Article from Edible Idaho South
By Guy Hand, Winter 2012
“In Austria, they’re always their own course; no meal is complete without a good eau de vie to finish everything off”
“Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Northern Italy and then going east into Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic, all have this wonderful tradition of fruit brandies where people were distilling spirits from locally available fruit,” Greg Koenig said.
Many European countries produce fruit brandies with names specific to their regions: For example, schnapps from Germany (not to be confused with that artificially-flavored American impostor) is a true eau de vie and is made from apples, pears, plums, cherries or apricots. Similarly distilled fruit spirits are called pdlinka in Hungary, rakia in the Balkans, slivovitz in central Europe. (American applejack is a new-world fruit brandy made from the distillate of hard apple cider.)
“So it’s a wonderful little tradition,” said Greg Koenig, “that has roots way back in the agricultural small farming communities and continues on to this day where most of these places are still distilling a very distinct fruit spirit depending on what region they’re growing in and what the most prevalent fruit is.”
The Koenigs’ father immigrated from Austria in 1961 and Andy and Greg immersed themselves in their familial food culture when they’d go back there to visit.
”The craft traditions in these small European towns kind of caught hold on our consciousness,” Greg said, “where people made wonderful breads and sausages, mustard, things like that.”
As for fruit brandies, the Koenigs found that farmers and local artisans in one Austrian village, for instance, distilled pears and apples into a clear spirit. A village to the east used apricots. Crossing the border into the Black Forest region of Germany, the brothers found that cherries were the favored fruit. Andy became so enamored of it all, he took a yearlong apprenticeship at one of Austria’s highly regarded distilleries. Tucked into the Alps near the medieval town of Kitzbiihel, the distillery had been making eau de vie for several centuries.
“I did everything,” Andy Koenig said of his apprenticeship, “from bottling to sweeping to distilling to shoveling spilled mash. Everything.” A focus on fruit made perfect sense for brothers with a father from Austria and grandparents on their mother’s side who homesteaded near Sunnyslope, a region with warm , south-facing slopes that slide slowly to the banks of the wide, temperature-moderating Snake River. In recent decades, winemakers have recognized Sunnyslope’s unique geography for its ability to nurture wine grapes, yet long before vineyards began to sprout, this was a region full of productive fruit orchards bordered by roads with names like Plum, Apricot and Pear.
“We would come and pick fruit with our grandparents and parents,” remembered Greg Koenig, “mostly for canning or eating. But we quickly figured out that Sunnyslope is a phenomenal place-not just in Idaho, but in the Northwest and around the world-for growing fruit.” In 1995, after Andy Koenig had returned to Idaho from his Austrian apprenticeship, the brothers began planting apricot, pear and peach trees on the grounds of their future distillery and winery. They broke ground for those buildings in 1997 and once finished, took delivery of their gleaming, German-build stills.
“When that arrived in 1999,” Greg Koenig said, “we assembled it and began crushing and fermenting the first fruit for that first vintage. 1999 was really the beginning of our Sunnyslope eau de vie project.”
Today, Andy Koenig distills half a dozen varieties of fruit. “We usually start with cherry production, ” he said. “They’re usually ripe around the 4th of July and the next fruit that gets ripe is apricots; then we move into peaches and then into the Bartlett pears and then into the Italian plums which are toward the end of October. The grappa production is toward the end of November.” ( Grappa, an Italian eau de vie, is the only fruit brandy the Koenigs make from grapes.)
“We also make a little bit of raspberry brandy,” Greg added, “which is very difficult to make. It’s very rare because raspberries don’t have much sugar and the yield from raspberry brandy is incredibly low. One small [375 milliliter] bottle takes about 42 pounds of raspberries.”
Greg knows of only one or two producers in the world who produce a true raspberry brandy and very few American distillers who make fruit brandies at all: a Portland, Oregon producer, a couple in California and a few back east. No other Idaho distillers make eau de vie.
As for the tradition of serving and drinking fruit brandies, they are invariably offered straight, mostly at room temperature and never mixed with other ingredients. It’s all about preserving that delicate ripe-fruit aroma, Greg Koenig said. “Unlike vodka, which is used as a base alcohol, brandies are served mostly in small snifters or tulip glasses after dinner, with a plate of cookies or fresh fruit, but not actually with a course of food. In Austria, they’re always their own course; no meal is complete without a good eau de vie to finish everything off.”
They are also occasionally used in cooking. Greg suggests a splash of apple brandy to flambe sauteed apples with pork chops and onions or spiking a classic cheese fondue with a shot of cherry brandy; he’s even okay with slipping a bottle of eau de vie in the freezer for a bracing summer cooler. But the real beauty of fruit brandy-its scent and silky texture-reveals itself most elegantly in the form of a neat drink on a chilly night.
“When it’s cold outside, there’s really nothing better than having a nice glass of eau de vie sitting next to the fire,” Greg Koenig said, “sticking your nose in the glass and taking a deep breath of what is hopefully just the pure aroma of that fruit, how it can take you back in an instant to a warm summer or warm fall day in the orchard, biting into a fresh apricot and having the juice run down your elbow or that beautiful sweet and sour acidity and sugar that you get biting into a perfectly ripe Bartlett pear. That’s really the pleasure of eau de vie.”
Guy Hand, Edible Idaho South’s Managing Editor, is an award-winning writer. public radio producer, photographer and videographer specializing in food and agriculture.