Willington Ashford Mansfield Horizons
This is Eau-de-vie
By Linda Yau, with Margaret Chatey
It is called "Water of Life."
Atop one of the highest hills between Ashford and Long Island Sound, sits Westford Hill Distillers, as inconspicuously as any neighborhood farm. It is very much a part of the rolling Ashford landscape.
Since the mid 90's Margaret and Louis Chatey have been producing a product that has been called by such terms as "sophisticated", "intense" and "complicated". In fact, eau-de-vie has many characteristics and uses. In Europe, eau-de-vie is served gratis in restaurants after dinner, to round out the dining experience. It serves both as palate cleanser and digestif. Austrians use it in cooking: in sauces, over fresh fruit, in soups, in deglazing as well as a dessert accompaniment. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The story of Westford Hill Distillers started in 1919, when Louis Chatey's grandparents, who were Hungarian immigrants, came to Ashford, which was then home to a large Hungarian community. It was then that the Chateys established the family farm, raising chickens, pigs and cattle, and selling what they could to support their family. Agriculture was naturally critical to the family's livelihood.
So perhaps it was no accident that Louis Chatey would return to the family farm many years later, with his widowed mother, to rebuild, and reestablish in the late 70's.
By that time, the old farm house, originally built in 1711 and restored once in the 1950's was again in dire need of repairs. It was lots of work, but just as in times past and future, the Chateys were up to the task.
When Louis and Margaret married in the early 80's, the two decided they would start to grow grapes on the 200-acre farm, to serve as a cash crop. As so, with the first six or seven acres, began to plant wine grapes with cuttings from Hamlet Hill in Pomfret. This endeavor led Louis to a job in the wine business, working for a Connecticut distributor. Later, Margaret and Louis would travel to Europe in pursuit of their new-found interest and would eventually be introduced to "fruit spirits" in Alsace, France. On his travels to California, Louis became more and more familiar with the distillery process. As their interest and knowledge of these "fruit spirits" grew, Margaret and Louis began to ask themselves, "What if?" What if they were to look beyond the grape to other local fruits being grown right here in the northeast? Was distilled spirits a possibility for them?
Let's just say that if there was ever any notion to produce and market wine from the grapes they had planted, it never came to fruition. Pardon the pun.
All it took from there was a renewed commitment to their family business. In 1995, Margaret and Louis laid their plans to build onto their barn to establish the distillery.
From the outside you would never know the "barn" was a distillery, but that was part of the plan. Designed by Louis Chatey himself, the distillery was meant to blend right into the landscape.
Westford Hill Distillers obtained its license in 1998 and began official production of eau-de-vie right here in the Ashford hills. Marketing of the product began in February of 1999.
Margaret and Louis choose only high quality fruit for their product, readily available from local suppliers here in New England and in New York state. Eaux-de-vie is made from everything BUT grapes - pears, cherries, plums, and apricots. Westford Hill currently produces four eaux-de-vie products, Pear William, Kirsch (cherry), Framboise (raspberry) and Fraise (strawberry). And just like wine, no two eau-de-vie years are exactly alike, as the quality and characteristics of fruit are different from year to year depending on growing conditions. "Supporting local agriculture is so important here in the northeast," says Margaret. "I am pleased to offer local fruit growers a new market for their products. And consumers can try a style of spirit that has been traditionally produced primarily in Europe - hand-distilled fruity brandies. Fine brandies start with great fruit, and local soils and conditions here have been producing top quality fruit for generations."
The distilling process is a blend of European science and the art of American craftsmanship. First, the freshest, ideally ripened fruit is fermented, then heated in the still until the alcohols begin to vaporize. The distilled spirit is drawn off with the undesireable early "heads"and later "tails" are discarded. Only the mid-charge "hearts", containing intense fruit aroma and taste, and ideal alcohol content, are used. There is no barrel aging. These fruit brandies are true to the fruit and need no oak to improve or soften their flavor. There are no artificial flavorings added. After storage in glass or stainless for about a year, the eaux-de-vie are ready to cut with spring water to reach the appropriate proof level. The end product is 40% alcohol, or 80 proof.
Westford Hill has recently earned international acclaim for its eaux-de-vie products, having won the gold medal for Pear William in 2002, at the Amenti del Vino International Wine Competition. This, out of 577 entries worldwide. Also last year Saveur magazine called Westford Hill brandies, the "Best thing to do with fruit in Connecticut."
Westford Hill Distillers is also producing aged brandy made from Connecticut- grown apples and an aged plum brandy which is scheduled for release in 2004.
Although the distillery is not open to the public for tours, tastings or sales, the eaux-de-vie are widely distributed at wine and spirit shops and restaurants throughout Connecticut. Eau-de-vie retails from about $17 to $25 a bottle and can be found at these fine retailers:
. Ashford Spirit Shoppe, Ashford
. Meadowbrook Wine and Spirits, Coventry
. Bombadil's Spirit Shop, Mansfield
. Holiday Spirits, Mansfield
. Tom's Liquor Shoppe, Mansfield
. Villa Spirit Shoppe, Mansfield
. Village Spirit and Occasion Place, Tolland
. Helen's Wine & Spirits, Willington