Episode 062 - Eau de Vie: The Water of Life

eau de vie water of life.jpg

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast

This episode is part of our Bar Cart Foundations series where we take deep dives into the most essential or pressing topics in the cocktail and spirits world.

This is also a bit of a “Mailbag” episode because it was inspired by a question from one of our listeners.

Featured Cocktail: Chuflay

This week’s featured cocktail is the Chuflay, which is the national cocktail of Bolivia. You may remember that this drink was mentioned in our Episode with Carlie Steiner of Himitsu, who is a huge fan of this drink, partially because of her affection for Singani, which is the base spirit.

Singani, of course, is an Eau de Vie, and we’ll talk about it and many others later in the episode.

To make a Chuflay, you need, very simply:

  • 2 oz Singani
  • 4-6 oz of Lemon-Lime soda or ginger ale

This is a highball drink that inhabits the same sort of space as the Moscow Mule. It’s tall, cold, and extremely crushable. All you do is build this drink in a collins glass or a pint glass filled with ice, give it a quick stir to chill it down and mix up the ingredients, and enjoy.

With simple cocktails like this, remember that the presentation and garnishes always make the day. So consider what you’ve got growing in your herb garden, or perhaps if there are any fruits or berries in-season that can help add your own personal flair to the drink.

An Intriguing Question

Here at Modern Bar Cart, we get tons of emails and social media questions about cocktails, spirits, and home bartending. We love this. So if you’ve got a burning question, don’t assume you’re inconveniencing us in any way. Open up your email and send us a note at podcast@modernbarcart.com, and we’ll be happy to help you out.

Case in point:

Hannah from Riverside, California hit us up via email with an intriguing question. She said:

Hey Eric,

Huge fan of the podcast. Hoping you might be able help with a spirits-related question I just can’t seem to figure out.

Recently, my husband and I have been getting into brandies from around the world. Some of the fruit-based brandies we’ve run into say “Eau de Vie” on them, and some don’t. I guess I’m just not sure how to distinguish a brandy from an Eau de Vie.

Any help would be much appreciated!

Well, Hannah, this is indeed an intriguing question, and it’s one that required a bit of research on our end because we wanted to put together not just a sufficient answer to your question, but something that completely illuminates the nuances of eau de vie. So instead of an email, you’re getting a whole podcast episode.

The History of Eau de Vie

The word Eau de Vie is French for “water of life.” And this French term has become the proprietary eponym for unaged distilled spirits from around the world. (kinda like Kleenex or Band-Aid, where the brand name replaces the generic name). Most countries or regions of the world have their very own names for the spirits they distill. And, interestingly enough, many of them mean roughly the same thing - water of life. But nonetheless, they fall into the general category of Eaux de vie.

Looking quickly at the history of distillation, it was the medieval and Renaissance alchemists who were absolutely responsible for building the first effective stills, and who may be responsible for the whole “water of life” thing. They, of course, were concerned with understanding the properties of the natural world and then finding ways to transform or transmute those properties. These alchemists were also the keepers of the medicine in many cases, and so the original use for alcohol that was distilled in the Middle East and Europe tended to be medicinal, as opposed to recreational.

And, if you were sick back in those days, and your neighborhood alchemist poured you a dram of some mystical liquid that made you feel good and maybe helped to cure what was making you sick, you might be inclined to call said liquid something like “The Water of Life.”

That’s largely speculation on our part, but one thing is for sure: distilled spirits didn’t stay locked in the medicine cabinet for very long.

As the technology spread across Europe and Asia, everyone developed their own version of Eau de Vie using whatever was growing in their neck of the woods. Those traditions grew and flourished, and today we have a global spirits market with a staggering number and variety of Eaux de Vie.

Brandy vs. Eau de Vie

With that brief history in mind, the first and most essential point we need to address based on Hannah’s question is the difference between a brandy and an eau de vie.

When you’re faced with a classification question like this, it's useful to figure out which terms are more restrictive.

In this case, Brandy is a bit more restrictive at first glance because brandy can only be made from fruits, whereas there are certain classifications of Eau de Vie that allow for rye or grain distillates.

But then, you can also flip that on its head. Because there’s one particular restriction in the Eau de Vie world that doesn’t necessarily pertain to brandies. And that restriction is that all Eaux de Vie must be un-aged.

And of course, we know right off the bat that many of the grape and fruit-based brandies from France, like Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados are aged in barrels.

So, in summary, we could a venn diagram here. On one side we’ve got un-aged spirits, and on the other side, we’ve got fruit brandies. The circles overlap when those un-aged spirits are fruit-based. But they diverge when the un-aged spirits are not fruit-based, and alternatively, when those fruit-based spirits are put into barrels and aged.

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What Eau de Vie is NOT

Now, here’s an interesting question: what is an eau de vie NOT?

This is where things get tricky.

But one distinction we feel pretty comfortable drawing is that eau de vie is not flavorless. One thing we Americans tend to do is associate flavor in spirits with either barrel aging or the addition of botanicals or infusions. Everything else is vodka to us.

However, the whole raison d’etre for eau de vie seems to be to preserve some character of the base in the finished product without the addition of sugars, flavorings, or barrel aging.

When it comes to production methods, this means that you’re not going to see Eaux de vie being pumped out of the giant column stills that are used to distill most vodkas. Instead, you’ll see more traditional pot or alembic stills employed, which require more skill to operate.

Another thing this means is that you’re not going to see too many eaux de vie being produced from grains because the flavors that you would “preserve” from something like wheat or barley, or even potatoes or sugar beets, are simply less interesting than more complex fruit flavors. That’s why you see these base grains used mostly in vodkas and whiskies, where the goal is generally either to strip the flavor or to let the barrel do the work.

So will you encounter the occasional grain-based eau de vie? Yes. Rarely. But the litmus test is always to ask whether the original flavor of the base is being preserved or completely eliminated.

Edge Cases

There are a couple edge cases in this category. One would be Akvavit, which is a Scandinavian eau de vie. And even though Akvavit is a generic term that does indeed refer to certain un-aged fruit brandies, it also encompasses many varieties that are infused with dill and spices, which means it’s not a strict eau de vie. It’s closer to a gin.

And then there’s Cachaca, which is an unaged, Brazilian spirit used most famously in the Caipirinha cocktail, which is like a rustic mojito.

Now, I’m just not enough of an expert on sugar cane to tell you if it falls into the category of bases with great flavor, or whether it’s more of the flavorless variety. But my sense is that in the end product, you might be getting more of the microbiome of the distillery on the palate than the characteristics of the cane itself.

Cachaca fans out there, please prove me wrong. I’m always happy to publish amendments to episodes if we find we’ve told folks the wrong thing. But if I’m following my gut on this one, I’m still gonna list Cachaca as an edge case.

Finally, we’ve got Poitín and Moonshine, which are distilled, unaged spirits from Ireland and the United States, respectively. Starting with Poitín, there’s a couple reasons why I’m hesitant to put it in the Eau de Vie category entirely. First, there are some variants that, by law, allow the additions of flavors and aging, which puts it out of the running entirely. And second, the base grains it employs usually aren’t the kind of fruity, flavorful things you see in continental Eaux de vie. BUT, when you come across a Poitín that doesn’t attempt to bury the flavor of its base grain and is not aged, you could probably make an argument that it qualifies.

The same pretty much goes for Moonshine. It can be made from almost anything, so when a moonshine distiller here in the US manages to capture the essence of his or her raw materials without additives, you’ve probably got an Eau de vie, but it’s usually a moot point. Here in the U.S., shine is shine, and we aint got no use for no fancy French classificators.

A Note on Geographical Designations

Speaking of classifications. One trend in the European Union especially is to give geographic and other legal designations to distilled spirits, including eaux de vie. This has a couple effects. One is that it necessarily restricts supply, which increases prices, because if a spirit can only be created in a limited region, then there’s a ceiling on how much can be made. And two, it increases prices by confirming the authenticity of the product, as well as via the enforcement of rigorous quality restrictions, mostly pertaining to ingredient sourcing and how long things must be fermented and/or aged.

If you want to check out how these geographic designations are really heating up the global marketplace as our current administration is spearheading this crazy trade war, we’re going to link to a podcast in the show notes page by an NPR economics program called The Indicator. That episode uses a cheese case study to show how these geographic designations can impact both producers and consumers around the world.

Eaux de Vie by Fruit

Now, one last thing we want to do before we wrap up this episode is give you a summary of the world’s most popular Eaux de vie, grouped by their base fruits.

Grapes

We’ll start in the world of grapes, which is probably the most dominant type of eau de vie in any country or region that produces a lot of wine. And this is mostly because the unused grape sludge that gets strained out of the wine (a substance called pomace), can then be distilled just like a mash used to make a grain-based spirit.

In France, of course, we’ve got Eau de Vie. In Italy, this same spirit distilled from different grapes is called “grappa.” And in Spain, it’s called “aguardiente,” or “fire water.”

Heading over to the New World grape producers, we’ve got Pisco and Singani, from Peru and Bolivia, respectively. These growers tend to operate at high altitudes, and you’ll often hear it said that this really helps the distillers preserve the qualities of the grape in the finished product.

Then, in Greece and Albania, you’ve got Raki. Now, here’s where it gets tricky. For the most part, in Greece and Albania, Raki is precisely an Eau de vie. But in other places in the Mediterranean, like Turkey, for example, Raki refers to a sweetened, Anise-flavored drink. So you’ve got to be careful depending on what country you’re in.

This is also true in the Balkans, where any sort of eau de vie (grape or otherwise) is called “Rakia.”

Finally, a nod to the grape producing regions in Africa, in Sardinia, the grape-based Eau d Vie is called “Abbardente.”

Fruit

Moving on to the fruit-based eaux de vie, there are some pretty fun and noteworthy ones.

In Germany and Switzerland, you’ve got Kirschwasser, which is cherry-based. You’ve got Poir Williams in France, which is pear-based. And in eastern Europe, you’ve got Slivovitz, which is distilled from the Damson plum.

Miscellaneous

Last but not least, we’ve got the sort of all-encompassing brandies that can be made from any number of distillates. And with these, oftentimes what you’ll see is that they’ll have the generic name accompanied by the flavor that it invokes.

A perfect example is Schnapps, which is another German/Swiss/Austrian product that can be made from any number of fruits. And then we’ve got the Eastern European Pálenka (if you’re in the Czech Republic or Slovakia) or Pálinka if you’re in Hungary. Same deal - these are all kind of generic names with variants that can be made from different bases. In Armenia, this category is called Oghi. And finally, in India, Sri Lanka, and the Middle-East, the generic name for your unaged, distilled spirits is Arrack, which can be made using anything from Palm hearts to coconut.

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CC Attributions

Banjo Arba Minch Garden by Cooper-Moore is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (aka Music Sharing) 3.0 International License

Canção da Ribeira by Alexandre Bateiras is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (aka Music Sharing) 3.0 International License.  

Featured Cocktail Background Music

Backbay Lounge Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/