Every now and then, TTB approves another eau de vie. This leads to wondering if it’s the same as brandy. At long last, Tim Patterson has explained how they differ:
Unlike grape brandy, eau de vie puts the emphasis on freshness, liveliness, and capturing the intense essence of fruit — rather than on depth, weight, and the complexity that comes from years of interaction between spirit, oxygen and wood.
In the market for distilled spirits, dominated by slick, multi-million-dollar ad campaigns for super-premium vodkas and single malts, eau de vie is nearly invisible. If there’s something smaller than a niche market, eau de vie has it sewn up.
Yet for those who seek it out, and are persistent enough to find it, great eau de vie can be an exquisite experience.
The name translates as “water of life,” a reminder that the invention of distillation in the 17th century came in pursuit of cures for plagues like cholera.
Put another way, eau de vie is the anti-vodka. The point of vodka distillation is to remove all those annoying flavors; the point of eau de vie is to preserve as much of the original fruit as possible.
The economics of production provide an equally stark contrast. [Vodka] can be made from almost any source … for a cost of less than fifty cents a bottle. A quality eau de vie consumes about 30 pounds of first-rate fruit, picked at the moment of peak ripeness.
I have quoted extensively from Patterson’s excellent article, and still it contains much other compelling information, such as the fact that both of the leading producers of American eau de vie happen to be lawyers. TTB does not seem to recognize eau de vie as a distinct category; the above examples are classified as brandy and have the term “brandy” on the label alongside “eau de vie.”