For the average person, nosing a glass of, say, whiskey, might conjure tasting notes along the lines of “oaky,” “fruity,” or at the most basic, “This is whiskey.” But hand them a glass of eau de vie, or unaged fruit brandy, and even the most novice drinker might say, “Ooh, this smells just like raspberry.” Indeed, the beauty of eau de vie is its clarity of flavor. And thanks to a growing number of top-rate producers who understand the spirit’s potential, and an equally enthusiastic cohort of bartenders who appreciate its strong sense of place, eau de vie has finally found a welcome home on the modern backbar.
Eau de vie—French for “water of life”—is by no means novel. Born and bred in Europe, particularly France, Southern Germany, Austria and Northern Italy, this category of delicate fruit-driven spirit has existed for centuries. Historically, it was considered a peasant spirit, made from the scraps of fruits. Now, eau de vie’s focused flavor has made it a standout option for bartenders seeking unequivocally terroir-driven ingredients to add complexity to any number of cocktails.
Even before craft whiskey brands began exploring the potential for grain to embody flavor characteristics from a specific plot of land or soil type, eau de vie had already put its stake in the ground as a spirit that is first and foremost an agricultural product. “When enthusiasts go to a whisky distillery, there is a lot of emphasis put on fermentation, the still distillation process, the temperature, the number of plates the still has and so on,” explains Nicolas Palazzi, founder of the Brooklyn-based importing company PM Spirits, which brings stateside such renowned eau de vie producers as Rochelt and Cazottes, and starting in early 2022, Capreolus Distillery. “Eau de vie producers don’t care as much about distillation as other categories do; they care about the field, the vines, the orchard, the fruits,” Palazzi adds. “There is a relation to the land that is not necessarily present with producers who either distill grains or fruits for the purpose of aging the distillate.”
In this way, eau de vie producers share much in common with contemporary winemakers. No matter the raw material—be it apple (pomme), quince (coing), raspberry (framboise) or plum (mirabelle)—distillers are looking for fruits of the highest quality, which are grown in ideal conditions and harvested at the peak of their flavor. Like wine, variations in flavor can be tasted in each vintage, or even between parcels of land within the same vintage.
“At one time, I would have said that terroir in spirits is impossible because the distillation process would strip anything from the initial source,” says Ben Robinson, sommelier at Moor Hall, a restaurant with two Michelin stars in Lancashire, England. “However, over the last few years, I would have to say that there could be a sense of terroir in eaux de vie.”
Of course, not all eau de vie is created equal. The method that best captures the essence of the fruit requires whole fruits to be crushed, fermented, then pot-distilled, a technique that allows the peculiar flavors and aromatic compounds of the entire fruit to be bottled. Some producers use shortcuts, such as macerating fruit in alcohol and distilling that infused spirit, but the resulting distillate is a muted version of what the spirit can be; oftentimes this is done to increase the yield of the distillate, but it doesn’t lead to superior flavor.
Beyond the production methods, the best producers are also known to meticulously sort and grade the fruits they’ve harvested, only using the best of the crop, a practice exemplified by Capreolus Distillery in the Cotswolds, England. “At Capreolus, we use local fruit, hand-grading every piece,” explains Barney Wilczak, the award-winning photojournalist turned master distiller. “We ferment using wild yeasts, with no added enzymes, no recycling of feints, etc. This method results in tiny yields (we require up to 45 kilograms, or 99 pounds, of fruit per liter of eau de vie). However, what we find through this enormous compression is the elevation of flavors which are normally imperceptible in the raw fruit.”
Capreolus is unique in its use of wild yeast fermentation instead of inoculating the crushed fruit with an industrial yeast strain, further reinforcing the spirit’s terroir. “These are spirits that are so expressive of the fruit and the area in which they grow that there is a potential to reveal not only the essence of a fruit, but also the thumbprint of the landscape in which they grow, unifying a producer’s expressions,” says Wilczak.
It’s easy to understand how these spirits with such pronounced flavors could find their way into the cocktail zeitgeist, where contemporary bartenders are always on the hunt for new tools to add to the arsenal. At Little Red Door in Paris, the bar stocks upwards of 20 different bottlings of eau de vie, utilizing them in small doses for added depth or complexity. “It’s the clarity of flavor of eau de vie that makes it an enticing ingredient to use in drinks,” says bar manager Alex Francis. “Using eaux de vie is an effective way of bringing that missing element to a drink, or giving it that additional dimension that it’s missing without the bitterness of bitters or the sweetness of liqueurs.”
Francis recommends using eaux de vie in Martini variations where the fruit notes can really shine in a simple, spirit-forward template. In his aptly named Tomato cocktail, a housemade tomato vine eau de vie stars in a Martini-like drink that also features mezcal and dry vermouth. Meanwhile, at Death & Co. New York, Shannon Ponche’s Autotheory features both carrot and ginger eaux de vie from Reisetbauer, along with amontillado sherry, blanc vermouth and honey for a drink bursting with layers of flavor.
Thinking outside of cocktails altogether, Francis created what he calls “supercharged” liqueurs by combining an eau de vie with a corresponding liqueur for a complex mixture that can be served in a cocktail, or as a bespoke digestif for guests. “The technique came from my time at Rules in London, where we kept a variety of eaux de vie in the freezers for digestifs,” he explains. “Poire was always the bestseller, but it never matched guests’ expectations of what pear tasted like. So I started to cut it 50-50 with pear liqueur and people loved it.”
It’s as if, as Wilczak noted, the eau de vie captured elements of the fruit otherwise imperceptible, creating a version of the fruit that was truer to life than the fruit itself. This is, in short, the essence of eau de vie. “It’s only through … the sharing of these spirits that we can get people to understand how delicate and evocative they can be,” says Wilczak. “The most exciting eaux de vie are expressive, textured, beautifully concentrated and built of gossamer layers. [When producers] get it right, it’s magic.”