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Eau-de-vie: Mixologists’ New Cocktail Essential

Europeans have long revered eau-de-vie as a digestif. Now, American mixologists are using the spirit’s pure fruit flavors in elegant summer cocktails.

Where there is a surfeit of fruit, eau-de-vie is often close behind. In Europe, fruit growers have been making this clear brandy from excess crops and drinking it as a digestif for centuries. Although Americans have been slow to adopt this postprandial tradition, eau-de-vie is experiencing a surge in popularity here, thanks in part to mixologists who love how the beguiling spirit can add concentrated amounts of fruitiness to cocktails.

Like clowns in a Volkswagen, the amount of fruit that goes into a bottle of eau-de-vie is astonishing: It takes up to 15 pounds of pears, cherries or plums—which are crushed, fermented and distilled—to produce just one 375-milliliter bottle. Culinarily speaking, that’s enough fruit to make several pies and a shelf full of jam. But eau-de-vie is anything but dessert in a bottle. Because fermentation consumes all of the fruit’s sugar, eau-de-vie is bone-dry, with nuanced flavors. Its aroma, however, is intense and clarion, akin to that of an orchard full of perfectly ripe fruit.

Some mixologists, like Neyah White of San Francisco’s Nopa restaurant, use small amounts of eau-de-vie to give drinks subtle hints of fruit. “It’s almost subliminal,” he says. “The aromas sort of float above the drink and slip into your head. It’s a ‘spirit’ in every sense.” Others, such as Jamie Boudreau of Seattle’s Vessel bar, create drinks specifically to highlight eau-de-vie’s big bouquets. “I like bold flavors, and this is the essence of fruit, as bold as it gets,” he says.

Even purists who have been skeptical of eau-de-vie as a mixer—like Clear Creek Distillery’s Steve McCarthy, one of America’s best producers—have come around. “We’ve grown along with the whole cocktail explosion,” he says. “I don’t push bartenders to invent drinks, but I’m beginning to see some spectacular ones. Now I leave bottles with bartenders and tell them, ‘Here’s a research grant.’”

Published June 2008
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