Although the regenerative effects of alcohol have been debated around the world for generations, the French have long made it clear where they stand. In their native tongue, spirits are known as “eau de vie,” which translates as “water of life.” Stateside, the term is more specifically associated with liquor distilled from fruit. Think brandy, calvados, applejack, and most notably cognac, the distinguished barrel-aged eau de vie of southern France. This particular category, produced in similar fashion over four centuries, has had a profound impact on modern cocktail culture some 5,600 miles away, here in the Bay Area.
To make eau de vie, a base of fermented fruit — wine, say — is run through a still multiple times in order to bring the juice up to a liquor-like proof. In Cognac, the only region legally permitted to bottle its eponymous spirit, the major producers (Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier) contract much of their distillation to small local farmers and vintners. This network of family-run operations takes wine from the local Ugni grape, distilling it three times before the resulting spirit is introduced to French oak. There it rests for a minimum of two years in the barrel before officially becoming cognac.
The process is quite familiar to Hubert Germain-Robin. He grew up among cognac makers, until the family business was sold 35 years ago to Martell, one of the oldest cognac houses. Shortly thereafter, Germain-Robin emigrated to Northern California, bringing along with him an old copper still and a penchant for producing high-quality eau de vie. Production started in lower Mendocino County in 1982, and by the mid-'90s, the Germain-Robin brand had established itself as one of the world's premier producers of French-inspired eau de vie. (Just don't call it a cognac.) The Select Barrel XO, priced at $120 a bottle, is made mainly from Pinot Noir grapes; a blend of brandies aged around nine to 20 years.
Inspired by the fame of their neighbors to the north, St. George Spirits of Alameda has attained equal acclaim for its Pear Brandy — a dry, aromatic, unaged spirit. Helping to launch the distillery in the early '80s, the expression remains every bit as popular today, purportedly carrying the equivalent of 30 pounds of organic Bartlett pear in each $40 bottle. Recently joining it on the shelf is the California Reserve Apple Brandy. Unveiled last November, the limited-release aged eau de vie relies on locally sourced fruit, as well as wine and whiskey casks, to alchemize its oak and orchard-laden complexity.
With its sweet and sensuous undertones, eau de vie plays a prominent role in the ever-evolving landscape of contemporary cocktails. Accordingly, San Francisco is in no short supply of brandy and cognac-friendly watering holes. At The Alembic, in the Haight, you can enjoy St. George Pear Brandy muddled with fresh sage, white vermouth, and Genever, in a unique tipple called the Heir Apparent. Above the bar is an impressive array of brandies — many from right here in the Bay — seated alongside obscure Old World offerings of cognac and armagnac.
But when you're truly ready to up your eau de vie game, arrange a pilgrimage to The Cognac Room, posthaste. Nestled above the two-year-old Gaspar Brasserie just east of Union Square, the swanky speakeasy houses San Francisco's most expansive collection of brandies and brandy-based cocktails. Germain-Robin acts as nothing more than a well spirit here, working its way into no less than three on-menu mainstays. The Stinger might be the most San Franciscan of them all, fusing local eau de vie with Fernet Branca Menta, in a $12 drink delivering grape must and minty herbaceousness in equal measure. If education is what you seek, The Cognac Room is where you'll earn your masters.
Even if you're after nothing more than an easy night of sipping, complex, fruit-based spirits are around every corner, at your favorite bar menu or on the shelf at your local liquor store. They're now making cameo appearances in other spirits. In 2012, Brenne whisky, as a prime example, became the world's first single-malt whisky finished in used cognac barrels. A lengthy history inextricably links San Francisco to a centuries-old tradition, imbuing life into otherwise ordinary water.