Cherries by the Bottle

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

Since when did the low-class hooch known as kirsch become the stuff of the connoisseur's table? That's a question that underscores Eric Felten's recent "How's Your Drink?" column in the Wall Street Journal.

Distilled from fermented cherries, pits and all, kirsch is part of the larger category of eau de vie—fruit brandies, typically unaged, that are dry in flavor and intensely aromatic. As Felten points out, a century ago kirsch was, when paired with coffee, a not-uncommon French workingman's lunch, and the stuff drunk by criminals in grubby Parisian bars.

At first glance, kirsch and other eaux de vie would appear to be simple spirits to manufacture: ferment some fruit, stick it in a still and bingo, you're there. Manufacturers of some of the cheaper brands take this slapdash ethic to heart, resulting in coarse, hot spirits that would gag most Parisian footpads.

Quality kirsch, though, is a different story. Artisan distilled from ripe, fresh cherries and often bottled soon afterward, the brandy is about as jubilantly naked a spirit as you might ever encounter, with a heady fragrance of cherries followed by a dry, nuanced flavor of the fruit accentuated by a bitter-almond nuttiness from the pits. Not surprisingly, this higher-end kirsch is somewhat beyond the pay grade of 19th century French laborers, with prices often starting around $50 for a 750ml bottle and rising rapidly from there.

Felten recommends the excellent kirsch produced by Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery—one of my favorites—along with an Italian brandy by Jacopo Poli. Are you a fan of kirsch? What brands do you prefer?