I have this memory of a raspberry. It’s summer, or at least it’s outside and the sun is shining, because there is that easy, musky scent that only comes from the confluence of warmed fruit, warmed leaves, warmed earth. Within it is the ripeness of the raspberry itself; the juice, the pulp, the sweetness, yet that flavour of fruit is just a part of what makes it a raspberry. Orbiting this essential, pinkish, perfumed nucleus are the woody, pippy electrons of seeds, the greenery of stalk and leaf, the burred brush of skin, the remembrance of raspberry bush. It is diminutive yet tactile; one of those rare fruits you eat whole in one bite — a fruit experienced entirely — often several at a time. Bubbled and fuzzed and popping; it inhabits a special middle-ground between firmness and softness, texture and juice. There is an awful lot to a raspberry, and still more that determines a good raspberry; caught at that hairline moment of exquisite, harmonious ripeness; structure and flavour and aroma and juice all at one concentrated point of mutual perfection.
I remember everything about this raspberry; every part of it there in laser-etched high definition. I remember it all. But it isn’t my memory.
I’m standing in an attractive, dark-wood-framed, roof-tiled greenhouse just outside Cirencester. It’s a stone’s throw from the Cotswolds — that’s not a figure of speech or a comment on my cricketing arm, the Cotswolds literally begins at the end of the road. We’re at the point of Gloucestershire where nature begins to deepen and loom in many-toned green. But wander round the nearby Corinium museum and you see that this verdant pocket has been shaped by humans for thousands of years.
The greenhouse is practically humming with scents. Florals and citrus, for now, but when I come back in an hour or so it will have shifted to woody, aromatic barks and spices. But it isn’t home to plants, this greenhouse. Instead it is here to capture them in spirit. Because, as the two immaculately-gleaming Czech-made Kovodel Janca stills attest, this greenhouse is now a still house, the nerve centre of one of the most exciting distilleries in the world: Capreolus.
Distillation has been woven into the fabric of cider and perry for centuries; simply another way to exploit and preserve the orchard’s bounty. They’ve been making apple (and pear) brandy in Normandy since the sixteenth century; on an international level the clout and fame of Calvados far exceeds that of France’s cider. There is pommeau, the marriage of spirit and juice, and Mostello, where fermenting perry meets perry pear brandy. In Austria distillers of fruit eau de vie number in the thousands.
That’s why I’m here. Just after our perry month in September, Barney Wilczak, founder and head distiller at Capreolus, got in touch asking whether I’d be interested to taste his perry pear eau de vie. It was made from two pears, he explained, separately distilled before blending, and he was keen to share both the component parts and the final blended spirit. Having been a spirits blogger long before I started writing about cider, and given I earn my current crust working in whisky and rum, I was eager to chat a bit more, and the initial idea of sending samples changed into a full-blown visit.
Distillation is often considered a destructive process. Industrial, forceful, interventionary. Factorial, perhaps; the emphasis on the breaking down of an ingredient, the creation of spirit alcohol through the broil and fury of heated copper stills. There is often a tendency for distilleries to divert attention away from ingredient and provenance and towards process. Visit a whisky distillery and you’ll hear ten times more about copper and oak than you will about the barley or other grains from which it is made. Most rum is made from molasses, the waste by-product of sugar refinery. Vodka and gin can be made from anything, and their base spirit is deliberately distilled to such a high level of alcohol (a legal minimum of 96%) that individuality of character is necessarily stripped away. Often, and at distilleries where volume and efficiency are the primary concerns, the ingredient is seen predominantly as the sugar source. The means to alcohol*.
At Capreolus, that mindset is turned on its head. For Barney, alcohol is a byproduct of his work. His interest, specifically, is in capturing the essences of the various fruits he distils as Eaux de Vie and preserving them in spirit form, as clearly and as purely as he can. Which is why, at the start of my visit, I find myself standing in his garage, drinking fermented blood oranges and talking about wine.
The blood oranges are the only fruits that aren’t sourced from within a fifty mile radius of the distillery. They’re from the slopes of Mount Etna, where the unique combination of mountain snow, plains warmth and sea air combine for what are universally agreed to be the best, most intense and certainly bloodiest blood oranges in the world. Through the IBC I can see what looks like the thickest of keeve caps sitting on top of the liquid, and Barney tells me about the enormous levels of pectin in the fruit. The juice itself has barely started fermenting; its utterly-clear, blushing red, sweet bitterness straddles the stile between orange and pink grapefruit. It is coursing with life; destined to ultimately play a role in Barney’s universally lauded Garden Swift gin.
But it is the fruits from which he makes Eaux de Vie that Barney talks about with the most relish. Born and raised in the house that now hosts the distillery, he grew up obsessed with nature, with plants, with things that grow and the places they grew in. As a professional photographer he spent his career framing, capturing, preserving images; looking for details to zoom in on, dramatise and bring into the sharpest of relief.
Distillation intrigued him for the same reasons. A fermentation, by its nature, is alive. It is the product of living yeasts on decaying matter; from the moment the apple, grape, pear, quince is pressed, or the wort brewed, it begins a shifting journey of incremental change. A beguiling, bewitching and endlessly fascinating journey, but one which inevitably comes to an end, the drink irrevocably different in flavour and aroma to that which it began its life as.
To distil something is to click the camera shutter on a specific point in that journey. It is a fixer of flavour; once a spirit is distilled its journey is done. It can be augmented by oak or botanicals, or spoilt by excess heat or light or evaporation, but essentially it exists in this fixed and captured state. It was this, historically, that gave spirit value in remote, rural communities; its preservative properties as useful as the glow of its warmth against the bite of thin winds and slanting rains.
Barney wanted to capture the flavours of what grew around him. But more than this, he wanted to capture them at their purest, ripest and most vivid; as fully as they could be captured. To splash into a glass the utmost essence of quince and plum and gooseberry and apple and pear.
Though the UK has a long and splendid history of distillation, and though Somerset has long been a seat of cider brandy, restored as such in recent decades by the Temperleys at Burrow Hill, there is very little Eau de Vie distillation on these shores. Most of what we make is gin, destined to be flavoured with botanicals, or whisky, made to be augmented by oak and time. Eau de Vie, an unaged fruit spirit, is a far greater concern in Central Europe. So it was there that Barney directed his attention, translating texts from Germany and Austria, teaching himself distillation in a somewhat hush-hush manner as he went.
It took ten years before he was happy enough with his work. Not just happy enough to bottle and sell it, but happy enough that he was prepared to drink it himself at home. Ten years of trial and error and tweaking the process and rejecting batches and discovering how each individual fruit wanted to be expressed. The Eau de Vie distiller, of course, having the rare challenge of working with a vast array of ingredients, each one wholly different in its physical and chemical makeup, and in the way it behaves during fermentation and distillation.
As his experiments went by, he gradually came to a deeper understanding of how he felt he could best express the character of his fruits. Wild fermentation, he concluded, was the route to the broadest complexity, and the most natural presentation of both ingredient and place. Yet, paradoxically, control was of the utmost importance. There’s often an implication that so-called ‘wild fermentation’ comes down to the chance vagaries of random unfettered yeasts. In fact, at its best, it is the practice of coming to understand the ambient yeasts that live on one’s fruits and in one’s fermenteries. Preservation of a spotlessly clean environment, and ensuring the fruit is completely protected from the spoiling effects of oxidation is paramount. In fact Barney never allows fermentations to come to a complete conclusion before he puts each one into his stills, to ensure that the fermentation is still giving off a protective covering of carbon dioxide.
The more Barney studied standard Austro-German methods, the more he concluded that they were perhaps a little too heavy-handed, technical and efficiency-driven for his purposes. Much of the available Eau de Vie was so-called Geist — ‘ghost’ — simply a maceration of ingredients in neutral alcohol. Even in the instances where whole fruit was processed there would generally be enzymes to speed up fermentation and distillation and mechanical means of removing pips and seeds, with the intention of creating distillates that tasted only of fruit flesh or confected juice, rather than a textural encapsulation of the whole plant, as was Barney’s ambition.
Fundamentally, Barney came to realise that — as it is at any winery or cidery — quality would be determined first and foremost by the point of harvest and the rigour on the sorting table. That the best spirits could only be the result of the very best fruit, shepherded through fermentation and distillation with the utmost care.
From the start of August the phonecalls from farmers start, and don’t stop again until almost winter. Everything Barney distils has been hand-picked, but even then vast quantities will be rejected for under- or over-ripeness before even reaching his sorting table. Some fruits ripen unevenly, and will be received, fermented and distilled in small batches at a time. Phonecalls can come out of the blue, and generally need an immediate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer if the fruit is to come in in perfect condition. Barney talks of feeling slightly sick at having spent nearly £3000 on a tonne of apricots after an on-the-spot evening call.
Once it reaches the distillery, every piece of fruit will be sorted. Not just visually checked for defects; Barney explains that only perhaps 70% of bad fruit can be sorted by eye. He and his family ensure they touch every piece of fruit that comes in; sometimes up to five million individual raspberries. Any that are too soft or too firm or flawed in some other way are rejected, every stalk and piece of foliage is removed.
Fermentation is done on the pulp — skins and pips and all — to capture that ‘whole fruit’ essence, and varies in length according to yeasts and temperatures and, particularly, the fruit itself. The shortest will be a few weeks, the longest — perry pears, with their ever-truculent tannin structure — a few months. When I visit in February Barney has five distillations left to do for his 2022 vintage.
Then it’s into the small pot stills, where each fruit is distilled three times. Throughout the process Barney continues to taste and taste and taste as the thin, slow trickle of distillate flows off the last still and is collected in a stainless steel milk can. The pace is astonishing — by the end of the process he is distilling at something like eight and a half litres per hour. For reference, the average speed in the whisky industry is 1500. But Barney emphasises the importance of this painstaking process. Each fruit expresses differently not only from the others, but throughout the course of distillation.
The final runs of all spirits in the world can be split into three parts. First condensing over the still are the lightest and most volatile compounds, known as foreshots, or ‘heads’. These are the highest in alcohol, and are absolutely not for collecting, since they also contain quantities of methanol, which can blind you if drunk to excess. (Hence blind drunk). Last over the still, at the end of the run, are the heaviest compounds. The feints, or ‘tails’, as they’re known. Deep, burly fusel oils that can overwhelm everything else with their pungency. It is the bit in between these two sections — ‘the heart’ — that distillers want to collect, and it is here that a dilemma presents itself. The wider you make your ‘heart’ cuts, the more spirit you can collect — and ultimately sell. At the same time, the wider the cut, the more impurities that can slip into the spirit.
Barney’s cuts are almost painful to hear. In well over a decade of visiting distilleries, blogging about spirits and working in the industry, I’ve never heard anything like them. For every litre of spirit he collects, a minimum of 25 kilograms of fruit has been distilled. In the case of the berries that number can rise as high as 45 kilograms. To help me mentally digest this, he remarks that every 375ml bottle of his raspberry Eau de Vie began life as the equivalent of 70 full punnets of raspberries. That’s five punnets for every 25ml pour. Unlike most distilleries, Barney doesn’t recycle the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ in another distillation. Only the first heart cut makes it to bottle, and only after a spell of months resting in its can, allowing fatty acids and alcohols to come together and esterify post-distillation, broadening flavour. He tells me that he pressed seventy tonnes of fruit last year — around the same quantities Little Pomona pressed in 2021. I’ve seen that much fruit in fermented form, and it nearly fills the Little Pomona cidery. I reckon you could get the jumble of milk cans in Barry’s garage that represent the same quantity of base fruit to fit into the back of a decent sized van.
The result of this mind-boggling compression is a level of intensity in the finished spirit that I find difficult to compute. Baskets of apricots in a single bottle. 100,000 raspberry pips in a glass. We make our way to Barney’s kitchen table and he starts pouring me samples as we talk about perfume.
Spirits can often be discussed in base, reductive terms pertaining only to ferocity of alcohol. Fiery. Warming. Hearty. None of those adjectives come to mind here. These are fragrances; drinks of ethereal elegance, mind-boggling clarity, poise and precision and the utmost crystalline delicacy. They are aromatic in the way that cologne is — arresting and immediate, but never bludgeoning or coarse. They drift and shift like wraiths and on their breath is the heart-stopping memory of fruit.
I don’t know how much point there is to tasting notes. If I told you that the Perry Pear tasted of Perry Pear, the Blackcurrant of Blackcurrant and the Damson of Damson, I wouldn’t be wrong, but I’d be telling you that sunsets were yellow and thunderstorms are wet. I could say that the Blackcurrant had flutterings of mint, or that I got hints of praline from the Damson, but none of that gets close to telling you quite how these spirits express themselves. Part of me feels that giving tasting notes of the usual waffley ‘I’m getting’ style here would be a little like trying to describe light. All I can tell you is that somehow, across the breadth of their aroma and palate, they express not only the whole of their fruit, but a magnified, near-idealised version of it. Apples that carry the full sous bois of orchard, tree and branch. A blackcurrant that is somehow more blackcurrant than any you ever tasted. A damson that speaks not only of flesh, but of the depth and savoury nuttiness of pit, the wax of skin and the textural shift in the fruit’s composition where it meets each one. Perry pear spirit whose creamy texture carries, impossibly, the ghosts of tannin. Raspberries so shocking in the fullness of their encapsulation that they paint a new picture of raspberry for me that seems truer than truth.
Far from destructive, distillation is a heightener of ingredient, and a pitiless one at that, offering no place for flaws or carelessness or efficiency measures to hide. In its way it is the ultimate reverence for a grain or a fruit; the most concentrated flavour that an apple, a pear, a quince, a grape can convey; something that deserves and demands to be discussed as the best of agricultural produce in the same way as cider or perry or wine. But it’s also the finest tightrope of all; only walkable by someone who truly cares about what they are working with and takes the care required to let that ingredient sing.
Throughout the journey back home I continued to turn over the Eaux de Vie of Capreolus in my head. Two weeks and endless reflection later these still aren’t spirits I can claim to properly comprehend. They are too much, somehow, too staggering in their conception; too absolute in their refusal to compromise, and I can’t even attempt to discuss them without what sounds, I know, like the grossest of hyperbole. Many of the worlds I inhabit and am drawn to; drinks, writing, food, arts, are inherently subjective, and that often breeds, I think, a wariness of attempts at perfection. Indeed messiness, wildness, revelry, emotional outburst; these are part and parcel of what builds many of these worlds and draws many of their admirers to them. Just speak to anyone passionate about music or art or food or wine — or, yes, cider and perry. Precision, clarity and purity aren’t always well-suited words to these contexts, indeed somehow, for some, they almost carry a certain stigma.
‘Perfection’ is such a loaded and impossible term that the very notion of it seems risible, and the sight of someone genuinely striving for it in the most single-minded, anti-efficient and absolute of ways, with all the requisite dedication and sacrifice of time, is so rare and alien as to be almost unsettling. It’s something that I can’t compute, can’t imagine for myself and in honesty don’t particularly want to. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone in my life who is genuinely tilting at perfection in its most ascetic form, but Barney and Capreolus perhaps come closest, and the world of drinks is by far the more mesmerising for it.
Michaelangelo, asked how he was able to sculpt the statue of David, is alleged to have said that he simply cut away everything that was not David, and it’s that thought that I’m left with in considering Capreolus. These are spirits that cut away everything that is not the plant from which they are made and the place in which that plant grew, and then amplify what’s left into its clearest, most complex and eloquent expression. Impossible spirits of fruit and land, of cider and perry and wine and perfume. The memory of raspberries poured into a glass.
*NB Whilst the author has long held the opinions expressed in this paragraph, for full transparency it’s worth noting that he currently works for two ingredient and provenance-driven distilleries, Waterford Whisky and Renegade Rum.
Having written above that tasting notes feel a bit simplistic, beside the point and in any case beyond me, it’s with a slight reservation that I’m writing these here. But I wanted to leave what vague impressions I could, so I’ve given it a go.
Not as detailed as usual, nor written in the usual style, since they were written in relative haste and over conversation. But Barney was assiduous in not influencing me with comments in any direction or another, so I’m happy enough to record what thoughts I came up with.
Quality-wise, all have my highest recommendation, though of course their price makes them strictly for special occasions. I’ve put a star next to my very favourites, though this is entirely a matter of preference rather than any impression of ‘objective’ quality. (In any case, I’ve ended up starring about half of them, and felt I showed restraint in doing so).
Capreolus Hellen’s Early Perry Pear Eau de Vie 2021 – tasting note
(A component of the Perry Pear Eau de Vie, below, not sold in isolation)
Super high-toned, floral, lime sweets. Sous bois sense comes through on palate. Fresh, light, incredibly delicate
Capreolus Brandy Perry Pear Eau de Vie 2021 – tasting note
(As above, a component only — not sold separately)
Extraordinary depth; musky, spicy. Beeswax, fresh toffee, spice, musky fruit. Very much the Tenor to the Hellen’s Early’s Soprano.
Capreolus Perry Pear Eau de Vie 2021 – tasting note*
(Blend of the two Eaux de Vie above)
Works perfectly — a study in the point of blending, and testimony to time spent on Barney’s part establishing which pears work here. Hellen’s Early and Brandy are the two that are left after others have been dismissed, and their harmony is seamless, Tenor and Treble intermingling beautifully, each providing what the other doesn’t and lifting the whole thing to new heights. Creamy, textural palate — not quite tannins, since they’re broken down by distillation, but some sort of textural memory of the roughness of pear skin.
Capreolus Apricot Eau de Vie 2021 – tasting note*
Creamy, almost apricot-yoghurty — but in the most pillowy-soft, voluptuously fruit-laden and somehow outrageously detailed way. The Condrieu of Eaux de Vie. Conveys the luxury of a ripe apricot and the clarity and freshness of one freshly picked. (Or what I would imagine as that, not having ever picked one. Who knew they grew in the UK?)
Capreolus 1000 Tree Apple Eau de Vie – tasting note*
(From a single orchard boasting 1000 trees, each a different variety)
Huge aromatic richness, but again there’s a crispness and clarity to both aroma and texture compared to both the perry pears and the apricot that recalls the firm crunch of a good apple. There’s deep apple juice, bark, cinnamon. The most intense of sous bois autumn orchard. Perfume, branch and leaf on top of almost keeve-rich dusky bittersweet. Staggering complexity.
Capreolus Dabinett Eau de Vie – tasting note
Big, brusque, spicy, savoury, barky, clovey, tea tannin and branch enswirling massive spicy orange. More overtly fruity on the palate but never losing that sense of savouriness and spice and earth.
Capreolus Harry Masters’ Jersey Eau de Vie aged in Chestnut Wood – tasting note
‘Basically tarte tatin in a glass’ said Barney afterwards. I agree with him, but it’s far more detailed than that. All the waxy, skinsy, yellow Harry Masters’ character with just a bit of pastry and caramel and fresh vanilla pod. Super luscious texture on the palate compared to the two above.
Capreolus Quince Eau de Vie – tasting note
High-toned, tropical yellow — very juicy. Vibrant. Skins, whole fruit. Tropical flowers. It’s very funny to compare this to undistilled fermented quince; without the near-violence of acid and pith there’s a beautiful gentleness and delicacy of fruit and flowers here. The detailed, intricate elements of the fruit brought to the fore, without the usual distractions. (Don’t get me wrong – I love the usual distractions, mind.)
Capreolus Damson Eau de Vie – tasting note*
The sous bois sense of the 1000 trees orchard returns again; earthy, woody, savoury, but there is also the creaminess of fruit seen in the apricot (though differently inflected of course) and the jammy/fresh paradox seen in the raspberry, though here articulated in dusky, dark, blue-purple tones. Christmas spices and almond. It’s all here — pit, flesh, skins, and the membranes that bind them. Spectacular.
Capreolus Raspberry Eau de Vie – tasting note*
Immediate primary pink fruit, which manages to be at once utterly clear and fresh whilst indulgently juicy-jammy, but there is a fresh, crushed-mint greenness too — the perfume of fragrant leaves (though all leaves are removed). The depth and texture and fruit clarity is extraordinary on the palate. I am left with the impression of the whole fruit, down to the fuzz. It feels like a magic trick. Perhaps the most bewildering of all.
Capreolus Blackcurrant Eau de Vie – tasting note*
If the raspberry showed the whole fruit, this seems to show the whole plant; stems, twigs, branches and all. Then, in the centre, the most concentrated black, savoury, cassis compôte, almost smoky-herby. Unbelievable depth and cerebral, broody complexity.
Capreolus Gooseberry Eau de Vie – tasting note
Again, as with the quince, the natural ‘attack’ of acid that comes with the fruit has been removed, allowing a gorgeous, soft, creeping delicacy of green leaves to be revealed. Then a wholly unexpected, super-spicy, waxy, almost charry flavour.
Capreolus Blackberry Eau de Vie – tasting note*
Dark. End of season. As intense as the raspberry, but this is all dark berry and hedgerow leaf. Autumn rather than summer. Juicy, dusky, compôte. Nutmeg and a spiced jam that has me thinking of game us. Another spellbinder.
Capreolus Siegerrebe Grape Eau de Vie – tasting note*
Astonishing savouriness. Almost dry-rub on the nose, with the sweeter grape skin tones just adding that touch of balance. Palate is juicier, creamier — the savoury spices are still there, but alongside a combination of tropical fruit and facecream. Not quite in the Condrieu/Viognier manner of the Apricot, but along those lines.
Wow! What a mega piece! Brilliantly written.
I am not into my spirits at all, but these sound exceptional
Couple of questions – once it’s distilled into the cans and sits there for a while, what happens then? What sort of ABVs are these available at? Is fresh juice added back? Or some other magic ?
Barney releases his spirits at 43%. He’s tried a few different strengths, and that was the one that he felt offered the best of what he was after in terms of aromatic intensity and texture.
Definitely not adding fresh juice back in, or you’d end up with a sort of pommeau-type thing, rather than a spirit! It’ll be water, as with all spirits. Presumably demineralised, but I’ve not asked Barney about that actually.
Thanks so much for reading, and for the excellent questions.
This all sounds really, really interesting Adam, I’m sold!
How does one go about consuming these beautiful creations..? They sound like they would be amazing in a long drink on a summer’s day or are they too fragile for that? Are they better drunk as a whisky would be? How does Barney drink them?
Yes, of all people I think you’d get a kick out of them, being a fan of things fermented and distilled.
Whilst I dare say you could make them part of a long drink, I’m probably going to be drinking 90% of mine from a nosing glass as I would a whisky. There’s a page on Capreolus’ website mentioning ‘how to serve’ and it recommends that as the starting point. They’re definintely (in my opinion) spirits for exploring neat.
Hope you enjoy whatever you go for, and thanks as always for reading.
Brilliant, thank you! I feel like I’ve found myself another expensive rabbit hole! 😂😂
I do feel slightly guilty at the money I think I’ve cost you down the years!
Drink enjoyment > money spent.
A mantra I try to repeat to myself whenever I look at my account details…
Great piece. I don’t expect to ever drink any of these, but I really enjoyed the celebration of craft and vision, that many of us aspire to (at a humbler level).
Thank you! One day I’ll make that trip over to Germany and I’ll have to bring some with me.
Wouldn’t that be grand!
We also have an obsessive distiller of fruit eaux de vie in our neighborhood that this piece reminded me of.
Just stepping in to say that we do have a German distributor who sell direct – https://www.charleshosie.de/
Thank you again for the wonderful article Adam!