Clear Creek Distillery
Flavored waters are all the rage – Vitamin Water, Aquafina’s Flavor Splash, Dasani, Fruit 2O, and so forth. One is even called Life Water. Now imagine if you were French, and thought that “Life Water” was a straightforward translation of “eau-de-vie”…well, whatever the merits of Life Water, I think you’d be disappointed.
The “life” in Life Water means antioxidant vitamins and herbs, whereas the life in an eau-de-vie is alcohol. That’s not a statement about alcohol’s importance; the name goes back to the medieval discovery of distillation, courtesy of Europe’s interactions with the Arabic world. The warming character of alcohol seemed life-giving, and many of our modern liqueurs were originally medicinal, as the alcohol seemed like the right sort of vehicle for delivering healing herbs, plants, and spices into the system (perhaps there is a connection to Life Water after all). Our modern liquors whiskey and aquavit are derived from the same name as eau-de-vie, albeit in other languages – Gaelic and Latin, respectively.
Eaux-de-vie do share something in common with flavored waters, though: fruit. Aside from grapes, most fruits yield simple, tart wines when fermented - yes, tart; so tart that they are heavily sweetened to make them palatable. Cider, made from apples or pears, is the exception. But add another step, distillation, and the results can be more satisfying. Stone fruits generally have enough sugar to ferment into a workable base for distillation, but berries need to be macerated with a flavorless brandy first; then, after a slight maceration and fermentation of their own sugars, they’re ready to be distilled.
Alsace, Switzerland, and Austria have a long tradition of making eaux-de-vie. Producers use a variety of fruits, depending on what grows locally. Poire William (known in English as the Bartlett Pear), Framboise (raspberry) and Kirsch (cherry) are the most common varieties in the U.S. market; Mirabelle plum is also popular. Many producers are trying out other, more unusual fruits – rowanberry, quince, holly berry, or even carrot.
Whatever their flavors, eaux-de-vie make great digestifs, offering some of the intensity of grappa or cognac with a more refreshing fruit character. Below are several producers to look for. Most also make liqueurs and other products, and bottle their products in a variety of ways, ranging from simple – perfect for the bar – to the eye-catching, “gift-store shelf” items: most famously, perhaps, the pear-in-a-bottle. (No real mystery how it got there: the bottle goes over the bud before it even grows, and grows inside the bottle from the beginning. If you have such a bottle and want the pear to last, always top off the bottle with more eau-de-vie; the alcohol is the preservative, and keeps the pear from going bad.)
The Meyer family has been making eaux-de-vie for several generations. Their bottle designs are amazing in their diversity and inventiveness, but that would be just a lot of flash if the products themselves weren’t good. The house style leans toward subtlety over intensity; there’s little or no burn to the alcohol, and the fruit notes are toned down as well – delicate and refined. Only their classic flavors are imported at the moment, but if you find yourself in France, grab a bottle with a fruit you’ve never heard of and take it home with you.
Top picks: Kirsch (cherry, with a delicious touch from the cherry stones) and Quetsch (dark red plum)
This Swiss producer seems to prefer a more intense style, with powerful flavors and a decidedly aromatic character. They have a knack for blending – to celebrate their 125th anniversary, they created a five fruit eau-de-vie of cherry, pear, grape, apple, and raspberry. I thought of “Five-Alive” when I first heard of it, but its mix of components actually has a complexity that your more usual eau-de-vie doesn’t offer. Their kirsch is also very good; again, it’s a blend – this time of three different sorts of cherries, aged to let the flavors blend and mature.
Top picks: Fruit Tree Blend, Zuger Kirsch Three Year Old (cherry)
While there is an eau-de-vie tradition in Austria, the Reisetbauer family is relatively new to the field, having switched from traditional fruit farming to taking that fruit and distilling it into some remarkable spirits. Success and an urge to experiment means they now buy-in and work with any number of fruits, plus those carrots I mentioned earlier (as well as whisky, cider, and gin). Perhaps more unusually, a significant portion of their range makes it to the U.S. Like Etter, Reisetbauer’s spirits are characterized by their intensity and purity of fruit. Unusually, Reisetbauer doesn’t muck about with fancy bottles, but don’t let that deter you from giving one of their spirits as a gift – once opened the recipient will forgive any understatement in the packaging.
Top picks: Pear, Plum, and Rowanberry (complex, with fruit and marzipan notes); also Ginger and Carrot (both are fascinating, if not typical flavors for an after-dinner drink)
Clear Creek Distillery
Clear Creek owner Steve McCarthy is another experimenter, making a number of spirits including an Islay-style single malt whisky. The eaux-de-vie are maybe not quite so varied – Clear Creek uses exclusively Oregon fruit, and not everything can grow in Oregon, I suppose. Many of the fruits are the same as you’d find in Alsace, and one pays tribute to a prominent piece of native local flora, the Douglas Fir. By infusing the tree’s buds, distilling, re-infusing, and re-distilling, Clear Creek creates a piney spirit that’s gin-like in its creation but has the body of an eau-de-vie. The house style tends toward smoothness and elegance.
Top Picks: Kirsch (cherry), Blue Plum, and Douglas Fir
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