The Artisan Table
"Water of Life: Fruit Eaux-de-Vie"
Chef/Owner Restaurant du Village, Chester, CT
On a bright winter morning, after winding my way down a small country lane, I arrived at the Ashford, Connecticut farm home to Westford Hill Distillers, artisan producer of eaux-de-vie, pure fruit brandies. Margaret Chatey welcomed me into the cozy kitchen of her circa 1700 home, complete with a blazing hearth. We walked across the garden to the large red barn housing the distillery. Designed by Louis Chatey, the barn was built to house their operation. It is a traditional post and beam structure in keeping with their landscape of this rural region. Presently, Westford Hill does not farm, though plans are in progress for the planting of an orchard. The proceeds of the distillery allow the Chatey family to preserve their 200-acre family farmland as open space. Additionally their purchases of domestic fruits and berries help sustain and support several other family farms. The local Lyman Orchards grow the majority of apples and pears; the cherries and plums are from New York State; and the raspberries and strawberries come from the Pacific Northwest.
Outside the barn is a receiving area with a large sorting table for hand inspecting quality. The orchard fruits are then fed through a hammer mill, which crushes the fruit into a thick pulp- skin, stems, seeds, and all. The interior of the barn is divided into two spaces. The first section, unheated, houses the large stainless steel fermentation tanks, oak barrels of aging brandy, a small bottling machine, and the steam generator. This is where the fruit pulp is loaded into one of the 1500-gallon tanks and wine yeast is added to start the fermentation process. This process changes the natural sugars in the fruits into alcohol. A cap rises to the top and must be punched back down into the tank ensuring an even extraction of flavors. The fermentation time varies depending on the season and the temperature of the mash and the brix (natural sugar content of each fruit), but generally speaking it takes at least one month.
The second room of the barn is warm and bright, with the custom-built German Holstein still claiming center stage, and well-spaced worktables for labeling and packaging. Margaret oversees the operation and has three part time employees, all working mothers, who assist in production. One of them, Cathy White, is a trained chemist who apprenticed with Margaret and is now the head distiller. They have loaded the still with a "charge" of fermented apple mash. Upon my arrival, they fire up the still by turning on the steam. It is an odd looking contraption, gleaming copper with thick glass portholes, tubes, gages, and valves, part "Willy Wonka" and "20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea." It lumbers to life making odd noises, grunts and burps. Cathy adjusts the various valves and keeps her eye trained on the gages, while we watch and wait. Meanwhile, the others are working quietly preparing the bottles for shipping.
The Westford Hill Distillers produce brandies that are truly artisan products; there, everything is done by hand. The uniquely shaped bottles are sealed with wax and affixed with beautifully illustrated and hand numbered labels, ribbons and seals. I am struck by a curious similarity to the early days of the old farmhouse, a time when small groups of women gathered together to work on handicrafts such as quilting or canning preserves. Chuckling to myself, I suspect that back in those days, these potent fruit elixirs may have raised an eyebrow or two.
Now all attention shifts: the still is fully powered, liquid begins to rain down from the porthole windows, and a little bit starts to drip from the collection pipe at the end of the condenser column. This is the head of the run and contains methanol (a toxic from of alcohol which is collected in a bucket and saved for sterilizing the equipment). Shortly after, the run changes to the heart, which is where the pure fruit flavor of the eau de vie are released and collected in a large glass jug. At this point the brandy is about 60-80% alcohol. I have a tiny sip, and it has lovely apple aromas and a light clean taste that creates a warm sensation as it quickly evaporates in my mouth. Cathy controls the whole process by checking the gages, sampling, smelling and watching. She and Margaret test and taste each and every batch as it is produced. After the still has cooled Cathy opens it. Curious, I peek inside; it resembles a huge pot of steaming applesauce, but with far more "grown-up" aromas. The mash is removed, composted, and eventually used as fertilizer in fields. The newly distilled apple brandy is placed in an oak wine barrel for aging; each variety is aged separately and the blended before bottling. The other fruit brandies made here are aged in stainless steel or glass and are crystal clear like vodka, with wonderful intense fruit aromas of pear, cherry, and raspberry, yet are bone dry in finish. Today, apple is the exciting news; I witnessed it being distilled, and am privileged to be among the first consumers to taste the release of the aged apple brandy. This project commenced eight years ago, during the first season of Westford Hill Distillers, and is a testament to their success and to Margaret's patience and drive to create a truly superior brandy. With a lovely amber color of rich maple syrup, aromas of ripe apples and honeyed vanilla, the flavors are soft and round: smoke, rich butterscotch, and a definite flavor of apple in the finish. Delicious in a snifter, this brandy is also the perfect compliment to roast port tenderloins a la Normande, Normandy, the region of France famous for its cider and apple brandy.
Westford Hill Distiller, Ashford Connecticut
Not open to the public
Product available in fine wine and spirit shops, and in restaurants throughout Connecticut.