"Make it better with BRANDY"
by Niraj Chokshi
Wine is the alcohol of choice to accompany fine food – at least in America. In parts of Europe, though, brandy is more prevalent.
In the past few decades a handful of brandy distilleries have been popping up in America and now speckle the West Coast and the Northeast giving brandy a new, American image.
Margaret Chatey, owner of the Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford, is one of those helping transform that wine-only image.
In 1995, Chatey, a former vice president with Décor Advertising in Glastonbury, started the Westford Hill brand distillery with her husband on their 200-acre property, which has been in his family since 1919.
“We wanted to find a way to make the property productive,” Chatey explains.
The couple planted wine grapes on the property, but after traveling to Europe, Chatey had a change of heart. She decided to try to distill brandy or eau de vie, French for “water of life.”
Chatey explains that brandy is “pretty much a way of life in Europe.” The French for example, store it in the freezer and use it as a digestif (a post-dinner drink to help digestion). In the German-speaking regions of Europe, fruit is used to create homemade brandy. In Normandy, locals take a break in the middle of dinner, called a trou Normand, to drink brandy – usually Calvados, which is distilled apple cider.
Brandy hasn’t always been a uniquely European drink. “There was a tremendous amount of apple brandy in America before Prohibition,” Chatey says.
But brandy, unlike most liquor, has been slow to make a comeback. “So much of the intelligence and history was lost. It’s an old industry started anew,” Chatey adds.
The first licensed American brandy distillery since Prohibition was founded only two decades ago by a German immigrant, Jorg Rupf, in California. Rupf was Chatey’s mentor and, before Chatey began production, he flew out to the Ashford distillery, where he discussed the distillation process with her. Rupf guided Chatey on the equipment she needed, including her prized Holstein still from the Black Forest region of Germany.
The still, along with the barrels, tanks, packing area and storeroom, is housed in the newly built distillery.’
From the outside, the distillery resembles a decades-old farmhouse. Inside, though it boasts some of the latest distilling technologies. Chatey is quick to add that “this is not a big fancy automated process,” pointing to one of her employees who bottles the product by hand.
The cavernous building is split into two rooms – one where the raw product is stored in tanks and barrels and another where the product is refined, packed, and bottled.
Three giant tanks, in which the fruits are distilled, and nearly 40 oak barrels, in which apple mash is aged, are housed in the first room. Of the 40 barrels, 25 are used French oak barrels soaked for two years in chardonnay; the other 15 are American oak barrels soaked for two years in wine. The second room houses the gem of the distillery, the custom-made Holstein still.
The fruit mash is pumped into the still after being distilled in one of the tanks for only a few weeks. The point is to retain the flavor, not eliminate it, as in vodka.
The still then boils the mash, forcing the alcohol to evaporate. The alcohol vapors are forced up still and then down a condensing tower where it’s cooled and returns to a liquid state.
The product is split into three stages: the heads, the hearts, and the tails. The heads, which are above 140 proof, and the tails, which are below 120 proof, are thrown out. Only the hearts, the middle run (anywhere from 120-140 proof), are used in the brandy.
“We try to keep the hearts as pure as we can,” says Chatey of her product, which is clearer than water.
The Westford Hill distillery uses strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and pears in making its four brandies. The cherries, used in making Kirsch brandy, are distilled whole. “You’re getting the best of the skin, the pulps, and the juice,” explains Chatey. The cherry pit adds a nutty, almond-like flavor to the brandy.
The cherries Westford Hill uses are from upstate New York near Niagara Falls. The strawberries and raspberries come from various places, while the pears are Bartlett pears grown locally at Lyman Orchards in Litchfield.
This fall Chatey plans on introducing an apple brandy, which she says she has been aging since she began her distillery. Unlike the other brandies, apple brandies are best aged.
“We’re experimenting with different varieties of apples,” Chatey says. “We’re going to see if there are some specific apple varieties we want to plant. She is also exploring creating an apple brandy blend.
Framboise, the raspberry brandy, is the most flavorful of the group. But cherry brandy is Chatey’s favorite, though the best-selling is her Pear William brandy.
Chatey makes most of her money from selling to retailers, but has begun focusing on local restaurants to get them to use her brandy in their cooking. Metro Bis of Simsbury and La Petite France of Stafford Springs both use Westford Hill’s brandy in their cooking.
At Metro Bis, chef/owner Chris Prosperi uses the brandies as an after-dinner drink.
“We were probably one of her first restaurant clientele,” says Prosperi. “We knew right away that we could resell it.”
At Metro Bis they top their panna cotta, an Italian eggless custard dessert, with the Framboise. Properi also uses the Pear William brandy in a cold pear soup he makes in the fall.
“Our manager loves doing sorbets and then floating a little bit of Pear William on top,” Prosperi says. He describes the Westford Hill brandy as “one of the best made as far as wines and spirits” in Connecticut. Prosperi’s been on the waiting list for the apple brandy for four years now.
Colette Berube, owner of La Petite France, says she uses the brandy in everything. Of all the brandies she’s tried, Berube says, “It’s the best. It’s got a good clean flavor and it’s really very good.”
She likes to use the brandy when she makes whipped cream and, like Chatey, her favorite is the Kirsch. “Try the Kirsch over ice cream,” she suggests.
Westford Hill recently won a number of awards at the Amenti del Vino international wine competition. The Pear William won a gold medal for the third year in a row, the Kirsch received a silver medal, and the Framboise won a gold medal. Chatey plans on entering the Sonoma County and Indiana State Fair competitions as well.
Though much of the intelligence and history behind brandy has been lost, Chatey is doing her part to restore it. Americans probably won’t be celebrating a trou Normand anytime soon but, if Chatey has her way, Americans may give brandy a second thought the next time they look for a drink to accompany dinner.