The Next Hot Spirit?

THEDAILYBEAST.COM – Statistically, Americans are now vodka drinkers.

Traditionally, of course, we were whiskey drinkers—vodka, introduced here in the 1890s, became chic in the 1930s, widely popular in the postwar years and finally displaced whiskey as top-selling spirit in the bicentennial year of 1976. Before that, whiskey, widely available since the 1740s, had been our spirit of choice since at least the 1830s.

But the North American colonies were settled beginning in 1609, which leaves over a century of thirsty colonists and the question of what they drank. “Rum” is the standard answer. But while the colonists would eventually put away ungodly amounts of it, rum wasn’t introduced until the 1650s and didn’t take off for a couple of decades after that. That leaves a couple of generations of colonists looking for a drink. What they found was America’s original spirit: brandy.

Specifically, apple brandy, which is still widely available, and—their preference—peach brandy, which isn’t. In fact, that now-forgotten peach brandy was the first truly American spirit; the first popular dram you could get over here that you couldn’t get back home in England.

Now, the peach brandy in question wasn’t the syrupy, low-proof, Del Monte-tasting gunk that you lift off the bottom shelf at the back of the discount liquor store. That disco-drink staple is an artificially-colored mixture of cheap grape brandy, sugar, and peach flavoring, which may also be artificial. It is, for the most part, vile and undrinkable. The peach brandy I’m talking about was made from the juice squeezed out of ripe peaches, fermented, distilled in copper pot stills and aged in oak barrels. Its other name, “peach whiskey,” gives a clue as to its flavor profile: dry, oaky, with only a little of the base material’s underlying sweetness and fruitiness to give it character.

I know this because now, for the first time in half a century, American distillers are starting to make the stuff again.

I’ll get to them in a bit. First, some hard-won history (like so many spirits that aren’t whiskey, rum or French brandy, its history has never been written). When English colonists began to settle in North America in the early 1600s—they were in Virginia in 1607; in Massachusetts in 1620; Maine and New Hampshire in 1622 and 1623; Connecticut and Maryland in 1633 and 1634; and Rhode Island in 1636—they found themselves stranded in an alien land, at the end of a long and precarious supply line.

When it came to the daily necessities of life, they were on their own. Among those necessities were alcoholic beverages. The 17th-century Englishman or Englishwoman did not drink water. Indeed, doing so was regarded more or less like we now treat playing Russian roulette: Stories from the time abound of individuals who drank cold water on a hot day (regarded as particularly dangerous) and dropped stone dead practically on the spot. Instead, they drank beer, cider and wine.

While wine would always be a problem (the stuff made from native grapes was nasty, while imported grapes all died due to the indigenous phylloxera louse), after a couple of lean years they got barley growing for beer and apple and pear trees for cider. In the southern colonies, however, it was too hot much of the year for beer to ferment.

Fortunately, the colonists there found a great number of peach trees growing, descendants of ones planted by the Spanish in their explorations of the continent a century before. Indeed, so prolifically did these propagate that, as one Virginian who was assisting the first Marylanders get settled told their chronicler, the year before he had fed a hundred bushels’ worth of peaches to his hogs. (It’s possible that the only thing that interests me more than archaic peach brandy is peach-fed pork.)

The colonists didn’t have much experience with the peach—it was difficult to grow in the English climate—but they soon learned that you could make an acceptable cider from it, too. The problem with this “mobbie,” as they called it, was the same one shared by their other ciders. The American climate was not the English one, and even in England, fermented beverages tended to be rather unstable: as the English agriculturalist Richard Haines noted in 1684, “for want of strength…Cyders are apt to Decay and Dye.” This was particularly true in the hot South. What’s worse, in a land with few roads and lots of remote settlements, they were fiendishly difficult and expensive to transport. If you turned them into “aqua vitae” or “strong waters,” though, they took up a fraction of the space and would keep indefinitely.

Britain came late to modern distilled spirits. In the early 1600s, the French were already making Cognac, the Dutch and Germans gin, or at least genever, the Poles and Russians vodka. England, however, was still making weird, medieval-style multi-botanical medicinal drams. Even the “usquebaugh” being made in Scotland and Ireland, the precursor of whiskey, was heavily flavored with things like raisins and saffron.

The North American colonists, however, did not have the luxury of accumulating rare spices and following complex recipes. They simply put the cider in their stills, ran it off and casked up the result.

We don’t know who the first colonist was to try to distill peach mobbie or when or where that happened. By 1645, however, Virginia was regulating prices for locally-made “aqua vitae or brandy,” setting its worth as half that of “English strong waters.” That valuation would soon change. In the next half-century, colonial distillers gained skill and experience. By 1700, from southern New York to Georgia, vast amounts of peach and apple brandies were being distilled—and, as time went on and the sophistication of American distillers increased, Americans were developing a distinct preference for the latter. In 1683, William Penn, after a year in America, wrote that peaches “make a pleasant drink” (by that point, mobbie had been largely supplanted by peach brandy). A generation later, the wealthy Virginia planter William Byrd, normally a drinker of French wines and Madeira, would make an exception for drams of peach brandy, as his secret diary shows. In 1722, Robert Beverley, in his History of Virginia, claimed that peaches yielded “the best spirit next to grapes.”

By the middle of the eighteenth century, some American distillers were letting their peach brandy attain significant age. One starts hearing about “fine old peach brandy,” like the half-barrel General Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion and his men liberated after ambushing a Tory raiding party at its supper. In 1788, we find Philadelphia merchant John Wachsmuth advertising a cask of “excellent Peach Brandy, six years old” for sale. That cask would have brought a pretty penny: By the 1780s, good quality peach brandy was worth more per gallon than any other domestic spirit, and extra-old brandy like Wachsmuth’s was rivaling the best imported goods (and bringing in twice as much as the best rye whiskey).

In fact, the years between the end of the Revolution in 1783 and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 would prove to be the spirit’s heyday. Its production was perfected: The best producers moved on from the old way of preparing the mobbie, whereby the peaches were pounded in large wooden troughs with heavy wooden pestles and the juice was left to ferment on the resulting muck, and ground their fruit in iron mills and then squeezed in cider-presses, fermenting and distilling only the clear-run juice. This process was cleaner, and it had the additional benefit of cracking the pits, thus allowing the nutty kernels to flavor the distillate. The connoisseurs liked that.

Among those connoisseurs were the Marquis de Lafayette and his friend George Washington, who in 1786 sought in vain for an “anker” (a ten-gallon cask) of peach brandy of sufficient quality to send his friend in Paris along with the barrel of Virginia hams Mrs. Washington was sending Madame Lafayette. Perhaps that was an ongoing problem: six years later, James Madison’s son, then in new York, wrote his father in Virginia to see if he could get a barrel of the good stuff for his friend—“the older the better, provided the quality be excellent,” to be shipped in a cask “of wood that will give it no ill taste.” The younger Madison suspected, however, that this might be a tall order, and that something might have to be custom-distilled for his friend. Washington had the same idea: In 1797, when he built his model distillery at Mount Vernon, peach brandy was one of its products.

The problem was that good peach brandy was expensive to make. Sure, the peaches were cheap, if you grew them, but they didn’t travel and didn’t keep, so you had to do your distilling on the spot, when the fruit was ripe. Grain, on the other hand, kept year round and could be transported to wherever labor was cheapest and most skilled. The materials cost ended up at around 30 cents a gallon for peach brandy, 25 cents for rye and 20 cents for corn whiskey. That was fine as long as the brandy brought higher prices. But by the 1820s American whiskey at its best was no longer the raw bust-head of Colonial times. Old Monongahela rye and old bourbon were closing the price gap with peach brandy with startling rapidity. What’s more, and this was a major factor in the American distilling industry right up to Prohibition, you could feed cattle and hogs on the spent grain from the distillery and sell them for a massive profit. You couldn’t do that with the leftovers from peach brandy.

Whatever the reason, as the nineteenth century progressed, peach brandy got shunted off onto a side-track of American drinking. It still had its constituency among the true connoisseurs, among whom one must include America’s bartenders, then creating a whole new way of mixing drinks. As the distiller Harrison Hall wrote in 1813 (after praising the “spirit of remarkably fine flavor” peaches yield), peach brandy was “principally valued for the purpose of forming agreeable mixtures.”

Among those who agreed with this assessment was Orsamus Willard, head bartender of New York’s City Hotel and the most famous man of his profession in the world. One of his specialties was an “Extra Extra Peach Brandy Punch.” Others took advantage of its unctuous richness in concocting their Mint Juleps. It was also an essential component of Philadelphia’s notorious Fish House Punch.

None of that, however, saved peach brandy as a popular spirit: It was still made, right up to Prohibition, but in relatively small quantities. In 1892, America produced just under 100,000 gallons nationwide (legally, anyway), more than half of that from Maryland. That seems like a fair amount until you compare it to the 1.3 million gallons of apple brandy distilled or the whopping 112 million gallons of grain spirits.

After Repeal, peach brandy was briefly revived by one Lem Motlow, who in 1937 reopened his Tennessee distillery after 27 years of silence. He also made whiskey there: Jack Daniel’s Whiskey. When he sold the distillery to the Brown-Forman company in the 1950s, there was no more peach brandy. For the next half-century, you could find bootleg stuff in Georgia if you knew whom to ask (I never managed to find the exact right person), but that was it.

Now, of course, we have microdistillers, and if there was ever a spirit that was perfect for microdistillers to adopt it’s peach brandy: it has a deep tradition that can be leveraged to pique hipster interest, there’s no mainstream competition and, most importantly, nobody knows what it’s actually supposed to taste like, so they’re free to interpret the spirit as they wish.

A number of small distillers have dipped their toes in this water. Kuchan, from California, was perhaps the first. Dutch’s Spirits, from New York, is another pioneer. They both make entirely reasonable takes on the spirit (if on the young side) that make for a fabulous Fish House punch. I also hear good things about the version made by Peach Street in Colorado. Unfortunately, for a recent tasting I was unable to secure bottles of any of these three—production is as yet tiny and distribution poor. I did, however, manage to round up four examples.

Rising Sun Distillery, in Denver, makes a minimally-aged brandy that is nonetheless quite delicious: clean, smooth and juicy, with bright, fresh peach notes that still avoid being cloying ($23/375 ml).

Privateer, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, usually concentrates on rum, the traditional distillate for those parts. Their limited-edition Distiller’s Drawer Single Orchard Peach Brandy (I won’t give a price as this year’s batch is already sold out) is on the opposite end of the spectrum, but just as seductive: dry and spicy, with an astringent oakiness at first sip that expands into a generous, clean fruitiness (the spirit is impeccably distilled) and a long, complex finish.

From Purcellville, Virginia’s popular Catoctin Creek distillery there’s the Short Hill Mountain Peach Brandy ($30/375 ml), which explores the funkier end of the spirit’s flavor spectrum. It offers notes of honeysuckle and aged tobacco in the nose and is thick, rich and sweet on the palate, with plenty of peach skin.

Finally, there’s Huber’s Starlight Distillery Peach Brandy from Borden, Indiana, which goes all the way smooth ($60). Light, clean and fruity in a non-specific sort of way, it’s a pleasant spirit, to be sure, and plenty mellow, but if anything too clean—you want a little more of what the Catoctin’s got in there.

The best thing to do, I think, is if you see a bottle of any of these (or any other microdistilled peach brandy, for that matter) just buy it. This is the stage where producers need the most help. It’s not easy prying a dead spirit from the grave, and any purchase goes towards showing those who are brave, or foolish, enough to try that their effort is appreciated. Enough of that, and they’ll get it right: the examples of peach brandy available today are far younger than the stuff the connoisseurs of 1800 were obsessing over, but even now you can see why they did it. And if you want to mix up a bowl of Fish House Punch to bring your friends into the secret, so much the better: there’s no finer drink in existence. Here’s how, lightly adapted from a 1793 recipe (they liked things too damn sweet back then).

Original Fish House Punch

Ingredients:

1 cup of sugar
1 cup of Fresh lemon juice
1 pint Water
12 oz Appleton Estate Reserve Jamaican Rum*
6 oz VSOP Cognac
6 oz Peach brandy

Directions:

Dissolve 1 cup of sugar in 1 cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and 1 pint water. Combine the mixture with the rest of the ingredients and pour into a 1-gallon punch bowl half-filled with ice cubes. Stir and let sit in the shade for 45 minutes. Ladle forth in 3-oz portions. Makes about 25 servings.

*Even better is a mix of 8 ounces Appleton Estate Reserve and 4 ounces Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum.

David Wondrich, The Daily Beast

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