FIFTH ELEMENT SPIRITS
vodkas, gin, coffee liqueur, pawpaw brandy, & elderberry brandy—notes from the Distiller
I’ve been a friend of Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres for many years now. Chmiel has been my supplier for the papaw in my wheat beer for over a decade. As I was working out my formulation for our Gin, I went to Chris for advice, knowing he is a gin guy. “Spicebush,” he said. That’s where it all started.
Lindera benzoin, commonly known as spicebush or even Appalachian allspice, is a native shrub to our parts, and seemed a natural fit. As the common name implies, the berries of this understory woody plant, have a wonderful, rich and spicy, flavor and aroma, similar to the common “allspice,” As a native plant, it happily grows all over our forests here in SE Ohio. The berries we use have been wild harvested, right here, at their peak and carefully dried to maintain all the goodness we need.
Juniperus communis, or commonly Juniper, is the bond between all gins. This is the berry which gives us the piney character we all recognize as gin. All gins have additional herbs and spices, but the juniper berry is required by law and we use a healthy dose of certified organic berries in accordance.
Rosa rugosa is another of our main players in the mix. Organic rosehips of this variety give the smoothness and complexity I wanted to really tie it all together and add a nice floral nose.
Now, these botanicals really don’t have any sugar to speak of for fermentation, so we still need to have another ingredient to feed our yeasty beasties to produce alcohol. Enter our friends Kim and Larry Cowdery and Matt and Angie Starline. These two farming families live and work within 22 miles of our place and raised all the non-GMO and certified organic corn we need to produce the required alcohol for a clean distillation, with a little help from Briess Organic 2-Row Barley.
Those are all the players. We do everything from start to finish here on our farm, 12 miles south of Athens with only these ingredients. There is no short cut. We do not buy “neutral grain spirits” and flavor them. We want to craft the highest quality product we can from the best raw products available. This costs more money and takes more time, but it is the way we are. This is our passion, passed along for your enjoyment.
In our part of the world here in southeastern Ohio, there is a lot of community spirit and support for locally produced foods and beverages. Locally and sustainably raised fruits, veggies, greens, chickens, eggs, milk, swine, corn, etc… and the possible products derived from all these, keep the community alive and well fed! This love of local products even brought about a festival celebrating the Ohio State Native Fruit, The Ohio Pawpaw Festival!
The Pawpaw, Asimina triloba, is native to Ohio and much of the Midwest and Eastern-central US. This is an understory tree/shrub, which produces deep purple flowers with 3 sepals and 6 petals in the spring. From these flowers develop the largest US native fruit, the Pawpaw, loved by Native Americans, early explorers, chefs and brewers.
In 2002 I began working with the founder of the fest Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres to add a beer garden to the OPF. The catch for my brewery, the same as with all the food vendors at the event, there must be a product starring the Pawpaw as a primary ingredient. That first year I went one step further, well three really, I made a four specialty beers using forest farmed ingredients: a Pawpaw Wheat beer, a Sassafras IPA, a Spruce Tip Scottish Ale, and a Spicebush Stout. Keeping to the “local” theme and pushing the flavor threshold to include as many unique ingredients I had time for that year.
Well the beer garden was a success to the extent that I had to increase production over the years to at least 50 kegs for the weekend. That’s a lot of beer for a small brewery in Marietta Ohio to make above and beyond normal production needs. In year seven I had to ask other brewer friends for help. When I left Marietta Brewing Company in 2010 to set up Dancing Tree Distillery I brought in five breweries to make a Pawpaw beer and in year 2013 we have six breweries, all making a Pawpaw Beer!
I do have the Pawpaw bug. This past season, I had the good fortune of a great deal on #500 of pulp. What to do?? I decided on a Pawpaw Brandy, it was too much pulp just for flavoring Vodka. It was time to let the fermentation begin. Fruit Brandy is basically a distilled wine, so I had to start by making a wine with all the fermentable sugar coming from the Pawpaw. This was no easy task. Pawpaws don’t press like apples or grapes, leaving a dry pomace and a clear liquid, oh no. After pressing you have mush and mush, with 18% fermentable sugar content. This mush I fed to one of my favorite yeast strains to perform the magical transformation of sugar into alcohol. After multiple racking and sedimentation sessions the wine was ready for distillation. I ran the stills to keep as much of the character of the fruit as I could, ending up with around 6 gallons of Pawpaw Brandy at 80 proof. I aged it with charred and toasted American white oak for 3 months.
So to describe the flavors, this brandy starts with a light tropical fruit nose, rimmed with almonds. This is followed with ripe fruit coating the tongue continuing with toasted oak and alcoholic warmth. Neat or over ice, this is a sipping brandy perfect for a wood fire and a cool evening.
A blend of Dancing Tree Vodka from Grains, locally roasted Fair Trade beans from Dawn Chorus Coffee, yummy honey from our neighbor Jack Cantrell, and a bit of organic vanilla; our coffee liqueur tastes like coffee first, candy second.
We begin with Cafe Femenino beans from Peru. Femenino is a women’s empowerment organization developed to help women coffee producers overcome abuse, poverty and gender inequality. These beans, which are imported by Organic Products Trading Company (OPTCO), are roasted by Silver Bridge Coffee in Gallipolis, Ohio to the specs of Athenian Constantine Fallers’ company, Dawn Chorus. When we get the delightfully odiferous beans, slightly aged to chocolaty perfection, we choose to perform a cold extraction to bring out the full flavor with less acidity. Jack Cantrell, our neighbor from just a few ridges over from our farm, provides the only sweetener in the liqueur, delicious honey. Finally, we appreciate a touch of vanilla flavor for interest and we have been creating our own extract using our vodka and organic Madagascar vanilla beans. All this goodness is blended with our grain based vodka that is made using our good friends Kim and Larry Cowdery’s, non-GMO, yellow dent, open-pollinated, heirloom corn grown here in Meigs county in Reedsville, Ohio.
Note: Dancing Tree Coffee Liqueur will have some sediment in the bottle due to our preferred use of pure, raw honey. We like to call it The Bees Knees, but it probably contains some wings, royal jelly and beeswax, too!
-Dancing in the Snow-
1 part Dancing Tree Coffee Liqueur
1 part Snowville Creamery Milk or Half and Half
Mix over ice. Enjoy!
When I was growing up, my Grandfather always had a couple vintages of his homemade Elderberry Wine aging in oak barrels in the cellar. My father would tell stories of he and his buddies laying on their backs, opening the spigots for each other, and hoping “Pa” didn’t come home too soon. The idea of carrying on the tradition of Elderberry Wine led me to what I believe to be the obvious conclusion of a spirit buff, distill it into a brandy.
Although Grandpa’s berries were wild harvested, we acquired ours from our friendly neighbor’s winery only four miles from our shop. The Shade Winery shrubbery, we like to say with our favorite Python accent. Drive past all the Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Vidal vines, and there it is, in all its glory on the hill overlooking the pond.
Grandpa’s wine was strong and sweet. For distillation strong is good, but we choose to ferment to dryness, using all the sugar for alcohol production. This wine is pulled off our still between 80% and 85% alcohol. Low enough to bring through the floral fruit character of the summer drupes along with the spicy, peppery tartness one would expect of Elderberries. The spirit is aged with charred and toasted oak for three months to lend a mellow smoothness and a hint of color before it is then bottled at 80 proof .
Great straight, over ice, or mixed in our favorite cocktail, an Elderberry Sour! Like a whisky sour, only better, this is a great summer mixer on the porch with your best friends.