Spirits: Eau de Vie Starts With Fruit and Finishes a Meal

Brasserie Lebbe (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post; Pear Eau de Vie From Ace Beverage, Flute From Crate And Barrel)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Near the midpoint of my winter doldrums, I begin to miss the abundance of seasonal fresh fruit. Maybe that's why I've lately begun taking a little eau de vie after dinner, just a bit of poire Williams or kirsch or a plum brandy called slivovitz.

Now, for most Americans, "fruit" is not the word that immediately comes to mind when they hear "eau de vie." If eau de vie evokes any words, those might be: intense; burning; foreign. Or if they think fruit, it's the whole pear sitting inside a curious bottle. Some home cooks may have purchased a bottle of kirsch long ago to attempt a real fondue. But as I have said, Americans mostly steer away from clear European spirits that are served neat in small glasses.

Jokes Stephen McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillers in Portland, Ore., which makes some of the nicest eaux de vie in the country (including one with the pear inside the bottle), "These are hard-to-sell, expensive products that no one likes."

I wish that were not so. Eau de vie (it means "water of life") is a delight and, with its digestive properties, a fabulous way to finish a meal. Unlike liqueurs, which often have a cloying percentage of sugar and a lower alcohol content, eau de vie is clear, unaged brandy, generally clocking in at around 80 proof. Although many still think of eau de vie as Alsatian or Alpine, there are a few wonderful producers in the United States.

The domestic market was basically created in the 1980s by two men, McCarthy and Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif., which produces the amazing Aqua Perfecta brand. Both came to the business in a roundabout fashion. Rupf grew up in Germany's Black Forest in a family of distillers but went into law and became Germany's youngest judge. On a scholarly visit to the University of California at Berkeley, he fell in love with the local fruit and decided to stay and distill it. "Seeing the blossoming fruit in California," he says, "it was like the Garden of Eden."

McCarthy ran a successful business producing parts for hunting guns, which took him on sales trips to Europe. There he realized that the Williams pear, used to make the French eau de vie poire Williams, was the same as the Bartlett pear grown back home on his family's orchard in Oregon. Twenty-four years ago, he sold his business and started producing Clear Creek.

Both men's epiphanies get at the heart of eau de vie, which begins with ripe fruit. For centuries, eau de vie was the product of peasant farmers who, after harvesting their orchards, needed a way to turn surplus fruit into profit. "These products weren't created by a marketing committee," McCarthy says. "Those farmers made eau de vie because they had to figure out some way to use their fruit." Eau de vie was a way for struggling farmers to keep their land.

"If the fruit doesn't have it, the eau de vie never will," said Lance Winters, Rupf's partner in St. George Spirits. In making eau de vie, "you're taking an aromatic and flavor profile of a moment in time and place. It's a time machine."

For that reason, Rupf seeks out organic pears grown at over 5,000 feet in Colorado and Montmorency cherries from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. McCarthy uses local Pacific Northwest plums and cherries for his slivovitz and kirsch, and even springtime Douglas fir buds for a complex, surprising evergreen eau de vie.

All of that sounds like just the sort of handcrafted, slow-food-friendly product that foodies should be all over. But that's not the case. "The biggest hurdle is that we do not yet have a digestif culture," Rupf says. "As soon as coffee and dessert comes, so does the bill. In Europe, when you have your table, you have it for the whole night. An eau de vie is a wonderful culinary tradition."

Perhaps many have had a negative eau de vie experience simply because of glassware. Avoid using a brandy snifter at all costs. "For eau de vie, you do not want the big fish bowl," Rupf says. A snifter concentrates alcohol and causes the hot burn that many associate with brandy. At an event last summer, famed glassware maker Georg Riedel told an audience that the brandy snifter, even the one he produces, is "the most stupid glass ever developed for spirits." Yet that is the way many restaurants, even some of the very best, still serve eau de vie. Most people, of course, don't have special eau de vie glasses sitting around. Instead, McCarthy and Rupf recommend either a simple white wine glass or a champagne flute.

Another reason for eau de vie's lack of popularity might be that it's difficult to mix in cocktails. "If you make vodka, you're in the cocktail business," McCarthy says. "But we don't make a product that really works best in cocktails. We don't market that way." Sentiments like that, of course, are a clarion call for inventive bartenders, and around the country, we're beginning to see cocktail experiments involving eau de vie, particularly pear and kirschwasser.

Neyah White, bar manager of Nopa in San Francisco, says he has "an insane amount of eau de vie at home," including Clear Creek, St. George Spirits and other high-end domestic brands such as Peak Spirits from Colorado and Westford Hill from Connecticut. But even he admits, "As a base spirit, they're not for everybody.

"Look," White says, "Americans just don't drink this stuff. If someone orders an eau de vie, I wonder, 'What is going on at that table over there?' "

I would encourage everyone to explore the very same question.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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