Personal Business Open Bar
"An Entrepreneurial Spirit. America's small distilleries are crafting sophisticated eaux de vie."
By Elin McCoy
Margaret Chatey sells ripe fruit from neighboring farms at her own 200-acre spread in Ashford, Connecticut, but you won’t find her hawking it in bushel baskets. Chatey, a former advertising industry executive, distills 50 tons of cherries, berries and pears every year-most locally grown-into the clear, fragrant European-style brandies known as eaux de vie. Sold in slim Italian bottles under the name Westford Hill, Chatey’s brandies include Pear William, made from Connecticut-grown Bartlett pears, and Kirsch, distilled from New York State’s Montmorency cherries.
Chatey is one of more than 50 artisan distillers in the U.S. who are tapping a growing market for sophisticated, handcrafted spirits. Consumers have already enthusiastically embraced locally produced artisan bread, wine and olive oil, says Bill Owens, head of the new American Distilling Institute in Hayward, California. “Spirits are next,” he says.
The craft spirits movement, started on the West Coast in the early 1980’s, recalls the pre-Prohibition era, when all spirits, from New England rum to bourbon and rye whiskey, were locally produced.
Today’s small-scale distillers are as busy as moonshiners, but what they’re doing is perfectly legal. They work out of farm sheds and warehouses in 16 U.S. states so far to produce brandies, vodkas and whiskeys from an impressive array of produce: cranberries and key limes, blood oranges and Viognier grapes, not to mention Midwestern wheat and Long Island potatoes. California leads with 15 microdistilleries; Michigan is second with 11. Top restaurants, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Kafer-Schanke in Munich and Union Square Café in New York, serve some of the best eaux de vie.
In the 1980’s, Chatey and her husband, Louis, first planted grapes to make wine. They changed plans after visiting spirits pioneer Jorg Rupf, whose St. George fruit-based brandies from Alameda, California, are highly regarded even in Europe. “We lived in the oldest fruit-growing area in the U.S.,” Chatey says. “It suddenly struck us: We could make something special out of our local produce.”
In 1997, Chatey, with advice from Rupf, installed her own gleaming, copper-and stainless-steel, German pot still in a hillside barn. Small pot stills like Chatey’s 65-gallon model look like a cross between a driver’s helmet and a traditional espresso machine. Designed to retain complex nuances, they’re miniature versions of the distillers used to make fine cognac and single-malt Scotch.
In 1999, Chatey produced her first spirit, a kirsch. So far, her brandies are available only in Connecticut and Massachusetts. “We don’t need to be everywhere,” Chatey says. Next year, she hopes to roll out her new Calvados-style, barrel-aged apple brandy in a few markets.
Rupf is one of a handful of established distillers who are role models for Chatey and other newcomers. One of the most respected is Oregonian Steve McCarthy, who was inspired by the palate-cleansing bite and enticing fragrance of eaux de vie he’d tasted at business dinners in Europe. In 1985, he started distilling fruit from his family’s Oregon pear orchard. “The market didn’t know eau de vie from eau de toilette,” says McCarthy, who now distills 8,000 gallons a year of a dozen aromatic spirits for his superb Clear Creek line.
Another pioneer is Ansley Cole, an academic turned grape grower in Mendocino, California. In the summer of 1981, Cole picked up a vacationing French hitchhiker on Highway 101, north of San Francisco. Fortuitously, the Frenchman turned out to be Hubert Germain-Robin, whose family had long made cognac. The two men quickly struck up a partnership and imported a pot still, and a year later, Germain-Robin started distilling tiny quantities of cognac-style brandy from pinot noir. That’s unheard of in France, where such spirits are largely made from thin, acidic whites no one would drink.
The result of using pinot noir is a series of seductive, barrel-aged brandies that often beat similarly priced cognacs. There’s the lush Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO, first released in 1994 and priced at $100 a bottle, and the scarce, ravishing Anno Domini, introduced in 1999 and costing $350. “Despite all the praise we’ve received, it hasn’t been easy for a small operation like us to get attention from big distributors,” Cole says.
Last year, he and Rupf collaborated to produce an amazingly smooth vodka named Hangar One, after the former naval air station building it’s made in. So far, it’s a hit: 16,000 cases were sold in 2003-a huge quantity compared with Chatey’s tiny output of 500 cases a year.
As the craft distillers achieve success, competitors are starting to move in. A few wineries, like Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California, have long distilled their own grappa. And Leslie Rudd, owner of Rudd Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley, has just opened Distillery 209 to produce gin on San Francisco’s waterfront. Mostly, it’s microbreweries that are joining the movement, following the example of Fritz Maytag, head of Anchor Distilling Co. in San Francisco. He revived Anchor Steam beer and started making Old Potrero rye whiskey and Junipero gin a decade ago.
Hundreds of microbrewers flocked to the first-ever Pot Stills USA trade show earlier this year in Alameda. We can expect a bumper crop of new American spirits in the next year or two. Some of them are bound to become classics.