cider apples — hewes and Pippin apples,” Blackwell remembers. “Hewes were the ones [Thomas] Jefferson was famous for growing, tiny, little tart crab apples. We ended up making an apple brandy with her apples two years ago.” But there was a lot of stress leading up to distillation. “She picked the apples, pressed the apples and then put them in a cold tank the night before,” he says. “The trucker slept in the driveway the night before, loaded the juice and brought it here quickly.” The juice was a bit brown when it arrived, so Blackwell couldn’t waste any time getting it into the fermenter. Fermentation time is another major issue for many brandy distillers. Apple brandy maker Tamworth Distilling in Tamworth, New Hampshire, notes that the fermentation temperature is lower for fruit than it is for grain. “It takes about two weeks,” says Tamworth distiller Jamie Oakes. “With grain, it’s a three or four day turnaround.” Oakes ferments the juice in the plastic IBC totes in which it’s delivered. “We have four steel fermenters for grain, but when it comes to brandy, we ferment right in the totes,” he says. “We go from having four fermenters working to 16 working at a time, just because of that long stretch of fermentation time. That way we don’t have to switch gears completely between grain and apples.” There are different equipment needs for fruit versus grain distilling, as well. “It takes a ton of fruit, but also that fruit has to be processed typically, and there aren’t a lot of people who have the right equipment at their distillery,” says Stone Barn Brandyworks’ Garrison. “It’s more similar to a winery in terms of what they need, fruit
sorting lines, washing equipment, those sorts of things.” The wine business is much more top heavy. High Wire went in the opposite direction of Stone Barn, as the Charleston distillery is primarily known for its grain-based spirits, having medaled in various competitions for its New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey and New Southern Revival Rye. High Wire also makes some award-winning gins, as well as a corn-based vodka. The company has been experimenting a bit more with fruit. In addition to apples, High Wire has made brandy from watermelons and peaches. The peach spirit is particularly near and dear to Blackwell and his wife and co-founder Ann Marshall, both natives of South Carolina. “I grew up with peaches, peach ice cream — everything was peach in June,” says Blackwell. High Wire partnered with Ridge Spring, South Carolina-based Titan Farms, one of the largest peach growers in the country, with nearly 6,500 acres of land producing the fruit. The neighboring state usually hogs most of the spotlight for its peaches, but Blackwell points out that Titan grows more of the fruit than the entire state of Georgia. When I spoke to Blackwell in early August, he had just turned 10,000 pounds of Titan Farms peaches into between 140 and 150 proof gallons of eau de vie. And that was something of a personal victory for him. “I was kind of grumpy the week before we got the peaches,” he says. “I had a lot on my mind, a lot of angst. One, it costs a lot of money to do it and two, I put a lot of mental energy and time into this project and I just really, really wanted it to succeed. I breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when it
was on the still and coming off..” He notes that in addition to the desirable heavy fruit flavors and oils, there’s also a greater presence of sulphur and burntrubber aromas — “things that I wouldn’t call really pleasant” — with fruit spirits than there is with grain. “[Fruit] seems to be a little less forgiving when you distill it,” he reveals. “It’s definitely a learning experience, for sure.” The spirit will be in barrels for at least a year, but no more than two. Blackwell’s hoping to lay down more barrels next year. He put about 20 gallons of the stuff aside, in which he’ll macerate some peaches and create a sort of artisanal peach schnapps. He hopes to ultimately build a following for the peach brandy, which would be a return to tradition in South Carolina. It was the dominant spirit in the state two centuries ago. It also reportedly predated bourbon as the base for the mint julep. It’s likely High Wire and others will find a willing audience for their fruit-based spirits, as American brandy is starting to have its moment. It’s just a matter of whether the process continues to be worth the effort. “People may be optimistic about making fruit brandy when they find a farmer and are able to source [the fruit], but then it all arrives and the nightmare begins,” Stone Barn’s Garrison warns. “They’ll make it once or twice, break their back to make this product, and then reality sets in: They don’t have time to do this, they can’t afford to do this and they’ve got to focus on things more practical to make.”
Jeff Cioletti is the editor at large of Beverage World Magazine, creator of The Drinkable Globe website, and hosts the web series, The Drinkable Week WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
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