“Eaux de Vie” translates as “water of life.” However, there’s really nothing watery about them, other than their clear, water-like appearance.
Technically, any spirit could be called an eau de vie, but the term has become more synonymous specifically with any fruit, other than grape, or herb/spice spirit. Most are not aged in oak and are aggressively alcoholic and fragrantly reminiscent of the fruit, spice or herb they’re made from. Production usually involves fermentation of the raw fruit before distillation, or in the case of herbs and spices, macerated into them.
They’re often used as digestifs to settle the tummy after a large meal, but in many parts of the world are actually used before a meal to stimulate the appetite or to accompany food. I’ve also even seen them used in baking, cooking and cocktails.
Each country has its own traditions and version of eaux de vie, specific method of production and way of consuming them. Regardless, being a distilled product without added sugar, they’re not sweet, and always pack quite a punch, usually around 40 per cent alcohol or better, so sip conservatively. Following is a small selection of eaux de vie from around the world.
France is a huge producer of eau de vie – that’s where the term comes from. The Alsace region in particular has a long tradition of producing these spirits. Many fruits are utilized. Framboise (raspberry) is one of the more well known. Great on its own or with Black Forest cake! Kirsch (cherry) is a delight. If you like pear then Poire William, made from Bartletts, will tickle your fancy. Apple lovers will adore Calvados which is often oak treated. Mirabelle (dark plum) is wonderful and will get your blood moving.
In Germany, they make something called ‘Schnapps’ from many kinds of fruit. Don’t be fooled by those sweet, fruit-flavoured concoctions produced with lots of added sugar. They’re more liqueur than spirit. I’ve whiled away many a rainy afternoon in Germany sipping schnapps with the locals.
In the Balkan countries like Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, they produce something called ‘Rakia’. It is a general name of the spirits made from fruits here, and is considered the national drink of some of the aforementioned. One of the most famous is ‘Slivovitz’, a potent elixir made from plums.
Hungarian ‘Palinka’ is very interesting. Invented in the Middle Ages, it is distilled from a mash of ripe fruit, and can be consumed as an aperitif or digestif and is often accompanied by a glass of sparkling water.
The Scandinavians love their ‘Akvavit’. This powerful nectar of the gods, usually flavoured with herbs and spices, washes down their food beautifully. Having spent much time in Denmark, as my second wife was Danish, I loved it with ‘smorrebrod’, their famous open-faced sandwiches.
We can’t forget about Italy and its infamous ‘Grappa’. Created from many different kinds of Italian grapes, it’s just the thing to finish off an Italian feast. A shot in your espresso first thing in the morning, known as a ‘Café Correcto’, will kick start your day with a bang.
The eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North African counties are known for ‘Arak’. This eye-opener is flavoured with anise and is usually served with ‘mezza’, a selection of small dishes, somewhat like appetizers.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying any of these, you should avail yourself. Whether it’s in the country of origin in your travels or back here in Canada, they’re a fascinating addition to the spirit world. Many ethnic restaurants here in Toronto offer them, so the next time you’re dining out at your favourite eatery, order one.
NOTE: My new comic wine mystery novel, Pinot Envy, is now available at Book City in the Beach. On Sept. 20, from 6-8 p.m., I will be in-store signing books, so drop by, have a chat and pick up your copy. It would be great to meet you.
Edward Finstein a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, wine writer, educator, judge & consultant winedoctor.ca thewinedoctor.blogspot.com @DrWineKnow