Orchard Observations: Dead Bird Brandy

F-3-Orchard-Observation-1By Megan Humphrey, Shelburne Orchards

As the snowstorm rages outside, it seems like the perfect time to talk about Shelburne Orchards’ apple brandy, “Dead Bird Brandy.” Brandy is the general name for any spirit distilled from fermented fruit sugars. Apple brandy is distilled from hard cider. We use our own apples, press the cider here at the orchard, ferment it in tanks with yeast to create hard cider, and then age it in used bourbon barrels.

Most apples produce a hard cider of about six percent alcohol. Once it’s fermented, we put it into our still and stoke a wood fire underneath until it reaches just above 70 degrees Celsius. It will continue to rise in temperature, little by little, until we cut to the ‘tails’ at about 92 degrees Celsius. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so the alcohols in hard cider separate and rise up through the top of the still in a vapor. Our still averts the vapor through a copper pipe and down through a copper coil set in cold water, facilitating the vapors to condense and turn into a liquid spirit. This we collect drip by drip to separate the first, middle, and last portions of the run into “heads,” “hearts,” and “tails.” Each contains different levels of ethanol, methanol, other alcohols, and substances depending on their boiling points. It is then poured into and stored in wooden barrels for the rest of the aging process.

As the brandy ages, the liquid lost due to evaporation is called the “Angel’s Share.” After aging, when the brandy is poured from the barrel, some is left trapped within the wood of every barrel. That is titled the “Devil’s Cut.”

F-3-Orchard-Observation-2The name “Dead Bird Brandy” came from a story that Nick heard at his grandfather’s funeral. He was sitting by a bronze cast of a dead bird when an older man explained that “it all happened on a winter night when it was below zero and snow-covered.” Nick’s grandfather had an illegal still in the cellar … and it caught on fire. Fire trucks and a state revenuer sped their way to the house. When the revenuer approached the house to search for evidence that alcohol might have been the cause of the fire, one of the firemen (who was buying booze from Nick’s grandfather) “accidentally” hosed the revenuer down. The poor guy had to go home and change his clothes. When the revenuer returned, warm and dry, all evidence of the still had been removed. The dinner crowd then swore that the fire had begun when a log rolled out of the fireplace. The next day, a dead bird was found in the snow, assumed to have died from the smoke. Nick’s grandfather took the bird and had it bronzed, sending a copy to everyone involved that night as a thank you for keeping his secret safe.

Shelburne Orchards sold the first run of 100 bottles in December 2011. The next batch of Dead Bird Brandy will be bottled and sold in four years. The time will allow more smoothness and additional vanilla and oak flavors. Aging turns the originally clear liquid into a beautiful amber hue that makes it look like liquid gold. Based on the last batch, it will be well worth the wait.

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