What Is Eau-De-Vie?
In short, Eau-de-Vie is a clear fruit brandy that’s produced through fermentation and double distillation. However, it’s a little bit more complicated than that as we will explain in detail.
Like the Scandinavian “Akvavit“, Eau-de-Vie’s name derives from the Latin “Aqua Vitae”, which means “water of life”. Indeed, it has Medieval origins and was first produced by alchemists seeking to create an elixir.
Similar to Jenever and later gin, it was long used for medicinal purposes as a topical and internal antiseptic up until the early 20th Century.
Colloquially, the French will use the term “Eau-de-Vie” to refer to just about any distilled spirit much like the Germans with “Schnaps“. Indeed, even vodka is considered an Eau-de-Vie! Although this can lead to some confusion, there are specific varieties of Eau-de-Vie, which are often associated with the term.
As mentioned earlier, Eau-de-Vie is typically derived from fruit, and can be specifically called an “eau-de-vie de fruit”. Yet, there is “eau-de-vie de vin”, which is produced by distilling wine. Additionally, Eau-de-Vie can be made from grape must pomace or lees (moût), beer, and grain.
However, this guide will mainly consider fruit Eau-de-Vie as it is by far the most common and popular variety. Historically, many landowners with orchards would have copper pot stills for producing their own Eau-de-Vie following the harvest.
While there are some extremely refined Eaux-de-Vie that are enjoyed by high social classes, there are cheap, coarser varieties that are considered a popular drink. These are often affectionately referred to as “goutte” or “gnôle” in France.
What Does Eau-de-Vie Taste Like?
Given its concentration of about 45% ABV or more, Eau-de-Vie has a strong alcoholic nose that can initially be somewhat overpowering. Therefore, caution is advised to not paralyse the nasal receptors.
Once that the alcohol bloom has subsided, Eau-de-Vie will reveal its light fruity notes that tend to be somewhat eucalyptic and tingle the nose.
Similarly, the mouthfeel is often quite warming with a prickly finish but it can occasionally be quite drying. In some cases, the fruit flavours are present upon the opening. However, sometimes they don’t reveal themselves until the finish, which is usually remarkably long.
Unlike most alcoholic beverages, Eau-de-Vie shouldn’t be kept on the palate for too long as it can actually burn the taste buds. Therefore, it is often swallowed soon after hitting the tongue rather than rolled around the palate.
Depending on the fruit used, an Eau-de-Vie may have a particularly unique aroma. That said, even those using the same fruits can be vastly different depending on the entire production process.
How Eau-de-Vie Is Made & Its Ingredients
Bartlett Pears, St George Distillery
Unlike vodka, akvavit, gin, or even jenever, Eau-de-Vie isn’t produced by distilling grain. Instead, being a fruit brandy, it is only made using fruit. In almost all cases, there will only one variety such as Williams pears or Mirabelle plums.
An Eau-de-Vie’s quality greatly depends on its ingredients. Therefore, fruit that has grown in optimal conditions tends to yield the best results. Similarly, only properly ripened fruit is fermented. In most cases, this is after picking. However, pear tends to require several days of cellar storage first.
Lance Winters, St George Spirits Master Distiller
Once the fruit is ripe, it is placed in sealed steel vats or even plastic barrels. Sometimes it is macerated into a pulp but some varieties will simply use the whole fruit. For context, 14 kg (30 lb) of pears are needed to produce a single litre of Eau-de-Vie.
Here it is left to ferment like beer or cider, which can take several weeks and well over a month. Occasionally, some producers will use yeast or enzymes to accelerate the process.
Although sugar was often used in the past to accelerate fermentation, this practice is no longer permitted in France.
Distillation & Rest
Rudolf Jelinek Distillery
Immediately following fermentation, the pulp is distilled. Traditionally, this was achieved with a copper pot still. However, column stills aren’t uncommon today.
After a second distillation, the liquid is stored in glass vessels known as “Dame Jeanne”, which are sealed with cloth for between 6 months to a year. This final process allows the alcohol to finish and develop a more harmonious flavour thanks to the evaporation of impurities.
In the case of Eau-de-Vie, casking is extremely rare. However, some Alpine varieties may barrel age instead to produce different flavours. Additionally, Eau-de-Vie de marc made from grape must or pomace will often be barrel-aged for around a decade after distillation.
Wolfberger Copper Still
Typical Alcohol Volume Percentage
Once the finishing process has completed, the spirit is diluted with water. Traditionally, most Eaux-de-Vie has an ABV of 45% with a legal minimum of 37.5%. However, some varieties may be stronger. This mostly depends on the region and its own traditional methods.
Different Types & Varieties Of Eau-de-Vie
As mentioned above, Eau-de-Vie will usually refer to a spirit that has been produced by distilling different varieties of fruit. Below are some of the most common varieties that you can find:
- Williams Poire: The most popular variety of Eau-de-Vie uses Williams pears.
- Mirabelle: Another popular variety, which consists of small and sweet yellow plums.
- Framboise: Raspberry Eau-de-Vie also referred to as Himbeergeist by the Germans.
- Kirsch: Also known as Kirschwasser Schnaps in Germany, Kirsch is produced using morello cherries.
- Poire Prisonnière: Pears are grown inside shaped bottles on the tree, which adds flavour when the spirit is introduced.
- Prune: Although Mirabelle is the best known for Eau-de-Vie, other varieties can be used.
- Coing: Similar in appearance to a pear, quince is a very popular choice for preserves and Eau-de-Vie in France.
- Quetsche: Damson, often incorporated into gin as an alternative to sloes, can be distilled into an Eau-de-Vie.
- Abricot: Less common than other fruit varieties, apricot has been known to be used.
- Baies de Sorbier: Rowan Eau-de-Vie is rarer than other Eaux-de-Vie but a renowned variety.
- Vin: Wine brandies most famously include Armagnac and Cognac.
- Marc: Once pressed grapes are pressed for wine, the pomace or must is fermented and distilled into a spirit.
- Cidre: Cider and perry is distilled into a spirit. The most famous example is Calvados from Normandy.
Other Eau-de-Vie Varieties
While we have listed a wide selection of different Eau-de-Vie that you can typically find on the market, it is by no means exhaustive. For instance, French colonists popularised Eau-de-Vie in Caribbean regions, which gave rise to varieties made from banana, mango, and pineapple to name a few.
Similarly, you can also find maple syrup Eau-de-Vie in Canada as well as Douglas Fir brandy in the USA.
Of course, other countries and regions have their own take on Eau-de-Vie. For example, the Balkans produce Rakia, and Hungary has Pálinka. Given their own regional characteristics and identities, we will eventually be covering them individually in detail as we have done with Schnaps.
How To Serve & Drink Eau-de-Vie
Traditionally, Eau-de-Vie is served as a digestif following a large meal. On some occasions, it is accompanied with coffee and even dark chocolate. However, it is usually served just beforehand.
In some circles, the Eau-de-Vie and coffee are mixed by adding a small drop of the spirit to an espresso mug after each sip. Nevertheless, this is usually a more working class practice and is mostly associated with Calvados apple brandy.
In more serious scenarios, a fine tulip or copita nosing glass will be used to consume small 1 cl or 2 cl servings. Traditionally, Eau-de-Vie should be served at room temperature. However, it’s not uncommon to chill it, which can reduce the presence of the alcohol.
Given its strong alcohol content, the glass is brought to the nose and only smelled with small, gentle inhalations.
Sniffing too hard can essentially blind the nasal receptors so this should done carefully. Similarly, the glass is only swirled beforehand to admire the legs and should be avoided during nosing as it will release a greater alcohol bloom.
Afterwards, a small quantity of Eau-de-Vie is sipped and is only allowed a short amount of time to rest on the tongue. Likewise, swirling across the palate is brief before the liquid is swallowed. Otherwise, the Eau-de-Vie may temporarily burn the taste buds and kill your ability to sense the flavour.
During the finish, more flavours can be experienced through retro-olfaction as vapours are released through the nose. This phenomenon, which is similar to retrohaling when smoking cigars, heightens the experience by stimulate the nasal receptors.
Popular Eau-de-Vie Cocktail Recipes
While Eau-de-Vie is traditionally consumed as a digestif, it has also been subject of the ever-growing demand for new and exciting cocktails. Below are a few examples of the best ones we tried.
Lemon Eau-de-Vie Punch
Simply add sugar lemon juice and sparkling water to a pitcher with an Eau-de-Vie of your choice. Feel free to throw in some mint leaves for an extra mojito vibe! Any of the most common Eaux-de-Vie varieties work well but we’re quite fond of using Mirabelle here.
A refreshing cocktail for the summer developed by Colin Asare-Appiah in 2007, it’s named after an alchemist’s wife.
Shake equal parts Vodka, Elderflower Liqueur, Poire Williams Eau-de-Vie, and lemon juice then strain into a glass of crushed ice. Afterwards, top with soda and garnish with a twist of lemon and a sprig of Rosemary.
Not strictly a cocktail but more of a serving suggestion, a popular way to drink a Poire Williams Eau-de-Vie in summer is chilled with a slice of pear in the glass. The pear beautifully absorbs the spirit and produces a rich fruity flavour. Feel free to add ice and a twist of lemon for a refreshing experience.
Old-Jamaican Ginger Pear
A great alternative to a Moscow Mule, simply mix Poire Williams Eau-de-Vie with lime juice, fiery ginger beer, and a small dash of Chartreuse over ice. You can add a few slices of lime to the glass as garnish.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Eau-de-Vie?
As explained earlier, Eau-de-Vie was developed by monks as a possible elixir of life. However, as you may have guessed, it didn’t quite yield the intended results! Naturally, the product was stilled used for many generations as a remedy but likely provided little medicinal benefits aside from being an effective antiseptic.
Meanwhile, jenever, akvavit, and gin were actually quite effective with a number of ailments thanks to the botanicals used in their production. You can learn more about each of them with our dedicated guides linked in the previous sentence.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Eau-de-Vie
As Eau-de-Vie is made entirely from fruit and not from grain, it contains no gluten as is completely safe to drink if you’re sensitive to the protein.
Furthermore, a 20 ml shot of Eau-de-Vie will contain no more than 45 calories with no presence of carbs as is the case with the majority of clear spirits.
Where To Buy Eau-de-Vie
Needless to say, traditional French Eau-de-Vie is something of a niche drink outside of Europe. As a result, it can be challenging to find abroad and especially in the USA. Nevertheless, distilling fruit to make brandy is a very popular practice that crosses many borders.
Indeed, it was one of the easiest ways to produce alcohol and many immigrants who colonised the American continent took their knowledge with them. Therefore, fruity brandy has always been relatively easy to find in the USA.
Today, a number of distilleries have been producing French-style Eau-de-Vie and you’ll see a few examples below. Nevertheless, even these may be challenging to find in most liquor stores.
Therefore, we’re proponents of buying our liquor online. One of our favourite destinations is Drizly. As they work in partnership with local liquor stores, they have a rich selection of Eau-de-Vie that can be delivered within an hour of ordering.
Otherwise, we’re big fans of Reserve Bar. However, it doesn’t appear that they have started stocking Eau-de-Vie just yet.
Pricing: How Much Does Eau-de-Vie Cost?
It may come as no surprise that domestic Eau-de-Vie will often be cheaper than imported ones. For instance, most American Eau-de-Vie will cost around $35 for 75 cl in the USA whereas French varieties will likely be around $65.
Nevertheless, the value of Eau-de-Vie can greatly vary depending on the brand, its production values, and its reputation. For instance, cheaper Eau-de-Vie in France can cost as little as 20€ to 30€. However, prestigious creations from historical houses may cost upwards of 100€!
Top 10 Best Eau-de-Vie Brands
As mentioned above, we will now cover the top 10 best Eau-de-Vie brands and varieties that you can buy online:
- Massenez Poire-Williams [France]
- Massenez Wild Raspberry [France]
- Strykover Luxury Slivovitz [Poland]
- Wolfberger Fleur De Biere [France]
- R. Jelinek Pear Williams [Czech Republic]
- Fidelitas Williams Birne [Germany]
- St. George Pear Brandy [USA]
- Purkhart Pear Williams [Austria]
- Clear Creek Pear In The Bottle [USA]
- Wolfberger Litchi [France]
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.