Spirits Close-Up: Fruit Brandy

Dampfwerk distillery's line up of fruit brandys. From left to right, Barreled Apple Brandy, Pear Brandy, Barreled Grape Immature Brandy, and Apple Brandy // Photo by Aaron Job

Dampfwerk distillery’s lineup of fruit brandies. From left to right, Barreled Apple Brandy, Pear Brandy, Barreled Grape Immature Brandy, and Apple Brandy // Photo by Aaron Job

I can’t claim this as objective fact, but my prejudice is this: a great deal of the unaged brandy in the world is disgusting. From Italian grappa, to French marc, and eau de vie of all stripes—so many are little more than a nerve-shattering mouthful of fiery ethanol.

That’s why I’ve become fixated on four fruit brandies being made by Ralf Loeffelholz at his Dampfwerk Distillery in St. Louis Park. Not only are they all drinkable—they’re fresh, expressive, and complex.

“Our products are ones you drink straight. People ask me how to drink my fruit brandy and I say: ‘With a glass? Open your mouth?’” Ralf chuckles. But how did he hit the sweet spot? What is he doing right that so many other brandy makers don’t (or don’t care to) do?

Ralf Loeffelholz // Photo by Aaron Job

Ralf Loeffelholz // Photo by Aaron Job

“I don’t want to poo-poo anyone, but I’m hyper process-focused. And it starts with selecting the fruit,” he says. “We hand-crush the fruit, ferment them skin-on, distill them skin-on, which brings in all the aromas.” Under the skin, he says, is where all the interesting flavor compounds are—ones that will never enter the equation if, like many brandy distillers around the world, you begin the process with a concentrate or a juice. “The whole fruit makes it into the still and it’s a mess to clean out,” he laughs. “We’ve processed 130,000 pounds of fruit by hand over two seasons.”

He also cites temperature control during fermentation as critical to preventing yeast from stressing out and producing off-flavors. But you can tell the fruit sourcing is a point of pride at Dampfwerk. 

“It’s a process. The first year, I just got whatever fruit was left over. Last year they were calling me, and this year they’re planting for me. You have to build that supply chain and it doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s easy to buy apple juice and put it in a fermentor—you can have apple brandy in a weekend.”

Instead, Ralf runs hand-selected fruit through a still that’s uniquely tailored to brandy production. The results are remarkable.

Apple Brandy

Made from local Haralson apples, overflowing with fresh fruit sweetness.

Barreled Apple Brandy

French oak barrels that once held cabernet sauvignon mute the aroma but concentrate the soft, tannic fruit in a lovely way.

Barreled Grape Immature Brandy

Made from local Frontenac Gris grapes, prickly white grape acids with a biscuity pie crust flavor make for a fresh fruit tart of a brandy.

Pear Brandy

Made with Bartletts from Oregon, a soft and lusty brandy with prominent pear skin and yeast character.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.