“Distilling is the highest form of the art,” said Bob Bartlett. “It’s difficult to do it well and it’s challenging.”
“The whole idea of distilling is you’re concentrating something — what you’re making,” he said.
“When you distill, you magnify what you have about 10 times,” Bartlett explained. “If you have any slight flaw, it’s going to be magnified a lot.”
Bartlett is using a hand-hammered copper still made in Germany to produce batches of Apple Brandy and Pear Brandy or eau de vie, which is French for water of life. Eau de vie is a clear brandy made from fruit.
The Beverage Testing Institute recently rated Bartlett Fine Apple Brandy with 88 points, one of its highest ratings.
The institute described the apple brandy as having aromas of “tooled leather, butter sautéed nuts, warm apple cider and peppery spice follow through on a supple entry to a dryish medium body with understated dried green apple and mineral dust notes.”
Bartlett describes the Pear Brandy or eau de vie as “crisp” and “real clean.”
Producing spirits is much trickier than wine-making.
“The big thing is in wine there’s a lot of ways you can hide things,” he said. Not so with spirits.
Trying to get the character of a fruit into a spirit can be another challenge depending on the fruit.
Apples, pears and raspberries are fairly simple, Bartlett said. But peaches, for example, are hard to distill and have the flavor come across.
That’s why a lot of the brandies made in the United States are made with alcohol and flavoring — whereas the Bartletts make their brandy with 100 percent fruit.
Bartlett’s is just one of a number of wineries across the United States that, along with microbreweries, are adding distilleries to their operation. Today, there are 165 distilleries in the United States. Twenty years ago, there were maybe a dozen.
Bob Owens, who founded the American Distilling Institute six years ago, asked Bartlett to serve on the institute’s board of directors just this week.
Owens attributes the rise in distilleries to the drive toward sustainability and using locally grown produce and herbs for meals and spirits.
For example, the Plaza Hotel in New York City recently called Owens to find local sources for martini ingredients — from spirits to herbs.
Owens said most of the distilleries have been started by wineries and microbreweries.
“These people have the knowledge of how to do fermentation,” Owens said.
Bartlett is among them.
“He understands the process and has a great nose,” Owens said. “He’s bringing all those skills and palate to the industry.”
Creating distilled spirits seems part science part magic.
Owens said, “It’s not based on a computer printout.”
Kathe Bartlett remarked that the still looks like something out of the “Willie Wonka & and the Chocolate Factory” movie.
“Moonshine or distillation goes back thousands and thousands of years,” said Owens. “First it was perfume. They didn’t think to drink the stuff till somebody drank it one day and realized it altered their consciousness.”
Bartlett had a distillery in mind for many years. In fact, his interest stems from childhood when he asked his father, who was a research biochemist, how to ferment. His father wouldn’t tell him, so Bob took matters in his own hands, buying cider from a local mill and sneaking it into the woods to ferment. The resulting beverage didn’t taste that great.
“The whole thing about distillation is fermentation,” said Bartlett. “Fermentation is key.”
Bartlett uses French oak barrels to age the brandy. He says oak-barrel aging is like a condiment, noting “it changes the character, makes it more complex.”
Brandy is traditionally an after-dinner drink, but Bartlett also cooks with it. He uses the eau de vie to sauté mushrooms or puts it on steak on the grill or to marinate strawberries.
Bartlett says the apple brandy is good to eat with Cheddar cheese or to put in apple pie.
Bartlett said his apple brandy is more like a cognac. There are two schools of thought with apple brandy. Either create a spirit with apple character or age it a lot longer, which results in less apple flavor.
“The whole point in distilling to me is to have flavor,” said Bob. And he emphasizes local flavor.
As with their wines, the Bartletts get at least 80 percent of their fruit and other agricultural products such as honey from Maine.
Whether from Maine or not, the couple use real fruit, such as peaches from southern New Hampshire and pears from California instead of fruit juice and concentrate.
Bartlett noted that those large snifters are not what people should be using to drink brandy. They have people drink brandy out of glasses with a narrow cylindrical bowl. The spirit’s smell dissipates quickly with a large round snifter.
Bartlett did much research before crafting his own spirits.
He traveled around the world, including Alsace, France, and Germany. He took a workshop with Remy Martin’s master distiller.
Distillers are very secretive, he said.
Indeed, Bartlett declined to elaborate on a few pieces of his own equipment, saying that it was a process that hadn’t been used here in the United States.
The brandies are available at the winery’s tasting room. While you’re at the tasting room, ask about the two new wines this season, a blueberry sangiovese and a blueberry red zinfandel.
Telephone (207) 546-2408 or go to www.bartlettwinery.com.
If You Go
What: Bartlett Maine Estate Winery
Where: Chicken Mill Road, Gouldsboro
Contact: 546-2408, www.bartlettwinery.com
Tasting Room: Open June through October or by appointment.
Directions: From Ellsworth, take Route 1 and drive 23 miles east. Winery is half a mile from Route 1 on right.
Bartlett Apple Brandy Sidecar
To make this cocktail classic, mix 2 oz. Bartlett Apple Brandy, 1.5 oz. fresh organic sweet and sour mix (made from organic limes and Meyer lemons sweetened with wholesome organic raw agave nectar) and ¾ oz. Cointreau. Finish with lime sugar rim.