‘Freaking stoked’: Orchard makes brandy to preserve its future

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Nicholas Cowles oversees the tasting room where visitors can try his Dead Bird Brandy or Pommeau.

Cider doughnuts paired with sweet apple cider are generally a welcome snack after apple picking at Shelburne Orchards. This year, those 21 and over can pair a different beverage with their doughnuts.

The orchard’s brandy tasting room has finally opened after acquiring permits to distill the liquor in 2009. The orchard’s brandy now has properly aged to perfection.

“It’s a nice post-Thanksgiving beverage – it warms you up,” Caitlin Cocina, of Shelburne, said as she tasted the liquor last Thursday afternoon.

“Pair this with pumpkin pie, or cider donuts,” she said as her eyes lit up as the smell of doughnuts frying in the next room wafted through the air.

Michael Parker, of Barre, has been coming to the orchard since he was a child, but it’s “way different,” now that apple brandy is available at the orchard, he said after tasting it.

Tasters used words like “smooth” and “sweet” to describe the brandy poured in quarter-ounce tastes.

The brandy has a bite that quickly turns sweet after sipping it.

“That was very very good,” Carla Contreras, of Charlotte, said. “And I don’t drink dark stuff ever.”

Then they tried the Pommeau – a hard apple cider infused with brandy. The lighter liquor is sweeter, and tastes closer to sweet apple cider.

Typically most brandy is made from grapes, but it can be made from any fructose sugar, such as apples. The brandy is as much a passion project for Nicholas Cowles as a business venture to keep his family business afloat. Cowles grew up on the Shelburne farm his father bought in the 1950s on the edge of Lake Champlain, a stone’s throw from the town line with Charlotte. Now as owner, Cowles wants to preserve the orchard for his children.

Keeping the family orchard
“It’s been a struggle to keep (the orchard) in the family,” Cowles said. “I had to be creative all along to keep it thriving as a business.”

In order to maximize the return from his crop, Cowles decided to sell apples directly from the orchard, instead of packaging and selling apples wholesale to various local grocery stores.

Over the years, he has organized festivals and brought more people to the orchard, but there were still more apples than he could sell. Now bottling brandy, the farm uses more than 90 percent of the apples its nearly 6,000 apple trees produce, according to Cowles.

Finding a market for more of the apple crop was just one consideration Cowles had when deciding to distill brandy on the farm. The new product is also a type of insurance against what he sees as a growing threat from new weather patterns.

“Being a farm, crazy weather patterns can ruin a year’s crop,” he said. “Having a product we make than spans all of these years is a hedge against the crazy weather patterns.”

Cowles has been distilling brandy from the orchard’s apples as a hobby since he was a teenager. Now that it’s a full-fledged part of the business, he takes it more seriously.

“Every morning when I get up, I’m freaking stoked,” Cowles said.

Cowles is thinking ahead to future generations. His 9-year-old grandson – also named Nicholas – has a special barrel of brandy awaiting his 21st birthday to be cracked open in 2030.

Cowles is also planting new heirloom apples each year to add to future batches. He knows there won’t be enough apples from new trees to affect the brandy’s composition for about the next 10 years, and even then it will take another seven years to age. The crop adjustments are for future generations.

Cowles, now 68, says his daughter Moriah will be taking over the farm in about 10 years.

“I don’t have any plans to retire,” he said. “As she learns, I get to back off and let her take over organically.”

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Atop Nicholas Cowles’ still sits the “spirit fairy” he made long ago, before knowing he would begin distilling brandy at his orchard.

‘The true spirit of Vermont’
While the craft spirits industry has taken off in Vermont in recent years, not many distillers themselves grow all of the ingredients that go into their liquors.

Vermont has 28 spirit manufactures, according to the Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery. Many boast of using Vermont-sourced ingredients for their liquors. A few of those distillers including Shelburne Orchards grow their own ingredients on family farms.

Flag Hill Farm in Vershire was the first Vermont farm to produce brandy legally when they acquired their liquor license in 2000, owner and distiller Sebastian Lousada said. Hell’s Gate Distillery in Georgia, Vt. started making a variety of black currant liquors in 2015, including a brandy from currants grown on the family farm, according to its website.

Other distilleries such as Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge make a variety of brandy-based liqueurs using Vermont apples from the Brown Family Farm in Castleton, said Bridget Jones, general manager. Wild Hart Distillery in Shelburne infuses wine from Shelburne Vineyard in its Burning Embers –  an infused vodka, explained owner Craig Stevens.

At Shelburne Orchards, the apple brandy is produced on the farm from branch to bottle. Cowles calls it “the true spirit of Vermont.”

The farm’s more than 30 varieties of apples and crabapples make their way into the brandy. The apples for brandy, unlike apples for the fresh sweet cider, can be fruit that has dropped off trees, Moriah Cowles said. That works to the farm’s advantage this year because the drought has resulted in smaller apples, which drop more quickly, she said.

The fruit is pressed, fermented into hard cider, and then distilled into a liquor.

The liquor is then aged underground in what Cowles has dubbed “the ultimate man cave.”

Steps away from the tasting room, built into the side of a hill, is the inconspicuous barrel house. The concrete structure was built a few years ago to store the barrels that previously were stored in the cellar of the farmhouse where the cider doughnuts are fried. The fryers posed a fire hazard, prompting Cowles to move the barrels.

Today, dozens of barrels of brandy years in the making sit in the barrel house slowly aging. Each barrel contains enough brandy for 215 bottles. The aroma in the room is strong as the liquor evaporates from the brandy, creating the thicker, darker brandy that eventually is bottled.

Cowles estimates that about 77 apples go into a fifth of brandy.

The orchard’s Dead Bird Brandy is aged for about seven years in the oak barrels; the Pommeau is barrel-aged for just three years.

As Cowles describes the liquors, he talks about the future and it doesn’t just involve apples.

Cowles’ next adventure? Pear brandy.

He says he’s reading up on it and working on a recipe that will evolve over many attempts, much like how he tinkers with the apple brandy recipe year-to-year.

“I’m not doing this for instant gratification,” Cowles said. “This is going to be for the next generation.”

What’s in a name? ‘Dead Bird’ evokes a bygone era

Shelburne Orchards’ signature Dead Bird Brandy gets its name from Nicholas Cowles’ grandfather William Sheffield “Shef” Cowles.

Cowles shared the story of how during prohibition, his grandfather’s still caught on fire one night.

The firefighters, who were buying whiskey from Cowles’ grandfather, covered up the fact that he had a still by spraying the fire hose at the inspector who came along to find the cause of the fire.

After the inspector left to get dry clothes, they hid the still. When the inspector came back, the group said the fire started when a log rolled out of the fireplace. The next morning, cleaning up after the fire, Cowles’ grandfather found a bird that had died in the fire. He had the bird bronzed, and made copies for his friends who had helped him hide the still.

When Cowles heard that story at his grandfather’s’ funeral, he discovered he had more in common with his grandfather than he originally thought.

“It’s in my blood,” he said, reflecting on the family hobby. His father also always kept a barrel of hard cider in the cellar.

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