Grappa and pear eau de vie made in northern Michigan. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I’ve recently returned from inspiring days at Pigstock, in Traverse City, Michigan, where I and my partner in Salumi, Brian Polcyn, were invited to participate in a celebration of the pig. But we also got to sample wines and spirits made from the abundant fruit that grows in this unique climate.

I have, since I first imbibed the crystal elixir, bowed before eau de vie, the aptly named water of life. My first vision of it was in the 1970s when my Uncle Lars arrived at our house with a gift of Poire Williams for my father; astonishingly, there was a pear inside the bottle. I did not get to drink from this as I was 10, and my dad felt that if they could get a pear inside a bottle, it deserved to remain sealed and marveled at for at least a year, and then doled out carefully. I was 16 before I got a sip of the magical fluid. (Now, at 49, I am less careful with the portions; Brian and I made considerable headway into the brandy in Traverse City, with only a little help from dear Kate of Camont, who’d made a special stop on her way to Grrls Meat Camp in Chicago. Kate’s first comment: “It’s so smooth.” Indeed, with a heady pear aroma.)

Ten years later, Donna and I, boyfriend and girlfriend, “acquainted” for only eight months but in love forever, traveled to Italy to do our first story together on the marble of Carrara. Here I first tasted lardo (1988, when raw pig fat was considered instant death in America; I write about this in the new book), but also grappa, the spirit made from grape skins—byproducts from the wine-making—further fermented into an inferior wine, but then distilled into a wonderful clear spirit. Raw pig fat! Grappa! What a world, I thought.

Unable to buy the stuff in Ohio for years given our Civil War–era liquor laws and unhappy with the industrial lighter fluids available in Florida where my mom lived, I was at last in heaven again this summer on my 49th birthday (having taken Donna to Italy to celebrate her 5-0 the day before). We splurged on Splendido (go for the rooms by the harbor, Splendido de Mare, not the posh hillside main resort). I bobbed up and down like a cork in the brine-strength swimming pool; we had a lovely lunch and, after, the best grappa they had.

And then, this past Monday afternoon, having cleaned off after the hog slaughter in upstate Michigan, where I’d eaten raw pig fat, warm back fat from the freshly slaughtered Mangalitsa, we visited a local winery, Black Star Farms where owner Don Coe pointed to his still and said, “That’s what does it. We should have a taste.”

“It” was grappa. “It” was pear and oak-aged apple brandy. And “it” was heaven, made from the fruit of the state my mother was born in, where my grandma was to be buried two days hence. Hemingway camped and fished just to the southwest on Walloon Lake, the setting of some of his first stories. Fruit grown in the sandy sloping soil on the peninsula of Traverse City is superlative. Apples and pears and grapes raised in a climate made temperate by the largest bodies of fresh water on the planet. Michigan fruit is transformed into not only apple and pear brandy and grappa but also, what they’re known for, white wines in the Riesling style as well as incredibly big reds, such as the Cab Franc Merlot served at the Pigstock fund-raiser dinner. The region is also home to extraordinary local beer. Beer and wine and spirits to be taken seriously, worldwide, as far as I’m concerned.

I didn’t need to love Europe because it made great food, food close to my soul, I just needed to live long enough for America to figure out that we could make it ourselves out of our own … [intone heavy French accent] … terroir. The wine sucked at first, what we made here. You can’t just make great things right off the bat. Quality takes time, trial and error, thinking, but we’re doing it, and I know of no better model than Traverse City, which serves as a great example of what’s possible, producing extraordinary products from what grows best in the region. Can we make great wines in Ohio? Remains to be seen. Can we make great beer? You bet. Can we make great cassoulet? Oh yeah.

(But you know what, I can’t get Michigan grappa in Cleveland because of our stupid State Liquor Board Control, which must list it before it’s allowed to be shipped in; they let one shitty grappa in, that’s it. Can we ship all government officials, House of Reps first aboard, to Australia and have a Thomas Jefferson do-over?)

Today’s Friday post is a digestif, rather than a cocktail, which is customarily taken after a meal, enhanced with tobacco if you partake.

If you’re looking for a Friday evening pre-meal cocktail, go here.

Regardless, appreciate and encourage the bounty of this astonishing country. Preferably while you’re enjoying a a good martini or a post-meal eau de vie.

Other links you may like:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.



20 Wonderful responses to “Michigan = Italy = Ohio = France”

  • Victoria

    So, MR, I can here mention the delight that is Belle de Brillet, Brillet cognac infused with the essence of Williams pears and suggest that you have it on your after-dinner Thanksgiving (which is right around the corner) table.

    I recently dined at the home of a friend, who made a delicious tarte tatin. What about a tarte poire? Would it work as well?

  • phanmo

    I see them all the time in boulangeries here in Nantes, as well as ones made with plums, peaches and other fruit. I’d imagine it’s more difficult with softer fruit but pears should be as easy as apples.

    • Victoria

      Thank you. I am going to give that a try, especially since I have a beautiful Mauviel tin-lined copper tarte “tatin” pan.

  • phanmo

    Oops, I forgot to add my favorite, little tartes tatins made with the local grapes.

  • Maureen Sanchez

    One small farm, one dedicated chef, one experimenter, one home cook willing to try, at a time. Would you ever consider talking to the kids at CPS about this? I’d be happy to set that up –getting young peoples’ minds around the concept would be magnificent.

  • Michael Ruhlman

    Forgot to mention the still itself: This from Coryn Briggs at Black Star:
    “We use a Christian Carl pot and column still. It is a 250L (60 gal) still designed in Germany specifically for aromatic brandies and delicate fruit. It is not designed for the making of other spirits such as vodka, rum, whiskey, etc.

It is ideal to start with superior quality fruit (this is an extremely important element in making the high quality fruit brandy). When making the brandies we heat the must once and pull off the high proof alcohol as hearts (w/75% alcohol). This allows us to capture the essence of the fruits instead of cooking them out. This is the objective b/c we want the brandies to taste fresh and clean.


    also, alas, they can’t sell retail out of state… 🙁

    • allen

      You should amend that to we, as in you and the photographer! I am glad to finally see two glasses in the photo, now I know the Donna got to enjoy some too.
      I’m partaking in Islay scotch sampling, I happen to enjoy both before and after dinner, so not sure what category it would fall into. I usually consider a digestif something that helps the food settle, like Fernet Branca or anything with bitters; Negroni, Manhattan.
      But it really comes down to what ever sounds good at the time.

      I used to smoke, but now only occasionaly (on 0 birthday years ; 40. 50, etc., or special occasions) I have a cigar with my scotch. But I pay dearly for it. For days afterword; burning puffy eyes, stinky clothes and the awful feeling, like I gargled with Elmer’s glue mixed with baby poop for a week!

      To leave on a more positive note:
      Hope you post more videos of the hog butchering, very nice skill to have!
      Cheers, and a pleasant weekend to all!

  • Steve Shoemaker

    I love that part of my home state. And happy that you mentioned my friend Larry Mawby’s place L Mawby. They make some of the best sparkling wine in the US. We also pickup the Eau de Vies at Blackstar Farms when we are there.

  • Debbie

    Too bad we can’t get the good stuff in Ohio. But some local winery’s are trying their hand at making grappa. We shall see….. Grappa’s are not all equal. Some are downright nasty! I had a lemon infused one at Lidia’s in Pittsburgh once. It was the best, and they infuse it themselves. There are good grappas to be had in PA.

  • Ben

    I grew up in Traverse City and always pick up Michigan-only alcoholic beverages whenever I visit Michigan, which for completely incomprehensible reasons are not available here. I plan to restock my New Holland Hopquila (Centennial hopped whiskey that tastes strangely like tequila) and will try that Black Star Farms Grappa next time I’m there. Shorts in Bellaire is one of my favorite breweries, but apparently their lack of availability in Michigan is due to concerns about quality control–they don’t make big enough batches–rather than liquor laws. Thanks for giving me some new places to eat and drink on my next visit!

  • Pink Salt

    Michigan pear brandy sounds like a nice way to finish off a meal of Detroit Coney Dogs. Thanks for the insight Michael, love reading about good things going on in the place I called home for so many years.

  • Jessie

    My parents have had a “deer camp” which is really just a house with a lot of antler decor in Indian River since I can remember and we’d always make a pilgrimage to TC to taste wine right after I turned 21. To this day it’s my favorite family activity (obviously b/c booze is involved and I have siblings) but on a serious, unrelated note, you’re exactly right when you say you don’t need Europe. Northern Michigan encompasses that feeling to a tee, then wraps you in real artisan foods, southern meets northern cuisine, and sends you home feeling like you’ve met friends.

  • Tony

    The amazing local beer you’re talking about comes from Jolly Pumpkin. They specialize in rustic saison-style beers, and you can buy them at several discriminating beverage stores in Northeast Ohio.

  • Ruthy

    Excellent post about an often ignored corner of the country (though a lot of residents prefer to keep it a secret up there!) I agree wholeheartedly in the superior (geddit?) quality of Black Star Farms wine but Chateau Chantal, Old Mission and Right Brain Brewery are other excellent places doing the Traverse reputation right! Thrilled at their mention 🙂 I’m proud to be from the area and even more proud to see it mentioned always so highly in a food sense! Keep up the good word, and I can’t wait to check out that eau de vie.

  • Ginger Bardenhagen

    We can always ship you a bottle on the low down, Blackstar is just down the road. We took Jürgen to our newest distillery on Friday and tasted some terrific Michigan Bourbon. Come back soon to NW MI

  • RanchoDeluxe

    Have read and reread all of your books. I love that you promoted ‘made in the USA’ in this post. Well-done all round.


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