New York Times
"In Connecticut, 'Waters of Life' Flow Mightily"
By Richard W. Langer
Hitchhiking the back roads of Switzerland one day in 1962, I came across a
valley where where bottles grew on trees. The orchard fruits sparkled in the
brilliant mountain sunlight as I paused by the roadside in puzzlement.
"That's the way we get the pear inside," the orchardist tending the crop
explained. "Once the flower has been pollinated, we push the young fruit into
the bottle, where it matures."
The bottles were supported by long forked sticks pushed into the ground.
When the fruit was ripe, the fellow said, "We snip the stem and fill the bottle
with poire William."
Many years later I got to sample this most fragrant of all brandies, much
to my delight. So when I happened upon an orchard growing bottles in northeastern
Connecticut recently, I not only knew what the owners were up to, I had to
taste their wares.
Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford is one of a growing group of artisanal
distillers in this country, most of which devote their skills to producing
intensely flavored vodka, gin, rum or whiskey in small quantities. Westford
Hill took a different direction.
Its founders, Louis and Margaret Chatey, originally planted grapes on their
200-acre farm, which has been in the Chatey family since the turn of the last
century. But a chance meeting with Jorg Rupf changed their plans completely.
Mr. Rupf, who had been a lawyer in his native Germany , went to California
to do postdoctoral research and ended up founding St. George Spirits, the
first eau de vie producer licensed in the United States since Prohibition.
The company is credited with having started the microdistillery movement in
After seeing Mr. Rupf's operation in Alameda , and bearing in mind Connecticut
's excellent fruit-growing conditions-the state is the largest pear grower
in the Northeast-the Chateys decided to switch to eaux de vie. They acquired
a fruit-crushing hammermill, stainless steel tanks for fermentation and a
65-gallon copper pot custom-made in Germany . Westford Hill Distillers was
licensed in 1998 and began distilling fruit brandies.
Mrs. Chatey, 44, who grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire , believes
strongly in supporting local agriculture.
"One Thing I find very encouraging is that we are opening up a whole new
market for New England fruit growers," she said. "We buy seconds, which can
be otherwise difficult to market. But for pressing purposes size doesn't
matter, and it's only the fruits' off size that makes them seconds. Tastewise,
the quality we buy is always first class."
Last year Westford Hill Distillers crushed 100,000 pounds of New England
fruit to make 20,000 bottles of various eaux de vie. One 200-milliliter bottle
of kirsch requires five pounds of cherries. The Chateys also produce raspberry
framboise and strawberry fraise as well as the classic, intensely fruity pear
William, all of them put up in towering imported Italian glass bottles. Drink
them neat, or mix them simply with tonic. Amazingly, they also work nicely
in mixed drinks.
Westford Hill products are sold only in Connecticut, but are available in
dozens of stores all over the state, including Westport Wine Shop, 221 Post
Road West, (203)227-2468; Fountainhead Wines and Distillations, 67 ½ Winfield
Street, East Norwalk, (203)854-9138; and Cask'n Keg, 14 Clara Drive at McQuade's
Marketplace, Mystic, (860)536-8708. The pear William and cherry kirsch are
about $16.99 a bottle, the framboise and fraise about $25.99. The brandies
are also served in restaurants throughout the state.
In the autumn of 2004 the distillery will open its first keg of apple brandy,
which, unlike the eaux de vie, is aged for six years in oak barrels. Known
in Europe as Calvados, American Calvados is called Calvador, or eau de vie
h, and as to the pear in the bottle, Westford Hill Distillers has not sold
any yet: the Chateys are still experimenting with getting it in there. It takes
a certain skill that only years can hone, as that Swiss orchardist could have
told me years ago.