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Fruit Brandies

Eau-de-vie (plural eaux-de-vie) is a French term for a colorless brandy, derived from one or more fruits, that is prepared via fermentation and double-distillation. A typical scenario would involve growing the appropriate fruit, harvesting when ripe, and fermenting the whole, crushed fruit prior to distillation. Unlike their cognac cousins, eaux-de-vie are not typically aged in wooden casks. Instead, the young, ripe fruit are fermented, distilled, and bottled rapidly to preserve the freshness and aroma of the parent fruit. While this is the general process for creating eaux-de-vie, some variants exist and some distillers choose to age their products before bottling.

The term eau-de-vie is also informally used for similar beverages hailing from non-French speaking countries. Spirits in this category include kirschwasser, a cherry-based beverage; eau-de-vie de poire, a pear-based beverage; eau-de-vie de pomme, an apple-based beverage; eau-de-vie de mirabelle, a yellow plum-based beverage; and others. When the eau-de-vie is made from from the pomace, the result is called Pomace brandy or Marc (wine), sometimes called eau-de-vie de marc. The apple-flavored spirit Calvadosis made by aging a distilled eau-de-vie in wooden casks before bottling, lending this potable much more similarity to cognac than a typical eau-de-vie.

The most popular brandies in the world are made from wine. However, a great deal of superb brandy is distilled from fruits other than grapes. These brandies, or "Eau de vie" (water of life) can be made from cherries (Kirsch), pears (Poire William), plums (Quetsch, Mirabelle), strawberries (Fraises), and raspberries (Framboise).

Eau de vie is usually distilled in pot stills and is colorless, having aged in glass or pottery as opposed to wood. A great majority of fruit brandy is produced in France (Alsace), Germany (Black Forest), and Northern Switzerland (Busel). These brandies are often served in European restaurants and bistros as digestifs or as a refresher between courses of a larger meal.

Etymology

Eau-de-vie is a French expression meaning water of life. Other fermented alcoholic beverages have similar etymologies, such as whisky, an anglicized version of the Irish uisce beatha or of the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha. This is Aqua vitae in Latin, Akvavit in Swedish and Norwegian and Wodka meaning the same in Polish and Russian Vodka

The preparation of Eaux de Vie

Fruit is the single raw material of French Eaux de vie and its selection determines quality. The aroma, flavour and delicacy of great Eaux de vie depend heavily on the fruit and the distiller's know-how is of up most importance at this stage in order to select the best fruit. Fruit with stones or pips are then placed in tanks for fermentation while berries must macerate in alcohol.

Fermentation of the stone and pip fruits

As soon as they arrive, carefully selected stone fruits and williams pears are placed in wall-glassed tanks. Compressed under their own weight, the fruits soon form a sweety paste. Under the action of natural yeast contained in various species, fermentation begins after two days. The paste is then covered with froth and becomes tumultuous.

Most of the sugar from the fruits is transformed into alcohol in under ten days. Fermentation then slows down and finally stops after six weeks. This essential step is carefully controlled by the distiller who supervises it using his own experience and "knack". The tanks are then hermetically sealed until distillation.

Maceration of the berries

Raspberries and wild berries have a very low sugar content and fermentation alone would produce practically no alcohol. They must therefore macerate in Eau de vie for at least one month. Every 100 kg of fruits must macerate in 25 liters of Eau de vie with an alcohol content of 50% as laid down by legislation. Slight fermentation takes place during this period. The mixture is then distilled.

Distillation

Distillation takes place in a single operation, by means highly traditional processes in copper stills heated in a double boiler comprising two walls between which steam circulates and constant temperature. Experience and ability are then essential to separate the distilled collected in three sections : the heads, the heart and the tail. Only the clear limpid distilling heart, with an alcohol content of around 50 to 60 %, is kept while the imperfect heads and tails are eliminated.

Ageing

There's a saying which goes "Eaux de vie must be put in the attic". This is a very old habit to age eau de vie in demi-johns closed with a piece of fabric and stored under the tiles roofs of vast attics. The considerable temperature variations they undergo flavours the evaporation of undesirable products such as negative ester. The neutrality of the glass allows to completely preserve the purity of the flavour and to keep the eaux de vie white, clear and ardent.

Eaux de vie can also age in ash casks. Thanks to ageing, they lose their original harshness and become softer and more full-bodied. The period of ageing is left to the appreciation of the distiller who can extend it at will over several years.

Serving

Exact serving preferences vary by individual, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Temperature: eaux-de-vie are usually served chilled.
  • Portion: the usual scenario is to serve an eau-de-vie as a digestif (a postprandial alcoholic drink used to stimulate digestion). As eaux-de-vie are often drunk following rich meals that have already been accompanied by wine, the "usual" serving size would be approximately 1-2 oz.
  • Glassware: some connoisseurs recommend a tulip-shaped glass, while others suggest the use of a snifter.

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