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LEAVE IT TO the French to turn water into an indulgence. Well, not water, exactly, but eau-de-vie or eau-de-vie de fruit, the general French term for any straight distilled spirit, rendered 80-proof or above, served unaged.
Traditional across Europe, eau-de-vie can be made of almost anything, like the caraway-flavored aquavit (herby vodka, basically) or some of Germany’s fruity schnapps. Americans get into the act with apple brandy or “applejack,” the spirit that soused our forefathers.
Pear brandy is among the most delicate eaux-de-vie, due to the diaphanous, sometimes-elusive flavor of pears themselves. In contrast to many pear-flavored brandies or liqueurs, in which pear flavor (and sometimes sugar) is added to existing alcohols, true pear brandy is crafted entirely from a mash of fermented pears, and has a strong pear aroma but is dry and strong on the tongue, with some almost vegetal notes. The French and Swiss are particularly fond of pear brandy, often calling it Poire Williams, as the pear known as Bartlett here in the States is called the Williams pear in Europe.
Pear brandy is also the most theatrical in terms of presentation, often sold with a whole pear in the bottle, a feat achieved by the laborious process of suspending the bottles from crocheted ropes in the branches of pear trees, sticking a budding pear down the neck and letting it actually grow inside the bottle over the summer.
I feel for these pears, born in captivity, seeing the sun only through the slightly warped medium of the glass that surrounds them, always wondering whether there might be something more to the world, never feeling the breeze directly on their dappled flesh and aware of it only by the swaying of their prison. This is their existence, swelling with the season, hoping not to grow so large that their cage becomes a straitjacket, only to meet their fate when — upon being cut down from the tree from whence they sprang — they are suddenly submerged in a heady, crystalline bath made of the very flesh of their former compatriots. Not for nothing do the French call this act of exquisite fructose cruelty a “poire prisonniere.”
The Pacific Northwest is America’s breadbasket of pears, producing around 85% of the national crop, so it is right and proper that we also should produce some smashing pear brandy. You can get a Bartlett pear brandy from Wilridge Vineyard, Winery & Distillery in Yakima, and Oregon-based Clear Creek Distillery even produces one with the pear in the bottle, always a good conversation piece.
Alas, the imprisoned pear itself often goes tragically uneaten, as it is, in practice, a royal pain to get it out of a bottle. The most direct method is to break the bottle, which, if done improperly, just results in stomach-ripping shards of glass embedded in the actual pear. I also have heard it suggested that one take a very long, very thin-bladed knife and slip it into the neck of the bottle to cut the fruit into pieces that way. I can only imagine the feelings of the pear, as the glistening snee approaches, ready to — in the cruelest (and most delicious) possible way — finally set it free.