Pilot story and photos
by Joe Friedrichs
Next to a mountain-shaped heap of ripening pears, Georgia Nowlin flipped a piece of fruit back and forth between her fingers.
In a matter of a few weeks these pears will be transformed at the Brandy Peak Distillery into bottled spirits. And for Georgia and her husband David, the entire process will be just another day at the office.
Brandy Peak, a Brookings-based distillery that produces brandies, grappas and liqueurs, started with the dream of R.L. Nowlin, the company's founder. His plan was to "capture the varietal characteristics of fruit as brandy." Since he first developed his idea in 1984, with each passing year the dream continues to grow. R.L. is David's father and has since given complete ownership of Brandy Peak to he and his wife.
The distillery building is located four miles up Carpenterville Road. It was erected in 1993 from what had previously been a wild landscape of blackberry bushes, shrubs and fir trees. The name Brandy Peak Distillery was chosen not only because the company produces brandy, but also because Brandy Peak is the highest point in Curry County. Currently the Nowlins are expanding the facility which sits on part of the 57 acres used for fruit harvesting and production.
To create their spirits, the Nowlins use wood-fired pot stills. A pot still is the device that helps makes brandy so unique. Using a process known as distillation in the pot stills, the original fermented fruit juice vaporizes and then condensates again.
The Brandy Peak pot stills were designed by R.L. and built by his former company, L & A Engineering. Not only are they an original design, but also very unique to the world of distillation.
"They're still the only legal wood-fire stills in the country that we know of," Georgia said.
The distilling process begins at Brandy Peak when the fruit arrives and ripens for fermentation. This first step usually occurs in early September, when the pears and grape varietals are harvested. Fully ripened, the fruit is crushed and fermented in a large tank.
After fermentation, when the sugars have converted to alcohol, the fermented mash is put into one of the wood-fired pot stills for distilling. Using a mixture of different woods harvested off the property, the pot still is heated. Eventually the material begins to boil. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the boiling liquid will release the alcoholic vapors before the water boils. The vapors go through the pipe to the condenser, where they are cooled and return to liquid form. The spirit is then gathered in glass containers.
From the day the fruit arrives until the spirit is initially placed in a glass container takes approximately one month.
No coloring or flavorings are added during the process, Georgia said.
"We're kind of purist that way," she said. "The result is 100 percent pure spirits."
To get the proof, or alcohol content, exactly where it needs to be, a spirit may go through the distillation process several times, David said.
All spirits, such as brandy, when distilled turn out to be a pure clear liquid. Several of the bottles available at Brandy Peak come in this original clear state. Only after brandy is aged in a wooden barrel does it transform into liquid.
The process of ageing brandy wasn't discovered until after a series of wars in the 17th century. The fighting closed many oceanside ports for trade, and ships were prevented from loading cargo. Brandy that would have otherwise been sent was stored in wooden barrels. Since the product could not be moved legally, the barrels sat ageing, often for years. Over time, traders finally opened the barrels and discovered a change had occurred in the liquid. The once colorless brandy now had a tannish hue and possessed a more mellow taste.
Modern day brandy producers apply this technique of barrel aging. The Nowlins use three different barrel types: Oregon Oak, French Limousine Oak and Hungarian Oak. The brandies sit for an average of two or three years before the barrels are opened at Brandy Peak.
The Nowlin's first bottles hit the market in 1994. The two products were a pinot noir "marc" brandy, and a natural pear brandy. In a decade plus of operations, the Nowlins have expanded their product line to ten different brandies and one blackberry liqueur.
In 1995, a tasting room at the distillery opened to the public. Tasting rooms for spirits are rare in the U.S., Georgia said.
"We opened the tasting room primarily to get customer feedback on our products," Georgia said.
Ann Moore, an employee at Brandy Peak, said people from all over the world visit the tasting room. This summer visitors came from Florida, Southern California and Europe.
Sometimes people come into the Brandy Peak tasting room unfamiliar with the punch that an 80 proof brandy can pack.
"We have some people come in that are really educated about spirits and others that don't know a thing," David said. "Some like it and some don't."
In 1997, the "Brandy Peak Aged Pear Brandy" was entered in the Los Angles County Competition of the Americas and, later in the year, the San Francisco International Wine Competition. In Los Angeles, it received a gold medal and in San Francisco, a double gold medal, Georgia said.
Another popular Brandy Peak product is the blackberry liqueur.
"The wild blackberries used are picked, fully ripe, from around the local area and on our property," Georgia said.
Once picked from the vine, the blackberries are soaked in brandy for several months. In this process, known as maceration, juices contracted from the berries dilute the alcohol content of the original liquid.
As the Brandy Peak Distillery continues to expand its business, the Nowlins simply plan to continue doing what they've been doing since the first batch of brandy was produced more than ten years ago.
"We didn't know how our products were going to be received because no one was really making what we were," Georgia said. "There's only a handful of similar distilleries in the country and we're happy right here."