A Ohio Micro-Distiller Turns Apples Into Smooth Apple Brandy

It’s almost prayerful, the way Tom Herbruck communes with his spirits.

Several evenings a week, in a tree-shrouded red barn, Herbruck engages in a ritual of wine and fire, of gleaming copper and stainless steel, ice-cold water and flame-charred oak. His rite dates back centuries, to a time when witchcraft was punishable by death and the wooded land around Herbruck’s home outside Chagrin Falls was uncharted colonial frontier.

It begins with fruit, and it ends weeks later as the fruit of Herbruck’s labor: a smoky, smooth apple brandy called applejack. In between are the fermentation of juice into hard cider and the meticulous labor of precise refining and distillation.

“This incredibly slow, inefficient process produces the finest product,” Herbruck said recently.

The 40-year-old businessman is nine months into a side business as a micro-distiller. State and federal booze regulators licensed his distillery, called Tom’s Foolery, last September. Herbruck hopes to start selling one or two varieties of applejack in state-licensed liquor stores late this year.

“The short-term plan is to have a product on the shelves by Christmas,” Herbruck said. “The long-term plan is to produce a world-class applejack.”

That would put him in an uncrowded niche in the hip, emerging trend of hand-crafting liquor, some of which fetches upward of $200 a bottle.

Bill Owens, who heads the six-year-old American Distiller Institute craft association, figures there are 165 American micro-distillers. Roughly 100 of those are less than a decade old, and 20 to 30 more are forming each year in a revival that recalls the heyday of the micro-brewery explosion of the early 1990s.

Altogether those operations represent only a fraction of a percent of the liquor market, but that’s bound to grow, Owens predicts. Consumers are demanding quality and connection, he says, and he points for proof at the soaring popularity of artisan foods at gourmet grocers and heirloom, locally grown produce at farmers markets.

“There’s been a renaissance in brewing, bread-making, wine-making and cheese-making,” Owens said. “Now it’s our turn.”

Most craft distillers focus on making vodkas, whiskeys and gins, and brandies made from other fruits – the most familiar and accessible types of liquor.

Applejack, an heirloom American spirit somewhere between brandy and whiskey in character, is far more neglected today, though it once ruled the booze roost.

“Applejack is a part of American history that was lost, largely because of the temperance movement and Prohibition,” said Herbruck. “Two hundred years ago, it would’ve been more common than whiskey.”

Historians of botany and booze say apple and peach brandy were most likely the first distilled spirits in the colonies. George Washington was a big applejack fan, and Abraham Lincoln sold it at his wayfarer’s inn in Springfield, Ill. Johnny Appleseed himself — itinerant arborist John Chapman — propagated applejack as the 18th-century booze of choice as he planted orchards across the frontier lands of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

The boutique-booze boom has been strongest in California (21 craft distillers), Oregon (17) and Colorado (12). When Herbruck got his state and federal permits in September, he became only the second licensed craft distiller in Ohio.

The first one, Don Outterson of Cincinnati’s Woodstone Creek micro-distillery and winery, calls it ironic that those states have eclipsed Ohio as distilling hot spots. Before Prohibition, Outterson said, “Ohio was rife with [stills] — there were thousands of them. There were like 200 in Cincinnati alone. . . . There’s a rich history of styles and flavors that were developed here.”

Nowadays, only a single maker mass-produces applejack: New Jersey’s 411-year-old Laird & Co. distillery. (Its product of that name is an adulterated version: 35 percent applejack and 65 percent Everclear-like grain alcohol, watered down to 80 proof. It also makes two versions of pure, 100-proof barrel-aged applejack, which it calls apple brandy.)

Without naming Laird, Herbruck boasted that his own applejack “is far superior to what else I’ve tasted out there.”

Herbruck’s fascination with making liquor predates his ability to drink it. He began researching the process as a teen, when he helped his father run a hobby winery in Gates Mills. Herbruck even has his handwritten notes from a 1984 phone call to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, inquiring about the history, process and permissibility of distilling.

Almost a quarter-century later, and after filing mountains of paperwork with state and federal regulators, he got permission.

By day, Herbruck is a partner in the Herbruck Alder employee-benefits brokerage. In the evenings and weekends since he scored that license last fall, Herbruck and his wife, Lianne, have experimented with the alchemy of alcohol.

They bought barrels of locally produced apple juice and started fermenting it into hard cider — apple wine, with a gentle alcohol content of 7 percent. Each batch can take two weeks or more to finish its fermentation.

That’s where Mother Nature’s work ends and the Herbrucks’ labor intensifies with the precise art and science of distillation.

Their work is identical to the moonshiners and corn mashers of American lore, a process detailed meticulously by Samuel McHarry in “The Practical Distiller,” a manual dating to at least 1808 and still regarded as a booze-making bible.

The Herbrucks pump the hard cider, 30 gallons at a time, into a century-old copper pot still and fire up its propane heater. When the cider reaches about 181 degrees, the ethyl alcohol in it vaporizes. As the pressure builds, it forces the volatilized alcohol out a copper escape tube and to a condenser — a copper coil awash in cold water. Alcoholic vapor condenses back into liquid that slowly drips out of a spigot into a 5-gallon glass bottle.

The first few pints of each run, known as “the heads,” are about as tasty as fingernail-polish remover, and almost as poisonous. The last gallon and a half, or “the tails,” stinks like a wet dog and is loaded with undesirable, hangover-causing distillation byproducts. The heads and tails get tossed. In between is the good stuff — “the hearts.”

It can take two to three hours to coax three gallons of hard stuff out of 30-odd gallons of cider. After the head and tail are cut, only about 1½ gallons emerge, as purified, water-clear “young” applejack.

That’s a vodka-like drink with hints of apple on the nose and palate. With barrel aging, it becomes something else entirely — a smoky, whiskeylike brandy with wisps of apple and vanilla, which becomes richer with time. Laird’s most premium versions spend 12 years on wood. Newbie Herbruck’s single-batch method has yet to produce enough batches to fill a single 30-gallon barrel.

To Tom Herbruck, it’s as though history and magic collide.

“I think it’s incredible that you can get this old equipment that somebody used 100 years ago and use it the same way,” he effused. “Every piece of the process is hugely deep.”

Article by: Jim Nichols

One thought to “A Ohio Micro-Distiller Turns Apples Into Smooth Apple Brandy”

  1. Sir
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