I believe Doug's about to post a synopsis of Saturday's D-Day, so I'll concentrate on something I brought to the table. Following are my impressions, but hopefully Doug and Greg will offer theirs. I'll be really happy if Tim will try the sampler package I left with Doug for him and offer his thoughts.
My family on my wife's side has an apple orchard in Sonoma County. Apples don't really pay as an income crop, so the family is always looking for interesting ways to use them. About five years back, one of these ideas was to do a joint venture with a (not to be named at this time) bay area distillery to make some apple brandy - we supplied apples and transport, the distillery ran it and stored the distillate in barrels.
About five years of barrel aging have taken place, and it's time now to assess this apple brandy ("Calvados") we have on our hands. Saturday's tasting was all about getting some enthusiast opinions. There hadn't been much thought prior to my involvement with Bourbon enthusiasts to do other than a chill-filtered, vatted, 80 proof bottling of the four barrels, but I've been lobbying hard with many concepts I've learned from the whiskey industry such as: barrel proofs, no chill-filtering, different bottling sizes/proofs, and yearly releases ("vintage") that bring new flavors with each version.
We have four barrels, each with an alcohol percentage in the mid-50%'s, but through different barrels, there are three distinct flavors out of the four. The general character is in the tradition of oak-influenced spirits, brandies and whiskies, not the clear and more ethereal quality of eaus-de-vie, grappas, and aquavits. The flavors are also within a range of dry/sweet, fruity/spicy, and earthy/floral with which Bourbon and Scotch drinkers could find common ground.
Compared with any other spirits I've tasted, this apple brandy had some of the least alcohol harshness in both nose and palette- which made one of the barrel samples (which was a comparison sample from other apple brandy distillations by the distillery) the stealth ninja in several people's throats. I kept forgetting to warn my good friends to treat the bold-faced text that said 86% with caution, but with such a friendly and non-alcoholic nose it often found its way into people's mouths uncut. The first time...
The first is very pale, light straw color (probably from a very spent barrel) and exhibited a very simple ripe apple aroma. The taste of was fairly dry, with a definite apple-y sweetness around the edges of the tongue. The finish was a long smooth taper which remained centered on that ripe apple. Compared to samples to come, number one is simply ripe apple, which to me is quite beautiful.
Number two through four generally have an amber color familiar to Bourbon enthusiasts. I'll have to check, but I believe these barrels were first refill ex-wine casks. Number two takes on a delightful pink hue in the glass. This is the one that to me smelled of apple pie ready to come out of the oven. The flavor didn't follow directly from the aroma, and of the group was the only that had a strong alcohol spike. We found some dilution with water helped bring out the delicate clove and nutmeg notes, and allowed the sweet apple pie to come to the front over the alcohol. This was the only sample we felt benefitted from water.
Samples three and four both were very complex and exhibited characteristics that changed in the glass from pie spices to oaky vanilla/caramel to chewy fruits. I thought of these two as mincemeat pie. In both of these, there was a good follow through of character between the aroma, flavor, and finish. Number four had an especially pleasing finish with the mincemeat pie thing lingering.
Of the group, the only one we felt was improved with dilution was #2 (apple pie). Doug and Greg were jazzed about a vatting of #1 (simple, ripe apple) with #4 (mincemeat monster), but I was too enamored of the simplicity of #1 as a foil to the others that I'll recommend if we vat some, we still single barrel bottle most of #1.
Apple brandy, Apple Jack, Calvados or whatever name you choose has a very small market, but I really think that if made like a brown spirit not a white spirit that it has a lot to offer whiskey and whisky enthusiasts. We're not talking Boone's Farm here (unless you think of the high quality it would be if it were fortunate enough to be Bettye Jo Boone's Farm), but a grown-up, real American spirit.