Sip the Waters of Life
By Margaret Swaine
Eaux-de-vie, the “waters of life” produced from distilling fruits, wild forest berries, flowers, tree buds, grape pomace and other sometimes very rare botanicals are the Cinderella’s of the spirit world. Hard to find but beautiful, waiting for their moment to shine. I search them out whenever I travel and encourage spirit lovers and our liquor boards to do the same. The treasure hunt is worth it.
There are the fruit and wild berry based eaux-de-vie of Switzerland, France, Austria and other European countries, the apple based Calvados from Normandy France, the schnapps of the German speaking countries, slivovitz (plum) of the Slavic regions, the marc based grappa of Italy and much more. These eaux-de-vie are the very essence of the plant from whence they come – no need for added ‘natural flavour’, lab made aromatics or the cloak of sugar.
Alsace in the northeast corner of France produces some of the highest quality and varied of all the eaux-de-vie. Getting there is simple now with a high speed TGV train which goes directly from Charles de Gaulle Paris airport to Strasbourg in two hours twenty minutes.
Wine lovers know the region for the Alsace Wine Route, one of the oldest, prettiest and most historic of such routes. The route, founded in 1953, starts outside of Strasbourg and meanders by medieval castles, vineyards and through picture-postcard villages for 170 kilometres. About one thousand wine producers are along the way, 100 villages and some 50 wine festivals take place from April though to October.
A good number of the wine producers also sell eaux-de-vie, though most often, even if under their own label, the spirit is made by one of the distilleries who dot the landscape such as G. Miclo in Lapoutroie, Massenez in Dieffenbach-au-Val, Metté in Ribeauvillé and Meyer in Hohwarth. There’s even a “Route des Eaux-de-Vie” in Vallée de Villé which takes in Boutique Miss Massenez, Distillerie Jos. Nusbaumer, Distillerie Au Feu de Bois and Distillerie Meyer.
I visited Distillerie Meyer, established in 1958 in the tiny town of Hohwarth, for my insight and tasting of what can and will be distilled in Alsace. The Meyer family makes over 30 varieties of distillates including from rarities such as elderberry, service berry, rose hips, pine tips, holly berry and bilberry. (They also make smooth pure malt whisky aged in sauternes barrels and pastis with a cumin punch.) On an annual basis they go through over 600 to 700 tons of fruit, mostly local.
Tree fruits are fermented an average of three to five weeks and then distilled. The small wild berries are macerated in alcohol. The top of the line such as their Poire Grand Reserve which has won many gold medals, are aged four years before release. Apparently the fruit flavour becomes more pronounced with time while the spirit remains crystal clear and colourless.
But this is a tease to my readers really as even though the distillery told me they export a third of their production, they did not believe any has reached Canada (something they would be more than happy to remedy if there’s interest).
There are thankfully other eaux-de-vie which have reached our shores. I have found products by Massenez in Canada – the best selection is in Quebec which has a dozen of their products including pear, apple, ginger and plum. The Massenez Vieux Calvados in Ontario, which has an apple imprisoned in the bottle, has truly fantastic cider apple flavours that linger intensely. I put a few bottles of this on the bar for my step-daughter’s wedding and everyone who tried it fell in love.
G. Miclo Poire Williams Grande Reserve in Ontario’s Vintages has a true clean pear nose and distinct pear flavours throughout with a nice dry but lingering pear finish. Their Coeur de Chauffe Framboise Sauvage which I’ve found in Quebec is the very essence of raspberry, taken from the heart of each distillation of the wild raspberry.
From Normandy, Calvados Domaine Dupont Fine Reserve made from double distilled cider aged in oak, has subtle yet persistent cider apple notes with a cognac like character.
Italy is best known for distilling grape pomace into grappa. The distillate, created over 500 years ago by peasants as a way to make use of the grape pits, skins and stalks left over after wine making, had a past reputation for tasting like firewater. Today many are as elegant as the finest cognacs; presented in hand blown bottles whose exquisite design are art forms in themselves.
Top producers craft their grappas often from single wines, or a single grape variety sometimes even from a single designated vineyard. Some are aged in wood of various sorts for up to ten years, and others contain the distillate of much grape juice as well as the pomace; a modern aqua vitae which expands the expression of these spirits. Jacopo Poli, is one of the world’s most famous grappa producers today. His Po’ di Poli Morbida Grappa is a beautifully perfumed distillate of the pomace of orange blossom muscat and white muscat.
Giannola Nonino of Percoto in Udine province has been called by friends “our lady of grappa”. Married in 1962 to aqua vitae producer Benito, she decided to transform grappa into an aristocratic beverage with delicate, softness which women could drink without embarrassment. To do this she used pot stills and fresh pomace which went against the current of the times when continuous stills were adopted to cut costs and pomace was stocked for lengthy periods after harvest.
In 1984, she made another innovation. Called Ùe, it was the first ever distillate of the whole grape (skin, pulp and juice) which she packaged in a splendid hand-blown bottle of transparent crystal by Venini of Murano. Nonino also makes fruit distillates from pear, raspberry, plum and cherry. (I’ve found the pear on occasion in Quebec.) More available on our shores now is Nonino’s amaro. (Other of her grappas I will review in a subsequent newsletter.)
Nonino Amaro Quintessentia di Erbe Alpine is a medium-sweet bitter made from grape distillate aged in barriques and married with mountain herbs.
Italcoral Distilla e Camomilla Grappa is sweetened with sugar and thus I would classify it more as a liqueur but it’s an interesting infusion of grappa with camomile that’s sweetly harmonious.
You might well find it a sometimes frustrating search to unearth these eaux-de-vie treasures but here’s hoping we’ll see more of them in the future. Lucky for us some Canadian distilleries such as Okanagan Spirits in BC with its Poire Williams for example are coming on stream with their versions.
Meanwhile I leave you with a fine summer cocktail courtesy of Nonino. Put 3 parts Nonino Amaro Quintessentia with 1.5 parts pear eau-de-vie, two parts each fresh lemon and orange juice, 3 parts grapefruit juice and one part super fine sugar in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a tumbler filled with ice cubes. Squeeze grapefruit zest over the cocktail and enjoy.
To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
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