New Calvados: Apple Brandy in Michigan

by Reuben Westmaas

samples of round barn's 2007 apple brandy.   PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

samples of round barn's 2007 apple brandy. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

CITRUS ASIDE, you can grow pretty much anything in Michigan. Pears, plums, strawberries, and, of course, cherries all thrive here thanks to the rich soil and Lake Michigan’s natural climate control. But perhaps no fruit better represents the state than the apple. Humble yet incredibly diverse, Michigan apples are known throughout the country for their rich variety and depth of flavor.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the state has become something of a new Calvados, an American answer to the most famous apple brandy-producing region in the world. After all, this is the home of GLINTCAP, the largest cider and perry competition in North America. And once you can make cider, it’s just a hop, skip, and a still to rolling out an apple brandy.

But then again, maybe Michigan isn’t so similar to Calvados after all. For one thing, the distillers here aren’t carrying on a centuries-long tradition. They can seem more akin to mad scientists than venerated masters. And of course, they’re starting the whole process with locally produced apples for a distinctly New World flavor. The end result is a drink that ranges from bright and tart to mellow and oaky.

Of the two, distiller and cellarmaster Robbie Scudder at Round Barn in Baroda favors the latter. One of the first wineries in the state to purchase a still, Round Barn made brandy a priority in the early 2000s, starting with grapes and swiftly moving on to apples. Though by his own admission Robbie isn’t a very patient distiller—“That’s one of the reasons I like gin so much,” he laughs—each of his brandies is aged a minimum of seven years in the barrel. That means that at the beginning, every expression was something of a crapshoot. As it turns out, their big mistake in early years was not making enough.

Robbie Scudder in the kitchen of round barn.   PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

Robbie Scudder in the kitchen of round barn. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

“Back then, you couldn’t predict what you were going to need seven years from now,” he says. “We only have two barrels of 2007, but we’re up to four, five, six barrels per year now. Once brandies really take off, we’ll have enough.”

 It’s the 2007 that we are drinking, and it’s a shame that there is such a limited supply. Spiced apples float off the nose, but upon sipping the main ingredient fades gracefully into the background, replaced by a mellow, earthy vanilla that proves the value of taking one’s time. This brandy spent the first few years its life in new oak before moving into neutral wood, and it shows in the luxuriously smooth, almost bourbon-like flavor.

 Of course, it’s not just the wood that gives the brandy its distinct character. It all starts in the orchard. Since starting up this experiment, Round Barn has worked closely with local growers to settle on the exact blend of heirloom apples that go into their dessert-like digestif. What actually makes up the brandy varies year-to-year, depending on environmental factors such as the temperature and the growing conditions. Soon enough, their brandies could start tasting a bit more old-fashioned, as they’ve begun reaching out to their apple-growing associates to begin focusing on the apples of the Calvados region, but don’t starting holding your breath just yet. After all, there aren’t nearly enough Calvados apples in the area to start in on this plan just yet, and once there are, it will still be seven years before the brandy is on the market.

 The other ingredient, of course, is the still, and it’s a beauty. The towering Christian Carl is a work of art in two pieces—first, the original still which was purchased and installed by Christian Carl engineers who flew in from Germany. This is where the brandy is made. The second column was added later, to simplify the distillery’s grape vodka.

Round Barn's two-column still at work. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

Round Barn's two-column still at work. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

 “To make the amount of vodka we do, we would have to run it through [the original still] 27 times,” says Robbie. “Where as we can run it once through the new one.” But if volume is the name of the game with the grape vodka, the opposite is true of apple brandy. In Robbie’s view, that’s an issue of national taste.

 “I don’t think that the U.S. drinking culture has captured brandy yet, even though it’s one of the oldest spirits in the world.” That’s why, in 2011, Round Barn ceased releasing apple brandies under their own label and moved the operation over to Free Run Cellars, its sister winery run by the sons of owners Rick and Sherry Moersch.

 “Here, it’s a little more casual, a little more good-time. But Free Run is very much for the connoisseur,” says Robbie. “I mean, here we sell mixed drinks, and during the summer we sell slushies. If somebody walks up and gets a slushie next to somebody who wants to take the time to actually appreciate an apple brandy, it’s a little strange.”

Mike Hall draws a sample of nomad's 2014 apple spirit. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

Mike Hall draws a sample of nomad's 2014 apple spirit. PHOTO ©ARMANDO SILViA

 You can’t get much farther from Robbie Scudder and Round Barn than Mike Hall and Northern United Brewing Company. Where Round Barn has been making apple brandy for nearly 15 years, Northern United is only just starting to dip their toes in it. Where Robbie got his start in the business working at Round Barn as a summer job in 2007, Mike established himself as a brewer and distiller back in the early 1990s. And where Round Barn is surrounded by the plentiful vineyards and orchards of southern Michigan, Northern United is all the way up in Traverse City, an area better known for its cherries. But Mike has no trouble finding apples. After all, he grows them himself.

 By partnering with local farmers, Mike is able to approach his spirits from the ground up—literally. It’s not just apples he grows here, it’s cherries, and plums, and grapes, and (soon) barley, corn, and rye. All of these are for Northern United’s newest imprint, Nomad, giving him absolute control over the liquors from the moment the seed is planted to the moment the glass is poured. And while Nomad might not be on the market just yet, the apple brandy is primed to be its debut release.

“Nomad” is a fitting name for the new distillery, since it represents a move away from Northern United’s brewery and tasting room headquarters. But before we leave to check out the new spot, Mike shows me around where it all began.

A short walk out back from the bar leads us to the old still, a German pot that’s very large—to my eyes, anyway. “This thing takes three runs to do a full 50-gallon barrel,” says Mike. “So it’s not a massive still. I mean, it’s big by most people’s standards in craft distilling, but it’s not huge. Now, the next distillery…” he trails off with an ambitious twinkle in his eyes. “Up there my focus is going to be on the whiskeys and the apple brandies, the calvados.”

Apple brandy may be new for Northern United, but it’s old hat to Mike. He got his start the old-fashioned way—illegally. While in Somerset, England, completing his apprenticeship in brewing in 1992, he was living on a farm unit rented to him by an apple-grower named Pete Hooper. Pete pressed his own cider by hand, thousands of gallons of it every year, which naturally led to having a bit of excess. So Pete went to Mike to find out how much he knew about distilling, and the rest was history. That is, until they almost got caught. “But they were proper country police,” says Mike. “Pete’s wife’s best friend cleaned the police station, so instead of coming to arrest us, they just had a loud conversation about checking up on what was going on at Mr. Hooper’s place one day when she was there. She called Pete’s wife, and Pete’s wife called Pete—he was at the pub—and the next thing I know I see Pete come screaming up the driveway going ‘Games up!’ And that was the first time I made brandy.”

The original still behind the tasting room at northern united. Photo ©Armando silvia

The original still behind the tasting room at northern united. Photo ©Armando silvia

He tells this story over an example of his newest work, which he’s tapped directly out of the barrel to share. Sealed up in 2014, the golden spirit could hardly be more different from Round Barn’s stately concoction. It’s a lot of things, but mellow it’s not. A tickling pepperiness gives way to a crisp, ripe apple that’s almost arresting in its clarity. “For me, it’s important that the flavor of the stock material comes through. Otherwise, what have you done?” As I tip my glass back, I have to agree.

The oakiness may be missing, but it’s hardly missed. This prototype was aged in a bourbon barrel instead of new wood, and though it’s only aged two years, it’s already developed a very full body with nice, defined legs. Everything that went into it, including the barrel, came directly from the peninsula, and this delightfully fruity tipple was made from Cortland, Northern Spy, Macintosh, Baldwin, Greening, Idared, and Red Delicious apples grown either on his farm or sourced from his neighbors.

The new distillery is located on his farmland among rows of twisted apple trees already showing signs of blossoming. Inside the barn is the new still—technically, anyway. It hasn’t actually been assembled yet, but even this demonstrates Mike’s creative control. He designed this still, which was then constructed by McCann Fabrications, whom he’s been working with for more than 20 years. Like the old still back at the brewery, it eschews needless flourishes. “Brewing and distilling is already 95% cleaning, and I don’t want to spend 98% of that time cleaning copper vessels. So the inside is obviously all copper, but the outside is stainless.”

But for all the work that he puts into ensuring that no one but him could make the brandy that he makes, Mike understands the value of old ways as well. Like the distillers at Round Barn, he is also working on exploring older, more traditional apple varieties as well, though he’s quick to point out that it’s not because he thinks you need traditional apples to make a good brandy. “We’ve already proven we can make a good brandy,” he says. “We’re not going to get neurotic about trying to recreate 18th century British apples.”

Actually, when it comes to digging up older breeds, it’s not apples that grabs his attention as much as yeast. A few yards downhill from the cherry orchard stands a small grove of incredibly large apple trees, planted by the original owners of the land. They haven’t been sprayed in more than 50 years, and so this year he’ll let the fruit come in and take the old strain of yeast right off the skin. “I just want to see if I can brew something with it,” he says. “Of course, it could be an absolute failure, but there’s only one way to find out.” Personally, I have a feeling he’ll make it work somehow.

… The End …