Eau-de-vie distillation in Alsace, France (image: Gwenvidig)
Eau-de-vie—the words roll so beautifully off the tongue, making it sound both sophisticated and slightly complicated. It refers to a category of brandy that’s unaged and distilled from any raw material other than grapes. French for “water for life,” eau-de-vie is historically significant to European drinking culture. France is revered as the motherland of modern-day brandy, but high-quality eau-de-vie also comes from Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy and even the Balkans.
As for raw materials that can be distilled, the sky’s the limit. That being said, the usual suspects of traditional eau-de-vie include pear (Poire Williams), yellow plum (mirabelle), raspberry (framboise), apricot (blume marillen), cherry (kirsch), apple (pomme) and peach (pêche). Depending on the fruit, there are two methods of production. One way is for the fruit to be crushed and fermented into cider before going through distillation—for stone fruit, the option is with or without the stones. For soft fruit with lower sugar levels like raspberry, another method is to skip fermentation and instead macerate in neutral alcohol for flavor extraction.
To preserve the natural fruit characteristics, most eau-de-vie is batch-distilled via copper pot still, typically once for macerated fruit and twice for fermented fruit. Then before bottling, the distillate is often left to “mellow” for a period, either in stainless steel tanks or glass demijohns. And voilà! You have a finished product that’s incredibly crisp with unmatched purity while it delightfully mimics the fruit from which it came. Sip on a glass of Poire Williams, and you can almost feel the sandy grains of a pear dancing around your palate.
Finding a wide selection of these spirits is simple if you’re strolling through a storybook village in Alsace, France, where bottles of local eau-de-vie are displayed in every other storefront window. Here in the USA, it’s not always that easy. But lucky for us, eau-de-vie is no longer just a European fairy tale, as American craft distillers continue to take this niche category to new heights in the U.S. market. The added benefits are that they’re able to support local farmers while branding with labels that are easier for consumers to understand.
Diamond Claret Cup by John Codd (image: Julie Albin)
So we’re looking at perhaps the most diverse genre of spirits that are both fabulous to sip neat and are worthy alternatives for white spirit cocktails. But if eau-de-vie is such a unicorn spirit, why don’t we see more of them on cocktail menus?
San Francisco bartender John Codd, who currently runs the bar program atTradition and has graced other popular cocktail lists with his innovative creations, fancies himself an enthusiast and was happy to weigh in on the matter. “I find the cost of incorporating eau-de-vie as a base spirit the most difficult,” says Codd. “Second is getting people to understand what eau-de-vie is.”
But he finds hope with stateside distilleries likeSt. George Spirits that produce eau-de-vie at more reasonable price points than many of the French imports. With supply more readily available, he’s able to balance out stronger eau-de-vie with lower-proof spirits like vermouth to create well-structured cocktails. He also enjoys engaging and educating bar patrons on the true nature of eau-de-vie and nixing the misperception that they’re simply fruit liqueurs. “I like to root for the underdog,” he says. “It might be a little difficult to work with sometimes, but the history and uniqueness create a secret weapon in any bartender’s arsenal.”
If you want to try your hand at making an eau-de-vie cocktail, check out Codd’s Diamond Claret Cup, made with St. George raspberry brandy, red wine, sparkling wine, lemon juice, gum syrup and grenadine.