"Connecticut distiller makes 'water of life'"
by Jeanine Loughlin (The Chronicle)
ASHFORD - Tucked in the bucolic setting of Connecticut's northeast hills, Margaret
Chatey , founder and owner of Westford Hill Distillers, produces Eau-de-vie by
Eau-de-vie, which translates from the French language to mean "water of life," is
a clear brandy that can be distilled from many types of fruit. The best known
are Kirsch, with is made from cherries, and Pear William.
Americans have enjoyed clear fruit brandies in the past. However, the small distilleries
that made them were closed down by the end of the Prohibition. Today, small distilleries
are emerging in California, Michigan and now, Connecticut.
As Connecticut's first artisan distiller, quality is the uderlying factor of
Chatey's operation. She said, "A great product starts with great fruit."
It is her desire to produce the best and use the finest ingredients that impelled
Chatey to establish the distillery. A former public relations executive who studied
marketing at Simmons College in Boston, she found that it was difficult to produce
quality grapes in the micro-climate of the Chatey family's 200-acre farm. She
also wanted to create a product that "would be perceived as more worldly than
With that in mind, she contacted Jeorg Rupf, a German physician turned distiller
who operates St. George Spirits in Oakland, Calif. He became her mentor in the
science and the art of distilling fruit spirits.
After applying for and receiving the appropriate permits from the Bureau of Alcohol
Tobacco and Firearms and the state, production began when the custom-made copper
and steel still that resembles a Jules Verne invention arrived from Germany.
The making of Eau-de-vie begins with the selection of ripe, unblemished fruit
at the peak of flavor and sugar content.
The Kirsch is made from cherries that come from upstate New York. The Bartlett
pears used for the Pear William are Connecticut-grown, as are the raspberries
in the new raspberry brandy.
Chatey feels that using locally produced fruit places her in a nice marketing
"I would like to develop more relationships with growers," she said. The selected
fruit is moved by conveyor belt into a steel hopper where it is macerated. The
mash is pumped into a tank, where it will ferment in one to two weeks after the
addition of wine yeast.
Because ambient temperature affects the rate of fermentation, the still closes
during the coldest winter months.
When there are no residual sugars, the mash is transferred into the still. One
batch can be processed per hour with six to eight being done per day. Chatey
smells and tastes the distillate as it comes through the still's condensing column
to determine its optimal taste.
After storage in glass for about a year, spring water is added to the fruit brandies
to reduce the alcohol to an appropriate proof level. They are then ready to be
bottled in Chatey's slender, Italian, oval-bottomed bottles. Attractive hand-numbered
wraparound labels, designed by Chatey's friend Sue Rollins of North Haven, complete
With their intense aroma, Eau-de-vie can be used as aperitifs, between meal courses
to cleanse the palate, and with dessert. Eau-de-vie also can be used as an ingredient
in dessert recipes.
For Chatey, who enjoys the teaching aspect of her business as much as production, "restaurants
are a wonderful opportunity" to educate patrons in the uses of her product. "What's
important here is understanding the food connection."
Her product is for "people who enjoy fine wine with food and who like trying
Artisan distillers represent a burgeoning industry. Michigan State University
has started a program on distilling fruit in its chemistry department.
Chatey, who pioneered the Eau-de-vie business in Connecticut, welcomes competition
as long as distillers produce quality brandies.
With plans to expand her product line to include other fruit such as peaches
and aged apple brandies that compare to the Calvados of Normandy, she said, "Together,
we will grow the brandy."