Words by Simon Difford
Traditionally produced in Germany, France, Yugoslavia and Scandinavia, eaux-de-vie are 'fruit brandies which are usually sold un-aged, so clear and colourless and generally 40 - 45% alc. /vol.
Eau-de-vie means 'water of life' and this is the French term for brandies made from a fruit other than grapes. (Confusingly, the term is also used for young brandy that will become cognac and armagnac once they have reached the statutory age to be described as such.)
Two quite different production methods are used to make fruit eaux-de-vie. Stoned fruits, such as cherries and peaches, are crushed with their kernels, which add a pleasantly bitter component to the brandy. The mash is encouraged to ferment with the addition of yeast, a process which can take weeks or months. The resulting wine is then distilled.
Stoneless fruits are lower in sugar, and so do not ferment to a sufficient alcoholic strength to be distilled. Consequently, a different process is employed for stoneless fruits. Instead of being crushed and fermented they are finely chopped and macerated in neutral alcohol. This mixture is then distilled in a pot still.
Eaux-de-vie are bottled as soon as possible after distillation to preserve their elegance and fruit fragrances. They are rarely cask matured because the woody flavours tend to detract from the delicate aromas and fruit flavours. Generally, the only eaux-de-vie to be aged are those made from fruits with stones. To contribute a little more flavour in lieu of ageing, there is a growing tendency to infuse fruit in the distillate prior to bottling. In Germany, the two products are differentiated by calling pure distillates 'wasser' (water) and infused distillates 'geist' (spirit).
Swiss pear eau-de-vie often have a whole pear inside the bottle. This is achieved by placing empty bottles on pear trees in late spring so that each bottle becomes a miniature greenhouse with its own pear growing inside. I do not recommend buying such eaux-de-vie with fruit inside, firstly because the fruit takes up space and therefore there is less alcohol in the bottle, and secondly because the fruit can rot when the alcohol drops below a level covering and so preserving it.
Fruit brandies are usually served neat and chilled in a small wine glass after a meal. They should be sipped, swirling occasionally to release the delicate aromas. Or, they make great cocktail ingredients, either has a flavour modifier or base spirit.