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Will the real peach brandy stand up?

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 3:11 PM

Peach is a tricky concept in the world of spirits. When we speak of most "peach" liqueurs on the market now, the use of quote marks is appropriate.

Take, for instance, the infamous DeKuyper's Peachtree schnapps, the liquor that, in the 1980s, fueled a genre of unfortunate cocktails such as the Fuzzy Navel, Sex on the Beach and the Red-Headed Slut. For me, one whiff of Peachtree conjures up not peaches, but images of prom night: me, resplendent in my electric-blue Miami Vice Collection tuxedo, dancing with my big-haired date to Alphaville's "Forever Young."

"Companies have come up with this contrived, fake aromatic peach flavor," says Rory Donovan of Peach Street Distillers in Palisades, Colo. "It tastes nothing like peach, but the public has come to expect it. Now, when you give them something authentic, people are disappointed."

Donovan knows authentic. He and two partners produce one of the few peach brandies on the market: the real thing, distilled from real peaches. He uses tree-ripened fruit from his own neighborhood, in the middle of Colorado's fruit basket.

"I can drive my forklift over to the farm, two blocks away, to pick up my peaches," he says. His Peach Street oak-aged brandy is exquisite (and is a prized bottle in my own liquor cabinet), rivaling aged apple brandies such as Calvados. It also serves as a link to another time and place.

Long before Peachtree schnapps, there was a strong tradition of real peach brandy in America. It makes sense. Farmers had to do something with their surplus fruit after the harvest, so they distilled fermented juice from the peaches. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, peach brandy made from real peaches was one of the most popular spirits in America; in some areas it was second only to rye whiskey. George Washington, in fact, distilled peach brandy at Mount Vernon.

To honor that tradition, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States recently gathered several artisan distillers at Mount Vernon to re-create Washington's peach brandy.

To create the team, the trade group drew from among its new craft-distiller "affiliate" membership: Ted Huber of Huber Starlight Distillery in Borden, Ind.; Brian McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling in New York; Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, Calif.; David Pickerell of WhistlePig Whiskey in Shoreham, Vt.; and Joe Dangler of A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg. The peaches came from New York and Indiana; many were from Huber's farm.

The delicious, subtle 118-proof white spirit will be aged for a year or two in oak. The team produced 50 gallons and expects to have about 500 bottles (375 ml) to sell in Mount Vernon's gift shop.

At St. George Spirits, Winters already makes several masterful fruit eaux de vie (clear, un-aged brandy) from cherries, pears, raspberries and even basil. But he hadn't made a peach brandy in more than a decade.

"The toughest thing is finding peaches in this country that are worth distilling," Winters says. He says our common "supermarket peaches" have been bred for shelf appeal and are missing the aromatics and flavor needed for brandy: "Back in the 18th century, the fruit was probably much better."

Donovan, of Peach Street, agrees. "When I moved out to Colorado from the East Coast, I was like, 'A peach is a peach.' But then I ate a peach out here, right off the tree, and I was like, 'Wow!'"

High-quality ripe fruit is essential to the making of eau de vie. Winters likens eau de vie to an "olfactory snapshot" of a particular fruit at its peak ripeness. Unlike with liqueurs, no sugar is added during the process; all of the aroma and taste must come from the fruit itself. If the fruit doesn't have flavor, the brandy never will.

But peaches have a delicate flavor profile that can be too subtle. "Peach is not the easiest fruit to really concentrate the flavor" of, says McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling, which is launching its own peach brandy, made with local New York peaches, this month. It will be bottled un-aged as a white spirit because, McKenzie says, in barrel aging the subtle taste can be lost. It is the opposite approach from Donovan's and an endlessly argued concept.

In fact, the issue was debated among the distillers gathered at Mount Vernon. In the end, they decided to age the brandy in lightly toasted oak, which will not impart too much of the wood's influence on the spirit.

I'm excited to find out the results of the experiment, but my hypothesis is that George Washington's fine brandy will be even better with a little barrel aging. In any case, I hope there will be more peach brandy projects like these.

"I hope there's a future for peach brandy," Winters says. "But for now it's mostly a novelty. A wonderful novelty."

So how closely does the current peach brandy made at Mount Vernon resemble Washington's? Winter insists that the only modern tweak in the distilling process was to use a cultivated yeast strain during fermentation; in the 18th century, a naturally occurring yeast probably did the trick. But beyond that, I asked, did they follow Washington's original recipe?

Winters gently corrected me. "There really is no recipe," he said. "The recipe is: peaches."

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound." He can be reached at jasonwilson.com and at food@washpost.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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