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Brandy, Darling?

Brandy, Darling?  Why, YES, I will!  Oh, thank you honey bunches.  

These lines don’t have to just be in some old-time movie… They can come right out of your mouth when you have a whiskey still of your own and make your own brandy delights!  Autumn leaves will be turning into winter snows and what better way to celebrate at home than with your homemade fruit brandy?  Brandy is yet another delicious home distilling project you get to enjoy later (preferably on a chilly, starry night by a roaring fire!)

 Any fruits that ferment can be made into brandy.  The possibilities are quite endless. Here are a few suggestions to get your juices flowing.  Keep in mind, too, that fruits can be mixed together, and the juicy flavor will be stronger the more fruit you use.

  • Plum brandy has an alcohol content of 24% to 50% (one distillation bears 24-30% alcoholic concentration and 45-50% alcoholic concentration is achieved by redistillation ).  Using very ripe plums is key to a sweeter and stronger flavor.  Plum brandy is very popular in the Eastern European and Balkan countries where it’s  known as "Slivovitz" and made from damson plums.
  • Pear brandy is characterized by its delicate flavor nuances and aroma, gaining vigor through its aging process. The finished color is a transparent yellow shade.  Bartlett pears are a favorite variety to use.  Another wonderful way to enjoy this gentle brandy is to mix it in cocktails. Oh Yum. This is filling my head with all sorts of creative blending ideas.
  •  Apple brandy has been made and enjoyed since the Roman era, and lately, is gaining more and more popularity here in the states, mostly due to the high productivity of so many varieties of apples . Apple  brandy’s alcohol concentration depends on the quality of the mash and can be up to 50%. Once made, the color of the apple brandy is bright white and has a slightly astringent taste. Through aging, it becomes nice and velvety and very fragrant, especially the Golden variety. 

And now let’s get down to brandy basics for home distillers! 

The fermentation process for most of the fruits is the same... 

  •  Before putting your fruit(s) in the fermenter, they need to be crushed or passed through a grinder or grater.  Folks have also been known to use a potato masher. Great arm workout, too.
  • If crushing them isn’t an option, cut them into pieces and scald them. Then put them in the fermenter with the fruit water. (Scalding is not mandatory, it can enhance flavor or shrink fruit so there’s room for more.) 
  • Some fruits may not be as sweet as you like (berries, for example), in which case you can prepare a simple syrup from 2 lbs of melted sugar in 1 gallon of boiled water, completely covering the fruit. Adding small amounts of sugar helps start the fermentation and doesn’t take away from the taste or quality of the distillate. 
  • If the fruit(s) aren’t juicy enough (some varieties of apples or pears, for example), add another gallon (or as needed to cover the fruit) of boiled water.
  • If you enjoy a natural bitterness, add a handful of broken apricot kernels (8-12), or peach or plum pits.

 Now mix the fruit into a mash, adding 1 packet of dry wine yeast.  Close the fermenter lid.  Ferment the fruit for 5 days at 68-77F (20-25C). When kept warm, fermentation lasts between 2-3 weeks. Note:  If the fermenter is hermetically sealed after fermentation, it can be distilled at any time, without losing the alcohol concentration.

After fermentation, put the wash in the boiler (pot), but at no more than 4/5 of the capacity, then close with the onion head, filling the condenser with cold water.

To insulate the space around the onion head and the coil (to keep the steam from escaping), either prepare a paste using flour and water and apply it, or use teflon tape (which is cleaner and easier).

When steam starts to come out of the cooler and the condenser is not running water, remove from the hot water and replace with cold water.

For the first 10-15 minutes, the fire under the pot (the boiler) can be higher, but then decrease the heat so the mash will boil slowly; this is recommended so the distillate isn’t disturbed which can lead to a loss of taste and aroma. 

Heads, Hearts & Tails…  Sounds like a Soap Opera, but isn’t

The distillation process results in three different parts: the heads, hearts and tails. 

  • The heads are the methanol (70-72 % alcohol) with a very sharp taste and foul odor. You want to get rid of as much of this as possible.  But using small amounts can create some flavor complexity in the final product.  Something to play around with. The heads can either be disposed of or redistilled. Many of us simply toss and start clean each time.  
  • The hearts is the bulk of the ethanol, which is the finished product you’re doing all this hard work for! Hearts should be completely transparent and odorless.  **When the hearts start to flow, to ensure the distillate comes out as clean as possible, use two coffee filter papers at the exit of the coil from the condenser.
  • When the hearts aroma changes to an unpleasant smell (bitter), it’s time to cut.
  • The tails are next; they’re weak with a very low alcohol concentration and a sour taste which can alter the taste of your spirit if not cut in time. You can always save the tails and use them for the distillation of a second batch, as there’s still ethanol alcohol to be extracted from them. But sometimes it’s easier just to toss it and move on. 
  • Distillation stops when the tail has a strength below 10% alcohol, or the sour taste appears.

The Aging of the Distillates… Sounds like a Classic Tale

The freshly obtained distillate has a faint aroma with a pungent taste and smell. The distillate needs a period of maturation and stabilization of aromas so it becomes harmonious and pleasant tasting.  Jumping the gun here might have you apologizing to your friends about your lousy home brandy!  Patience my dear. 

The distillate can be stored in oak, mulberry or cherry wood barrels.  It can also be aged in glass bottles or mason jars, if you plan to consume it sooner than later.

The distillate must be aged for at least 6 months, then kept in barrels for up to 5 years. Once it’s bottled, it should be stored in the dark and kept at a constant cool temperature of 60F (15C).  Actually, the optimum temperature for maturation, aging and storage is 60F (15C).

If you can’t wait years for your fine brandy, it’s better to keep the brandy in mason jars or small bottles. Flavors will spread in open space and can be lost, so it’s better to go for a smaller container. Before opening your bottle of home-made yummy goodness, turn it 2-3 times, to help combine the flavors with the distillate again.

You know…  It’s getting close to the gift-giving holiday times. It’s been such an unusual year, maybe it’s time to give an unusual but guaranteed-to-be-loved gift!  Check out right now. Surely you have a friend or family member who would love to try home distilling, especially one who will share the fruits of their labor with you?  Or maybe this is finally the year for you to treat YOURSELF and discover the talent and creativity you know you have?  Sign yourself up for that opportunity!  Our gorgeous hand-hammered copper Whiskey stills are indeed the Gift that Keeps Giving.  Let’s make some happy holidays for many years to come.

Cheers and Happy Distilling!


Posted by Jason Stone on

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