Offering guests a glass of "eau de vie" is an ancient custom.
Photo By Thomas Gibson Studios
Well into the 1800s, homes in both Europe and North America had a “still room” where the woman of the house used a pot still to transform herbs and flowers into medicines and perfumes. Farms also had equipment for distilling fermented grain into liquor, or fruit wine into eau de vie.
Even today, it is impossible to travel in much of the European countryside without being welcomed with shots of home-distilled spirits, including plum brandy or eau de vie, called slivovitz in Eastern Europe and mirabelle in France.
What Is Eau de Vie?
“Strictly speaking, any distilled spirit is an eau de vie,” said the late food authority R.W. Apple in The New York Times in 1998. “Cognac is an eau de vie made from [grape] wine; Calvados is an eau de vie made from [apple] cider. Scotch whisky is an eau de vie made from malted barley, and its name comes from the Gaelic word uisge beatha, meaning — you guessed it — ‘water of life.’ But in practice the name eau de vie is usually confined to the clear fruit brandies that the French also call alcools blancs, or ‘white alcohols.’ ”
Unlike other distilled beverages, eau de vie preserves the flavor of what was distilled. A whiff of plum eau de vie and you are right there in summer with a hot, ripe plum in your hand. Eau de vie is the only way to capture the aroma of ripe fruit. Jam doesn’t do it, and neither do fruit wines. Homemade eau de vie is summer memories in a bottle.
I got my start in DIY distilling thanks to the mirabelle plum tree that rains fruit in my backyard in June. I eat plums every day for weeks — I make tarts, I make plum jam, I make wine — yet from this single tree the plums keep falling. So I started making wine that I could distill into plum eau de vie. Plums are the fruit of choice throughout Europe for home distillation. They are easy to ferment into wine and to make into an evocatively perfumed alcohol. I suggest you start with them.
Home distilling is a safe hobby that enables you to interact with your fruit harvests in new ways. Distilling produces a beverage that is warming and adds a wonderful dimension to socializing. For step-by-step instructions, visit the article Step-by-Step Home Distilling.
These days, there’s a revival of the distilling traditions that Prohibition suppressed. This revival includes a burgeoning world of small, licensed distillers; farm-based distillers rounding out the economics of farming by making fruit- or grain-based alcohols; and avid hobbyists who regularly share their experiences and help each other out with technical information on online home-distilling boards (see “Additional Resources,” at the end of this article for more information).
In the United States, the growth of the Temperance movement in the 19th century culminated in Prohibition in 1919, which criminalized alcoholic beverage production. Distilling went underground, and poor quality and poisonous distillations of wood alcohol (methanol) severely damaged the reputation of home-distilled alcohols. Even today, online home-distilling sites frequently warn of the dangers of distilling. In fact, in making fruit brandies, there are no risks. You can drink the wine that goes into the pot still without danger. Distillation doesn’t add compounds; it removes them.
Because the distilling tradition was so badly interrupted in the United States, and what survived remained such a secretive affair, it can be helpful to look to Europe, where long-standing distilling traditions remain strong. Villagers throughout Europe routinely produce eau de vie for personal consumption.
In European countries, orchardists distill fruit that is otherwise unsalable, producing revenue from what would have become compost. Mobile distillers travel from farm to farm.
The Best Start
French eau de vie is world-renowned because French distillers don’t add sugar to the fruit when they make wine that will be distilled. You’ll find that most recipes for fruit wines (including all fruits except grapes) call for sugar. Adding sugar increases the alcohol content of the wine. Most recipes add enough sugar to boost fruit wine to the alcohol content of grape wine, which is between 11 and 14 percent.
Plums will naturally make a wine in the range of 5 to 6 percent alcohol. If you add sugar to double that alcohol percentage, you’ll get twice the volume of alcohol out of your still, but with a diluted flavor. Your eau de vie will still be aromatic if distilled from higher-alcohol wines, but not as aromatic as from a wine lower in alcohol.
Plums, apples and pears are classified as “high-sugar” fruits that ferment to the alcohol content of beer, which is enough for a good eau de vie. If you want to make an eau de vie from low-sugar fruits — such as blackberries or raspberries — on a home scale, the most practical way to do so is to add sugar when you make the wine, aiming for 5 to 6 percent alcohol. If you are working from a published recipe, this probably means cutting the sugar in half.
But Wait! Isn’t It Illegal?
Not to paint too rosy a picture: Home distilling is illegal in most parts of the world (including the United States and Canada) but is also generally tolerated (including in the United States and Canada) if the distilling is only for personal consumption.
In the United States, laws that have discouraged commercial distilling since the repeal of Prohibition are easing, and obtaining a state-issued permit for small-scale distilleries is getting easier.
Some U.S. states and Canadian provinces now make it easier for farmers to produce and sell alcohol at their farms. For example, Washington state now licenses craft distillers for $100 per year, and allows them to produce up to 20,000 gallons of alcohol a year and to offer tastings and sales on premises.
This takes place within the context of the general revival of interest in craft-food production and sale of local products. It is increasingly true that if a local farm produces an item, we’ll buy it.
Equipment You’ll Need for Home Distilling
Even if you have never seen a still — much less used one — you know the most important principle, because the underlying concept is in our language: “To distill” is to find the essence. The essence of an eau de vie is not the alcohol. When you distill fruit wine into brandy, you look past the wine to the flavors and aromas found in the ripe fruit itself.
To distill, you use the simplest of all stills — the pot still — to clarify and amplify the plumminess of plum or the peariness of pear. The alembic style, an ancient type of pot still, is the still of choice for all distillers where taste matters.
Pot stills contain five parts: the pot, the lid, and the tube that carries the steam from the pot into the coil in the condenser.
Pot stills work with just the right amount of inefficiency. Super-efficient stills, such as the reflux and condenser stills, can strip out all impurities to isolate the ethanol — which is the tasteless, odorless psychoactive alcohol whose percentage is listed on beer, wine, and spirit bottles. Tasteless and odorless is what vodka distillers are after. But the essence of a ripe piece of fruit is its taste and odor, so you don’t want to strip those compounds through over-efficiency.
There are three secrets to success: start with a low-alcohol fruit wine (about 5 percent), run your still as slowly as possible, and let your senses be your guide.
Home distilling requires no technical equipment besides the still — not even a thermometer. All you need are your senses and the concept that an eau de vie is like a poem written to honor the summer fruit.
How Does a Still Work?
If you boil water when it’s cold outside, the kitchen window steams up. If you boil lots of water, droplets run down the window pane. Those droplets are distilled water. If you direct the steam from the kettle spout into a tube rather than letting it flow freely into the room, and if you coil that tube through a bucket of cold water, then what comes out of the tube will be distilled water. Fill the kettle with wine rather than water and you produce eau de vie.
The distilling run is divided into three groups: heads, hearts and tails. The heads is measured in tablespoons from a small still. The first compounds to vaporize from the wine are acetone (yes, nail polish remover), methyl alcohol and other compounds with lower boiling points than water.
There isn’t a clear dividing line, but as soon as you stop smelling acetone, you are into the hearts. (Some people save the heads and tails to re-distill with the next batch.) Start collecting the hearts in a clean container. The hearts run goes on for a long time. At some point the smell and taste begin to change for the worse. Also, what comes out may no longer be clear. I collect my still runs in a series of jars to minimize the risk of contaminating a big jar of lovely hearts with the tails. To monitor what’s coming out of the still, periodically smell and taste. Stop the run as soon as you’re no longer happy with the taste — that’s when you’ve entered the tails. Keep what you like, toss the rest.
Choosing a Still
I recommend stills of two sizes. Use a small still first because it lets you work out your technique. Buy a bottle of wine, pour it into the still along with freshly grated orange peel, seal the seams with a paste made of flour and water, put water into the condenser, turn on the heat under the pot — and you’ll be up and running.
I’d buy a 2-liter still, at about $170 with shipping. A 2-liter still is also the size you’d want to distill herbs and flowers (although you can’t use the same still for both).
If making 5 gallons of a fruit wine seems doable to you, then you’ll need a 25-liter copper alembic pot still. The cost, including shipping, will be about $500. You can also find instructions on how to make your own sun-powered still in How to Make a Solar Still.
The fresh fruit brandy will be clear and “hot,” with some harshness. It will soften with age as some compounds vaporize.
Offering visitors a small glass of homemade fruit brandy is an old custom that many people are reviving. Let’s hope home-distilled eau de vie will once again be the way to welcome guests.
Read more: Learn the ancient craft of home distilling and make eau de vie with these easy and safe directions in Step-by-Step Home Distilling.
Interested in trying your hand at this ancient art? Learn more about home distilling with these resources.
The Home Distiller Forums
A lively electronic forum with a good mix of beginner’s information and advanced knowledge.
With some areas for beginners, this board also attracts more experienced and skilled home distillers.
The Home Distiller’s Workbook: Your Guide to Making Moonshine, Whisky, Vodka, Rum and So Much More! by Jeff King
Traditional Distillation Art & Passion by Hubert Germain-Robin
Distilling Fruit Brandy by Josef Pischl
Copper Alembic Stills
Mile Hi Stills
Food writer William Rubel lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. He is co-founder of Stone Soup, the magazine by children, and the author of The Magic of Fire and Bread: A Global History.