America’s cornerstone spirit isn’t bourbon but brandy. Apple and peach to be precise, produced by farmers, women and smart distillers who saw dollar signs in the country’s earliest orchards.
The nation’s love for making brandywine began in 1607 with the first settled steps on Virginian soil. In order to keep disease at bay -- by air as well as from drinking water -- ale, cider and brandy were sipped regularly by people of all ages. This included children as young as five. It was a different time.
Isolated from their homelands in the vast New World, people began taming the wild peach and apple trees that grew throughout the colonies, planting orchard after orchard in order to ferment, then distill the trees’ fruits. By the 1640s, brandy had become a taxable commodity, thereby making brandy-making a serious enterprise.
Women were some of the nation’s first distillers and home brewers. Their spirit-making endeavors are well-documented in household manuals of the day like The Lady’s Complete Guide from 1791, and 1777’s The Virginia Housewife, which was considered the first American cookbook to contain spirits-making recipes. Newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries often advertised land for sale, which nearly always included a peach or apple orchard and made sure to mention their perfection for brandy and cider production.
Even our Founding Fathers fancied brandy, including our first Commander (and distiller)-in-Chief George Washington, who it’s said broke in his new still in 1797 with peach brandy.
By 1904, there were approximately 1,300 fruit brandy distilleries in operation around America. Brandy was big business, and then Prohibition all but wiped the spirit out. But thanks to the recent craft spirits boom and the return of cocktail culture, fruit brandies have seen a boost in production from distilleries around the country, and in particular, the South.
Watermelon Brandy from High Wire Distillery in Charleston, South Carolina
Photo Credit: High Wire Distilling Co.
High Wire became Charleston’s first distillery since Prohibition when it opened its doors in 2013 on upper King Street.
Distiller Scott Blackwell, and his wife and partner Ann Marshall, have made it their mission to create small batch spirits using locally or Southern-grown grains, corn and fruits. “It’s important to us to use native crops to our region in our spirits -- in particular, those grown in South Carolina. We’re always experimenting,” Blackwell told us. This experimentation lead to the distillery’s most unusual spirit yet, a watermelon brandy created from a melon variety called the Bradford, thought to have been extinct in the Southeast for nearly 100 years.
A medium-sized melon boasting a soft rind and fragrant, sweet fruit, the story behind High Wire’s Bradford-watermelon-based brandy started with University of South Carolina professor and Southern foodways historian Dr. David Shields. He had been searching for the watermelon for years when he received word the family for whom the melon is named had continued to grow the variety in a small field in Sumter, S.C. During his years of research on the Bradford, Shields uncovered one more interesting fact. Watermelon brandy was distilled all over the lowcountry during the 19th century.
“David knew we loved to experiment with our spirits. He loved our commitment to local and heritage seeds, and gave us a call about making brandy with the Bradford because we were weird enough to do it,” Blackwell recalled.
The watermelon brandy, which Blackwell admits “isn’t for everyone,” is a clear spirit (or eau de vie) with a slight funky sweetness provided by the melon's fermented flesh. The brandy provides a refreshing take on a classic mint julep, and an interesting twist on a brandy Old Fashioned.
After three years of production, Blackwell thinks it may be time to retire the watermelon in favor of more traditional fruit brandies produced in the South. Sure it sounds like a bummer, but perhaps this fall we’ll see Charleston’s first commercially produced peach brandy since Prohibition. You know, as a consolation.
Armour & Oak Apple Brandy from ASW Distillery in Atlanta, Georgia
Photo Credit: ASW Distillery
Atlanta-based ASW Distillery has created an apple brandy which pays homage to the region’s pre-Prohibition farm and home distillers.
“Armour & Oak is a tribute to the people of the North Georgia mountains, who would distill their own spirits, including apple brandy, in order to preserve late season fruits and grains for medicines, as well as for their own pleasure,” ASW owner Jim Chasteen told us.
The 100-proof apple brandy is distilled from the fermented juices of four “super secret” cider apple varieties from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Master distiller Justin Manglitz worked with Mercier’s cider master Ian Flom to select the apples and create an authentic pre-Prohibition, Southern-style brandy.
“We knew we wanted to make a Georgia apple brandy,” Manglitz said. “Mercier has a large cider-making operation in Blue Ridge which includes hard ciders. After talking to Ian about what we wanted to produce, he selected the four cider apple varieties he felt would be best for our brandy. Ian then pressed the apples and provided us with a mixture of half-juice and half-fine pulp for us to distill.”
Armour & Oak represents an old time apple brandy like those found in the South 150 years ago. It’s a bit acidic and dry with a hint of sweetness. The fine pulp carries most of the flavor of the apples. Manglitz fermented the juices with a Sauvignon Blanc yeast in order to carry those apple notes forward without the use of additives or sugars. The spirit is then rested in charred oak barrels for up to six months to preserve the aroma, seal in the flavor and provide the brandy’s light caramel color.
“The apples we use in each batch will vary by season, just as they would have 150 years ago.” Manglitz explained. “The apples you get at the beginning of the season will make a very different brandy from those of the end of season. It’s what makes our brandy so unique.”
European-style, apple and peach brandies from Catoctin Creek Distilling in Purcellville, Virginia
Photo Credit: Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
“Brandy is part of the very fabric of America,” Scott Harris owner of Catoctin Creek Distilling told us.
Harris and his wife Becky -- not only his partner but also Catoctin’s master distiller -- had always planned on making brandy when they opened in 2009, in Purcellville, Va., which is located an hour outside of Washington, D.C. The couple distilled both their debut spirit Roundstone Rye, and 1757 Virginia grape brandy at the same time, knowing the rye would be the big seller but leaving the brandy for the connoisseur.
“I have great respect for winemaking,” Harris explained when asked what got him into the brandy business. “My first job was at a winery. There are a ton of wineries in Loudoun County. Then there’s my Dad’s love for brandy; he’s now retired from the military but his tour was in Germany and part of the culture there is brandy.”
As a young boy, Harris recalled his father sitting down with a glass of brandy at the end of each day. Catoctin’s 1757 is a European-style grape brandy distilled in the Old World tradition.
The story behind the naming of Catoctin’s signature brandy began with the founding of Virginia’s Loudoun county, which was carved out of what was then Fairfax County, in 1757. “We source most of our grains and fruits from within the county, if not within the state of Virginia,” Harris said. “The grapes we use for the 1757 come from two vineyards in Loudoun County: Terra Nebulo Vineyards in Waterford, and Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg.” The 1757 is then rested in French Bordeaux oak barrels for up to two years before bottling.
Like the colonial Virginians who came before him, Harris also wanted to offer up traditional fruit brandies like peach and apple. “Nothing we produce is flavored. We are making the brandies from the whole fruit, fermenting and then distilling them to get the actual flavors for the spirits,” Harris said.
Catoctin sources apples from an orchard outside Richmond, and peaches from Bluemont Vineyards, which is only 10 miles from the distillery. These brandies are a bit finicky in their distillation, as each fruit poses different challenges. “Apples want to oxidize and turn brown very quickly, and we can’t use preservatives when we distill,” Harris said, as he explained how balancing time and effort are key to the process of brandy creation. “Peaches have to have all the pith manually removed before we make the fermented mash.”
Despite brandy’s historic ties to the nation’s foundation, however, Harris said niche spirits like smoky mezcal or grassy agricole rum have overshadowed brandy’s return to the American palate. This, he believes, has less to do with a distaste for brandy and more to do with long-held, preconceived perceptions.
“I find it remarkable brandy has taken off much more slowly than say mezcal and agricole rum in the U.S.; especially given brandy’s ties to our history. There’s so much variety in brandy but people have this weird association with it.”
All three distillers -- Harris, Manglitz and Blackwell -- agree that brandy is poised for a revival, and expect it to be brought on by the rest of the country’s distillers, and championed by bartenders, who will pass the spirit on to consumers. “I’ve definitely seen an uptick in sales of all four of our brandies in the last year,” Harris said. “Cocktails are driving that, and likely going to be the gateway for consumers being introduced to brandy. But whether it recaptures its former glory remains to be seen.”
Bring brandy back, at least in your kitchen, using one (or both) of the two recipes below.
by Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia
- 1 1/2 ounces Armour & Oak apple brandy (or any good quality apple brandy)
- 1/2 ounce rye whiskey
- 1 ounce Cardamaro
- 1/4 ounce Moscatel sherry
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Fill a coupe glass with ice to chill. Fill a mixing glass with ice and add ingredients. Stir to chill. Discard ice in coupe glass. Strain mixing glass contents into coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
by Johnny Maher of The Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, Virginia
- 1 1/4 ounces Catoctin Creek 1757 Virginia Brandy
- 1/2 ounce lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce apple-rosemary syrup*
Filled tin shaker with ice. Add ingredients and shake to mix and chill. Strain into a flute glass and top with sparkling wine.
*Apple-Rosemary Syrup Instructions:
Add 1 cup each equal parts of water and sugar together in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add half an apple sliced up and three sprigs of rosemary. Allow to boil for a few minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Strain and keep for up to three weeks in refrigerator.