An eau-de-vie (also spelled ‘eau de vie’) is the French term for a clear, colourless fruit brandy. It is produced either by means of fermentation of fruit followed by distillation, or by maceration of fruit in grape brandy followed by distillation. The plural is ‘Eaux-de-vie’ (sometimes spelled ‘eaux de vie’).
Eaux-de-vie typically aim to express the fullest and truest flavours of fruits by distilling them at their peak of flavour and refusing any further flavouring influences, such as ageing in wooden casks. The fruit is fermented, distilled, and bottled straight away in order to maintain the freshness and aroma of the fruit.
Eaux-de-vie should carry through the flavours of the fruit used in their production. The nose of the spirit should be instantly recognisable and the palate should carry a distinct yet possibly light flavour of the fruit. A high quality eau-de-vie should have a delicate finish with a pleasant burn.
Eau-de-vie are usually served straight yet chilled in snifter style of glass as a digestif; they are rarely used in cocktails.
The origins of eau-de-vie production are clearly linked to the development of distillation. The title ‘eau-de-vie’ means ‘water of life’ which hints at the spirits original use for medicinal purposes; it was also a pure clean liquid to drink in times when much of the drinking water was unsafe. Distillation also allowed gluts of local produce to be stored for long periods of time with convenience.
Eaux-de-vie can be produced from an extensive range of fruits. Some of the most popular include:
Fruit, and sometimes herbs and spices, are picked when they are at the peak of ripeness with the fullest flavours. These products then undergo one of two processes to extract their flavours.
The fruit is put in large vats and, in the presence of the fruit’s own sugar and yeast, left to ferment for six to eight weeks depending on the nature of the fruit.
After fermentation, distillation normally takes place in copper Charente style stills which are short and fat thereby producing full flavoured rich spirits.
The first distillation produces the imparfaits (‘imperfect’ alcohol). This alcohol is distilled a second time to separate the cœur (‘heart’ – high quality spirit) from the tête and queue (‘head’ and ‘tail’ – lower quality spirit). The final spirit produced has 70% ABV which then has pure spring water added to bring the alcohol content down to 45% ABV for bottling.
The fruit is macerated (left to infuse) in large vats with brandy of 75% ABV (alcohol volume), made from distilled wine. The length of time the fruit is macerated depends on the type of fruit.
The maceration produces a flavoured spirit that only needs to be distilled once in copper Charente style pot stills.
The distillation separates out the high quality cœur (‘heart’) spirit, again resulting in a spirit of 70% ABV which is watered down to 45% ABV for bottling.
Only some alcohols made with macerated fruits are legally entitled to be called ‘eau-de-vie obtained by maceration and distillation’. Any other products which are used to produce alcohols via this method will be called ‘spiriteaux’ or simply ‘spirit’ – an understatement of the delicious flavours produced.
After distillation, eau-de-vie may be rested for a number of years. It must, however, be stored in stainless steel or glass vats to ensure no external influence on the flavour of the spirit. Vats can be kept outdoors exposed to the elements, as the changes in temperature will only improve the flavour of the eau-de-vie. In warm months, increased temperatures will encourage the strongest and most aggressive alcohol parts of the eau-de-vie to evaporate. Conversely in the cold months impurities will fall to the bottom of the vat. Over years this will help create a clear smooth eau-de-vie.
Eau-de-vie production regions lie in central Europe, specifically the Black Forest region of Germany, the Alsace in France, Switzerland, and parts of Austria and Northern Italy. Each region has created its own speciality eau-de-vie that showcases the region’s local fruit harvest.