Just In Time for the Holidays: High Wire Distilling Co. Releases Peach Brandy
"South Carolina is the number one peach producing state in the South," says Ann Marshall of Charleston's High Wire Distillery. "We felt we had a duty to celebrate the peach tradition."
Southerners have long forgotten about peach brandy, but two centuries ago most of the region's orchards were producing fruit not for eating but for putting into copper stills and transforming into high-proof spirits. The resulting brandy was prized more highly than rum and even bourbon.
Prohibition wiped that spirit from the market in 1919, and it never came back—at least not in its original form. The stuff labeled "peach brandy" that you find in liquor stores today is usually grape brandy flavored with peach liqueur.
But Marshall and her husband, Scott Blackwell, aim to change that, for High Wire just released its first two-year-old aged peach brandy, a spirit years in the making.
"It's the first historically accurate peach brandy made in South Carolina in over a century," Marshall says. By "historically accurate," she means "using all of the parts of the fruit, including the peel and the pit, as had been done since Colonial times."
It started with 10,000 pounds of July Prince peaches grown in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, which the High Wire team, led by head distiller Chris Jude, mashed and fermented. "We roasted the pits, cracked them, and bagged them," Blackwell adds. "Then hung the bags in the still during the run."
The resulting brandy came off the still crystal clear and not a bit sweet or fruity. "It wasn't anything like I expected," Marshall says. "The peach essence really has a more subtle flavor—it's almost grapey it its mouth feel and flavor."
Marshall likens it to French cognac, which in the 19th century was peach brandy's great rival at the high end of the American spirits market. Appropriately, High Wire aged its 21st century version in the style of cognac, using two 59-gallon French oak barrels. Unlike the heavily-charred American oak barrels used for bourbon, these were only lightly touched by flame. "One was a heavy toast," Blackwell says, "and one was a char number one"—the lightest level of charring.
After two years of aging, the result is a spirit with a golden hue and a touch of vanilla and cinnamon from the toasted oak, but that peach essence really shines through. It's excellent for sipping while musing on the lost treasures of the past, but it's even better mixed in a cocktail the way 19th century tipplers preferred it—and especially in a mint julep.
Today we associate juleps with bourbon and the Kentucky Derby, but when those icy concoctions first became a national sensation in the 1830s and 1840s, they were made not with aged whiskey but with peach brandy. Something about that ice-cold blend of mint and sugar really draws out the peachy essence of the spirit, a beguiling combination that goes down dangerously fast and smooth.
If you're looking to get your hands on this rare historic brandy, your best bet is to pay a visit to High Wire's tasting room in downtown Charleston, though this year's limited run will likely go fast. (There is a second batch in the works that will be ready next year.). High Wire Peach Brandy is also available from Astor Wine & Spirits in New York City, Potomac Wine & Spirits in Washington, DC, and online spirits retailer Seelbach's. All three will ship by mail, provided your state permits it.
Peach Brandy Mint Julep
½ oz demerara simple syrup (See note)
8 leaves fresh mint
2 oz peach brandy
Additional sprig of mint for garnish
- Put the simple syrup in a glass tumbler or julep cup and add the mint leaves. Press the mint leaves firmly and repeatedly with a spoon or muddler to extract the oil, but don't tear or crush them. You can remove the mint now and discard or leave in the glass if you prefer.
- Fill the tumbler or cup about ¾ of the way to the top with crushed ice and pour over the peach brandy. Stir well to chill the brandy and syrup, then top the drink with more crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
Note: To make the simple syrup, combine one cup of demerara or turbinado sugar and one cup of water in a small saucepan and bring to almost a boil, stirring constantly till the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to cool, then bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. You can substitute regular white sugar for the demerara, but you'll miss out on the rich, dark notes that demerara gets from its residual molasses content.