It's Saturday afternoon, and Tom Herbruck is tinkering in his Bainbridge Township garage. Outside, chickens roam about the leafy estate in a loose pack, scratching at worms and wild clover. Every few minutes, another of Herbruck's children pops into the shed to say hi, but the man will not be diverted from his task. Crouching in front of an ornate copper pot still, he collects the first few dribbles of a clear liquid. A modern-day alchemist, Herbruck has transformed apples into brandy.
We've all heard of farm-to-table dining. Now, thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like Herbruck, we might soon be talking about orchard-to-snifter sipping. Part of a new breed of craft micro-distillers, Herbruck and his wife Lianne are producing a high-end spirit born entirely of local ingredients. Their apple brandy — or "applejack" — is an elixir two years in the making, with the first precious bottles expected to hit liquor stores this fall.
Like the microbrewers before him, Herbruck strives for quality and authenticity over quantity and mass appeal. Branded Tom's Foolery, the distillery joins just two other small-scale operations in Ohio: Cincinnati's Woodstone Creek and Columbus' Middle West Spirits. Additional micro-distilleries are right around the bend, including Sam McNulty's Market Garden Brewery, slated to open in Ohio City later this year.
"If not technically illegal," Herbruck explains, "it was entirely impractical to start a micro-distillery here until the state relaxed some regulations." Now, like states across the nation, Ohio is laying out the welcome mat for spirit-based start-ups and the tax dollars they bring with them.
A truly American spirit, applejack has been produced in this country for more than 300 years. Before Prohibition, there were scores of distilleries making the stuff; these days, a mere handful. Herbruck is the first to revive the tradition in Ohio. To be called apple brandy, the spirit must be distilled entirely from the fermented juice of ripe fruit, a process with considerably higher costs and lower yields than those using inexpensive grain.
To distill applejack, you first have to make hard cider. Herbruck fills his stainless-steel fermentation tanks with sweet cider, pressed from two dozen varieties of Ohio apples. In a little over a week's time, the cider becomes about as alcoholic as a craft beer. In the old days, applejack was made by freezing — or "jacking" — the hard cider to separate the frozen water from the liquid booze. Modern makers prefer distillation, a far more elegant process that results in a smoother product.
Herbruck transfers the hard cider into his ornate Portuguese pot still, which uses steam to boil the brew, causing the alcohol to evaporate. As that vapor worms its way through the coils, it cools, condenses back into liquid form, and drips into a waiting vessel. Herbruck uses a hydrometer to measure the ever-shifting alcohol level of the flowing liquid. The goal is to separate undesirable compounds like methanol and acetone from the prized and potable "heart." Following a second distillation process, the clear spirit is deposited in charred oak barrels, where it will age for up to two years. Straw-colored and apple-cheeked, the finished product is a brandy with a uniquely American — even midwestern — essence.
"Terroir is a real thing," says Herbruck, referring to the French term that describes how geography affects the characteristics of foods. "The apples that grow in the Western Reserve area taste different from the ones that grow in Northern France." Everything affects the final product, he adds, from the varieties of apples used to the soil in the orchard. "It all matters."
In addition to their cherished applejack, the Herbrucks are developing an artisanal gin. Typically, gin is made by infusing a neutral grain-derived spirit such as vodka with botanicals like juniper and orange peel. The Herbrucks' gin will be made from apples, giving it a wholly unique story and flavor profile.
"Most gins are made by first stripping out all the flavor in the spirit," explains Herbruck. "Ours will be a New American-style gin, where the flavor profile of the original distilled spirit comes through in the final product." So in addition to time-honored aromatics like juniper, coriander, and angelica, the liquor will offer autumnal notes of crab apple and cinnamon.
Though Tom's Foolery applejack is expected to be on liquor store shelves this fall, don't expect to stumble upon a bottle at Giant Eagle. Herbruck, a financial planner by day, can craft only around 200 cases per year, promising that a bottle of the stuff will be the hottest gift come holiday season.
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Applejack has been produced in this country for more than 300 years.
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