Rusty Figgins plans to be selling apple eau-de-vie and other clear, unaged brandy products later this year.
Berle “Rusty” Figgins, Jr., wants to be the first in Washington State to commercially produce and legally sell fine brandy made from Washington apples and grapes. He’s establishing distilleries in Ellensburg and Mattawa, and hopes to have products ready later this year. Currently, he holds an alcohol fuel producer license for his premises at Mattawa, Washington. He has yet to apply for a distilled spirits producer license at the Mattawa location, a decision that is pending further market research.
Figgins, who has long been involved in the state’s wine industry as a winemaker and viticultural consultant, sees an untapped market for spirits made by craft distilleries. The high quality reputation developed by Washington’s wine industry is creating interest and curiosity for wine-based spirits like microcrafted brandy, he said.
The Walla Walla, Washington, native studied winemaking at Australia’s Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, before returning in the early 1990s to Walla Walla to be one of the first few to plant Syrah grapes in Washington. In 1994, he opened with partners Glen Fiona Winery in Walla Walla, later selling his share of the business to the same partners. In 2002, he was winemaker at North Star Winery in Walla Walla and then at Cave B Winery in Quincy. Now, he is focused on his brandy business, while still running VitiNorthwest Viticultural Services.
Good in, good out
Figgins has identified Cameo, Pink Lady, and Winesap apple varieties as the source he wants to use for his apple brandy because of their high malic acid content. Fruit with high acid makes better brandy because the acids amplify the aromas, he said. Cameo could be the perfect Washington apple brandy variety because of its “homegrown” distinction as a chance seedling found in a Wenatchee orchard. On his Web site, he is calling his apple brandy Cameo-de-Vie. Eau-de-vie, the French translation for “water of life,” is what the French call the clear, immature brandy that has not been aged.
People often think that making brandy is a way to add value to poor quality fruit. But he’s quick to point out that “good in means good out.”
Simply put, fine brandy is distilled fine wine.
“If you’re in the business of making high quality brandy, you have to use high quality wine,” Figgins said. He is currently experimenting with different grape cultivars, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, to learn which ones work best for brandy. “When making brandy, it’s not just the alcohol that rises to the top, but it’s fruit esters, phenols, and other flavor and aroma compounds that flavor the brandy.”
The optimum grape for brandy is one that is fully ripe when harvested while retaining great acidity, he said. “Riesling is another great variety that holds its acidity.”
One of the reasons he chose to install distillation equipment in Mattawa is because of Grant County’s inexpensive electricity costs and proximity to abundant, high quality bulk wines. Figgins uses an 800-liter alambic pot distillation apparatus adapted from a design with origins in Armagnac, France. When the distillation equipment is running, it uses 60 amps of electricity for ten hours a day to internally heat the brewing tank or boiler.
To make brandy, the distillery is continually heated, causing the alcohol vapors to rise to the top and back many times until the steam finally spills into the reflex chamber. It then goes through a water bath condenser with 30 vertical condenser passages inside, transforming the steam into liquid. When the liquid comes out of the spigot, methyl alcohol comes out first, and then the clear eau-de-vie spirit, to be aged in barrels for brandy or bottled as eau-de-vie.
“The art of distillation is all about the cut points,” Figgins said. “The heads (methanol) and the tails (liquid too diluted for use) are discarded. It’s all about the heart or middles.”
When making brandy or spirits, you end up with about 20 percent of the initial volume, according to Figgins.
“For every 60-gallon barrel of wine that is used, you’ll get about 12.5 gallons of brandy,” he said, adding that the brewing/boiler tank holds two barrels of wine at a time.
His boiler tank is a Grundy brewing tank made in the United Kingdom. He had the units custom-fabricated in British Columbia. Each of his three distillation units cost around $11,500.
At his Ellensburg location, which sits next door to the Iron Horse Brewery, Figgins will make rye whiskey from Iron Horse beer and an Irish-style cream liqueur. Before a license is approved, the distillation equipment must be in place. Eventually, he may combine licenses and locations, but when the Mattawa equipment is fully licensed, he plans to make port-style dessert wines and Pisco-style brandy. Pisco is a term describing young brandy. To be called brandy on the label, it must be barrel aged for two years.
Port, like Champagne and Burgundy, is a regulated term and can only be used if made from specific varieties of grapes grown in the Porto region of Portugal and shipped from the town of Oporto.
Currently, port-style wines made by Washington wineries are sent out of state to be distilled because there is no in-state distillery making port-style wines. Figgins hopes to change that and is already taking orders from Northwest wineries to make port-style wines later this year. He has plans to eventually make Italian-style spirits and liqueurs, such as grappa made from grape skins, sambuca (anise seeds), and limoncello (lemon zest and honey).
To learn about distilling, he took an online course from London’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling and earned his distilling diploma in 2006.
Washington’s first craft distillery opened in 2007 in Spokane. At the time, Dry Fly Distilling, which makes small batches of whiskey, gin, and vodka from local grains and botanicals, was the only distillery in the state and the first since Prohibition, according to news reports.
But more craft distilleries, like Figgins’s, are expected since legislation that removed some of the licensing and regulatory roadblocks became effective last summer. The new law creates a special craft distillery license (reducing annual distilling licensing fees from $2,000 to $100), allows more sampling (tasting) freedom, and limited direct sales. Under the craft distilleries license, at least half of the raw materials used in production must be grown in Washington.
A similar law was passed in Oregon several years ago. As a result, about 20 craft distilleries have sprung up in the Portland area and Bend.
Interest in learning about artisan microdistilling is growing. A workshop was sponsored by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center in mid-June at the Padilla Bay Foundation in Skagit County, Washington.