Some are drawn to a spirit by advertising: the frat-boy pirates of Captain Morgan or the sexy girl who licks amaretto off an ice cube.
To me, that all seems like libidinous ephemera. But I'm a sucker for history: When I read recently about a brand of bitters made with moisture from the walls of Winston Churchill's wartime bunker, I snorted at the marketing ploy -- and immediately started Googling where to get some, as if moldy basement juice could take me back to stand behind England's grand bulldog as he glowered down the Nazi menace. Shove it, Amaretto Girl: The most seductive spirits offer a time machine to far more fascinating places, places that smell of ocean and horses and orchards and wood smoke.
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It was history that got me interested in the peach brandy coming out of George Washington's reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Hugely popular in Colonial times, peach brandy was one of the products made at Washington's original distillery. But it had virtually disappeared until quite recently, when a few craft distillers started bringing it back.
Back in 2010, Mount Vernon joined with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which had financed the rebuilding of the distillery, and brought in a group of craft distillers from around the country to re-create a traditional peach brandy. Ted Huber and his team at Huber's Starlight Distillery in Indiana and Brian McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling in New York state, both brandymakers, served as project leaders, supplying the peaches -- choosing varieties that would be loaded with flavor -- and performing the initial fermentation.
The distillery is a low-slung stone building, rich -- if you catch it when the stills are running -- with that smell of wood smoke. Operating it presents some challenges, says Steve Bashore, manager of historic trades for Mount Vernon. There are no gauges to control temperature, no pipes moving fluids from one stage to the next. The team has to move everything with buckets. Each step is done manually. "You start to realize how hard some of the labor was," Bashore says. "When you have to bucket every bit of mash when you make whiskey ... you get a new respect for the folks who worked back then without all the modern conveniences."
The visiting distillers got a kick out of working at Mount Vernon, Huber says: "For a distiller like myself, being able to run this still like they would have 200 years ago was a really great experience."
Piles of firewood stacked up outside give a sense of how much fuel they're burning to keep those old-fashioned stills running. I got a rich waft of smoke when I popped my head in recently and ran into Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker's Mark and now at WhistlePig, who has been consulting with the Mount Vernon distillery for years and was instrumental in the brandy project.
He gave me a short tour -- which, given the size of the place, basically involved pointing around the room -- and told me his only regret about the peach brandy is that they didn't keep any of the unaged eau de vie. "It flashed me back to biting into a peach and how the juice runs down your arm," he said. "When it first came out of the still and I tasted it, I was like, 'Can we just leave it this way?'"
They didn't. They put it in toasted-oak barrels and aged it for two years, and it finally was to go on sale to the public at the Gristmill Shop Tuesday. Only 400 bottles are available, and they're not cheap: $150 for 375 milliliters. If you're a history and spirits buff with money to burn, you should probably call ahead to check availability: The first rye whiskey made at the distillery sold out in two hours. (Bashore says that they're already planning to make more peach brandy, and that next time around, an eau de vie will be part of the plan.)
To those of you who read "peach brandy" and thought yuck, I understand. You've been hurt before. Most peach spirits on the market are cloyingly sweet, and peachified via industrial flavoring agents.
I hadn't consumed peach spirits since college, so for a reminder, I picked up a bottle at my local liquor store. Some readers may be of an age to remember Strawberry Shortcake, a 1980s-era line of dessert-scented dolls? Hiram Walker's peach-flavored brandy tastes much like the doll called Peach Blush smelled -- and kept tasting that way for regrettably long minutes afterward. I won't insult my gender by calling it a "chick drink." It's a plastic doll's drink.
That's the kind of flavor associated with peach spirits. Among bartenders, there's a general rule, bartender and spirits historian Derek Brown told me, that anyone who orders peach schnapps, regardless of their apparent age, gets carded.
"George Washington never made or drank a Sex on the Beach as far as I know," he wrote in an email.
There is an old story -- probably apocryphal, but heck, I'll keep the rumor going -- that after Washington had some Fish House Punch at a famous fishing club in Pennsylvania, he was unable to write in his diary for several days afterward. Who knows if it's true; Washington preached moderation. But it was that Fish House Punch (rum, cognac, peach brandy, compounded lemon sugar and water) that Brown made to accompany his recent talk at an event in New York, hosted by Mount Vernon and the Distilled Spirits Industry Council, to launch the brandy.
Those who score a bottle will probably want to use it more stingily. It couldn't be further from the peach spirits that have sullied the name of peaches for decades. There's a soft whiff of peach on the nose, like a breeze through a nearby orchard, and only the faintest sweetness, resolving on the tongue to a warm, almost almond note. It, too, lingered a long time, but that time, it made me happy, sitting in the wan Virginia spring sunshine, tasting the fruits of patriotism, the sweat of our founding.
I'll stop before I embarrass myself. This stuff -- and its story -- drinks way too easy.