag. Produced under strict conditions, the wines for cognac are distilled twice through traditional copper stills, producing a distillate, which is then aged in oak barrels. As with all distillates, they begin their life clear and the storage in wood adds colour, flavour and structure giving tannins to the spirit.
The lesser-known cousin of cognac is armangac. Distilled in continuous stills, where wine is continually fed into a distillation column, the separation between the negative and positive flavour components are made automatically. Distilled to a lower proof, armangac tends to have a greater mix of components that, although not as palatable when young, can age into very complex and exciting spirits.
Leaving France we travel to Austria and Germany, arguably one of the most focused epicentres of fruit distilling. Here vast orchards supply countless distillers. In Austria there are around 35,000 licensed distillers, many farms being traditionally allowed to distil a small amount of schnapps to use up excesses of fruit. From wild plums to elderberry, rowanberries to raspberry, and even turnips, the variety is quite astounding. The one fruit that almost all schnapps producers work with is the Williams pear (often referred to as Poire Williams in France). The Williams pear, originally bred in England, carries an incredibly recognisable aroma of booming artificial pear notes and sweetness. In these Germanic countries, water baths are used in the stills so that the entire fruit can be distilled, not just its fermented juice. This adds to the further complexity of the skin and flesh to the flavour profile. For a completely different experience, look for schnapps made from the most (Perry) pears that add spice and exotic complexity to the spirit.
Our final excursion will take us to one of the most maligned spirits, grappa. Grappa is distilled from the skins left over from wine production and within the EU can only be produced under the title grappa in Italy. Red skins, which are fermented with the wine before being pressed, are distilled straight away. Whites, pressed before the wine is fermented, have to ferment themselves and are carefully distilled afterwards. Much of the poor reputation of grappa comes from the use of low quality and poorly stored skins, often spoiling before they had a chance to be used. However, there are many producers who are now taking this spirit exceptionally seriously. Single varietal grappas showcase the incredible aromas that distinguish extremely fine wines. These range from the floral minerality of Rieslings, the rich fruits of Barolla through to the bombastic lychees and rosewater of Gewürztraminer.
How to enjoy eaux de vie
So what is the best way to consume eaux de vie? Ideally, a glass that funnels the aroma, e.g. a grappa glass or a small wine glass. Ice and cold temperatures suppress the aroma and flavour. Therefore, if the alcohol is a distraction, small additions of water at room temperature open flavours and reduce any heat.
And surely the best way to drink eaux de vie, beyond a good book and a fire, is with food; desserts are a classic combination. Think of how plum eau de vie can enhance peaches, plums and nectarines, or alternatively, apple eau de vie can add a dry sparkle to crumbles. Drunk alongside, or added to them, they are quite beautiful.
We felt incredibly luxurious at the distillery when we ate a tarte tatin made from Doyenne du Comice pears with our previous years eau de vie made from the same pears sprinkled over the top—divine! If you have never tried a high quality eaux de vie, please don’t hesitate. These delicate and refined spirits offer an experience rarely found elsewhere.
Barney Wilczak is the distiller and director of the Capreolus Distillery, producing Garden Tiger gin and eaux de vie, supplying collectors and Michelin star restaurants around the world. www.CapreolusDistillery.co.uk