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  • Writer's pictureStuart Pearce

Ultimate Fruit Distillate Review Series

Updated: Jul 15

Wake up and smell the fruit! A delicious summer sojourn, exploring

the incredible quality and value available in fruit distillates and 'eau de vie'.


What’s this all about then?

For the next 10 weeks, I'm going off-piste - delving deeply into the obscure, fascinating, passionate, and delicious world of fruit distillates.


I drink rum, why is this interesting to me?

... long wild fermentation ... pot distillation ... passionate artisan craftsmen and women ... uncovering exceptional quality missed by the masses ... pure, untainted spirits without sugar, flavour, or artificial muck ... spirits carefully and patiently crafted to showcase the essence of incredible quality ingredients ... doing it for the love, rather than profit margins... sound familiar? The reasons many of us love rum will hopefully make this an interesting and relevant summer diversion.


So what is it?

Fruit distillate, also known as eau de vie ("water of life")* has a fantastic list of names and is ingrained in cultures across Europe. Particularly prominent along the fruit belt running from the Alps, down through the Balkans, you'll often find locals distilling their own, using old family techniques, to share with friends.

This method of capturing and preserving the essence of fruit is exceptionally costly and labour-intensive with up to 45kg of fruit being used to produce just 1 litre of finished spirit.

*or Palinka, Slivovitz, Geist, Mampoer, Schnaps, Rakia, Fruit Brandy, Aguadente etc etc


In its purest form. making an eau de vie requires only 1 ingredient - the fruit itself! This is prepared, crushed, fermented and distilled to produce a clear dry spirit. The natural sugars in the fruit have been turned into alcohol by yeasts during fermentation.

Each fruit presents its own challenges with some having low natural sugar levels, and others being physically tough to crush and to manage over the months of fermentation.


For this series, to keep it manageable, I am excluding grape-based distillates, and sticking to clear spirits with no barrel age.

We're also missing a few amazing fruit distillates from further afield, like mampoer from South Africa, simply because of the prohibitive cost of buying & shipping bottles or samples. But beyond that, we have a veritable who's who of the good and the great in European fruit distilling.



What makes this so ‘ultimate’?

The number of fruit distillers across Europe counts in double digits.  It’s niche, expensive, exceptionally labour intensive and with a tiny fraction of the market of whisky or rum.  Sounds a foolish thing to get into – well yes, the characters in the microcosm of fruit distilling could be described as madmen, artists or occasionally genius.

I've gathered samples and bottles of over 60 distillates, from 21 distillers, the most comprehensive review series of its kind ever undertaken.

The only glaring omission is Rochelt - a great pity to be unable to include their iconic turquoise flasks but as I don't earn a penny from this blog and buy all the spirits (or rely on the generosity of distillers & distributors for samples) Rochelt's eye-watering price tags unfortunately ruled them out.

Which fruits will you be covering?

The sixty distillates I'm reviewing cover 15 different fruits. In some cases, I have enough to do a tasting and article on a specific fruit, in others I'm grouping a few fruits from the same family. Here's the breakdown...

 

What are you looking for? 8 steps to the perfect fruit distillate...

Selecting, harvesting, preparing, fermenting and distilling fruit into the finest spirits is an art, learnt over decades, rather than a commercial exercise. Here's my rundown of the key steps...


Sourcing - this is all about control and provenance. Keep it local! Local, seasonal fruit will always be the best quality, with the finest flavours and aromas. It will express the characteristics of the region and will carry local natural yeasts. For perfect choice and control grow your own fruit. To secure the finest regional produce, build close relationships with local farmers, or even forage for local wild berries. Profiling some of the amazing producers throughout the series you will see this passion for sourcing the very best fruit, over and over.

 

Harvesting – timing is everything, waiting for the perfect moment when the sugar level and ripeness are just where you want, might require several harvests.  And be prepared to say no, if the quality is not exceptional.

 

Preparation - a massive, but critical job here. Every single fruit must be hand-sorted and cleaned. To emphasise the scale of this task I mentioned earlier that up 45kg of fruit is required for each litre of finished distillate. Last year Capreolus made a batch of cherry eau de vie - the 460 half-litre bottles he produced were the result of over 3 tons of fruit. That's more than 1/3 of a million cherries in need of sorting, grading and preparing!

 

Crushing and pressing - to allow fermentation, we need to turn the fruit into a mash, a slurry or a juice. The ideal approach is gently pressing or crushing. Over-processing can imbibe unwanted tannins or bitterness, so keep it light.

Occasionally unavoidable, due to the texture or low sugar content of a fruit, is a process called maceration - steeping fruit in a neutral alcohol to extract the flavour. This process, although quick and efficient, doesn't produce the same level of quality or flavour and should be avoided where possible.

 

Fermenting - reach for the sky here, let's wild ferment. Just allow the local yeasts on the fruit to slowly turn the natural sugars in the gently pressed fruit mash, to a few degrees of alcohol. Patience is very key as, for some fruit, this can take up to an incredible 6 months! There's a continuous risk of the fruit mash spoiling, so careful management is critical, and you'll know all about the regular hard work hand mixing some of the tougher, gnarlier fruit. If you choose to buy commercial yeast - offering increased speed and control - choose well. Many producers will experiment with different yeasts until they find one that provides the desired profile.


During fermentation, we may keep skins, stones, pips and stems in the mash. Knowing when to sieve them out, to provide just the right level of bitterness or nuttiness to give our drink the true essence of the whole fruit, even the tree and the orchard, is all part of the magic. Some things you can't teach, you just taste and feel when the time is right. I'm writing this like I know something. Which I assure you I don't. But I've met a few people who do :-)

 

Distilling - use a small copper pot still - obviously - the key tool allowing the master distiller to work his magic. This is one of the most complex, and most critical stages. Multiple distillations, selecting hearts from head and tails, taking the finest cuts to produce the cleanest, purest, most enchanting clear spirits. It's easy to broaden the cuts when you see the tiny outturn and the waste. No compromise - we want the perfect embodiment of this fruit :-)

 

Resting - don't rush to get your new release into the shops. Resting in a steel tank or clay amphorae, for weeks, months or even years can do wonders to soften and meld the flavours. But not too long as you may lose the brightness and vibrance. Regular tasting is key, and why not invite your friend from the Secret Rum Bar to help :-)

 

Bottling - It tastes great, so please, please don't consider adding neutral grain spirit to extend and stretch the final product.

Lastly, you've put all that work in so let's present it beautifully. Reflective of the magic within.


All this sounds expensive and seriously hard work. It is! If you want to make the best fruit distillates, without compromise, you must arrive with passion, energy and love for what you're doing. And don't expect to make a fast buck!


As in the rum world, it's hard to uncover who's going the extra mile and who's putting commercial considerations above taste. Each producer offers different levels of transparency on their website and in their labelling.

I'm so excited to showcase a line of producers who are the trailblazer in the enchanting art of fruit distilling. Masters of their craft, the inspiration for others.


What can I expect over the next 10 weeks?

Each week I will be tasting and reviewing distillates from one fruit or group of fruits, and I'll do a deep dive profiling at least one of the characters from this magical world. First up is the mythical Quince - a pome fruit like apple or pear, but tough and requiring careful treatment. The result can be amazing - highly perfumed, with captivating flavours of sweet & sour peach, honeyed overripe pear and citrus zest. And I'll be profiling the enigmatic Barney Wilczak of Capreolus, I can't wait...



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