Hans Reisetbauer is a burly Austrian distiller in the town of Axberg, where he lives surrounded by plum, cherry, pear and apple orchards. He's a good farmer, but this particular fruit is not destined for the market. He grows it to make eau de vie ("water of life"), the unoaked, fruit-derived brandies that are among the most aromatically glorious spirits on earth.
In Austria and elsewhere, eau de vie is also known as schnapps. Of course that term has been more or less ground into permanent derision by the bastard versions consumed here in the United States -- which you're no doubt familiar with, since you probably heaved one up once or twice in high school. Believe me, this isn't that stuff.
Reisetbauer has been making eaux de vie for about two decades, as have a small number of like-minded producers in the United States, including Jörg Rupf of St. George Spirits in Alameda and Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Ore. While these talented distillers all make other hooch -- Reisetbauer and Rupf both make spectacular gin (Blue and St. George, respectively) and McCarthy makes everything from fruit liqueur to pot-distilled brandy -- each, it seems, was wooed down this path by these haunting fruit spirits.
In this, the age of vodka, eaux de vie are a throwback. In fact, someone once called them the anti-vodka -- a class of spirits as diametrically opposed to neutral as one can get -- and nothing at all like an infusion, which is typically a flavored, neutral grain alcohol.
Instead, eaux de vie are distilled directly from vats of mashed fruit, once, twice, three times, until they're clear and colorless, and all that is left is the concentrated, aromatic essence, as if squeezed out of the pulp drop by precious drop.
Reisetbauer makes more than 20 eaux de vie -- many classics, like cherry, raspberry and pear; some not so much, like ginger, carrot and the local delicacy rowanberry. Most are drawn from fruit he grows himself or is grown nearby. McCarthy does the same; in fact, for his pear brandy, he purchases Bartlett pears from his family's orchard in the Hood River Valley, about 30 miles east of Portland. (He also makes a riveting infusion from Douglas Fir fronds -- a tree spirit, he calls it.) The eaux de vie of St. George are drawn from California prunes, cherries and pears, not to mention from the pressings of California wine grapes (grappa, technically).
The effect is like throwing a magnifying glass lens upon the fruit of a given region. Forget farm-to-table; this is farm-to-pot still.
That immediacy is captured in the aromatics. You know what it's like to taste a good pear, perfectly ripe, from, say, a farmer's market stall? There's that heady smell, the sweet aroma of skin and pulp and perhaps even a whiff of the tree it was plucked from. In eaux de vie, all of this is intensified, brought into focus, so much so you'll wonder if you've ever really smelled a pear so pearlike as the stuff in your glass.
Go ahead, take a whiff of Reisetbauer's raspberry bottling. The scent is intensely fruity, yet it's not really much about fruit; rather, it's like inhaling the warm air around a summer bush, a kind of "essence of raspberry patch." You smell everything: the bramble, the pith, the leaves dusted with earth, even the warmth of the sun. There's something so penetrating about these flavors, it's hard to take your nose away from them.
You can find many of these exotic spirits on the shelves of restaurant bars like Hungry Cat and Rivera, where they're employed as a palate-cleansing, invigorating digestif. They're also a centerpiece at the Bierbeisl, as a natural postprandial complement Chef Bernhard Mairinger's Austrian cuisine. But increasingly the spirits are employed to add a piercing, laserlike flavor element in cocktails, like at Drago Centro, where bar manager Jaymee Mandeville employs Clear Creek's Doug Fir eau de vie to "spruce up" a bracing herbal concoction she calls Campfire Dawn, combining it with mescal, both lime and mint bitters, plus sugar, gently stirred, the pine scent of the eau de vie settling like a dew upon the other flavors.