Going Clear: NeverSink Rises to Bring Eau de Vie to a New Generation
“Are you dog friendly?” asks Noah Braunstein by way of welcome. He’s wrangling a large, very bouncy dog into a room that, by rights, should be NeverSink’s office. We sit at a table jammed between oak barrels whose steel-strapped bellies contain a wide spectrum of intoxicating liquors. Beyond the clear apple brandy that earned NeverSink critical notice, there is golden apple brandy and whiskey aging in oak. There are experiments—sour cherry and pear spirits—and, on a cutting board, Ruby Red grapefruit. Their skins (along with elderflower, star anise and other botanicals) will flavor NeverSink’s gin, the go-to at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
While we talk, Braunstein regularly spins in his chair (there isn’t room for other movement) to peer into a vessel that he’s siphoning off for pommeau.
Braunstein and his partner, Yoni Rabino, often spend 12–14 hour days at the Port Chester distillery. They met while students at Mamaroneck High School and still look too young to have convinced investors to finance anything (they’re in their early 30s). Nevertheless, the distillery is filled with towering fermenting tanks and boilers, not to mention a gloriously expensive copper still from Germany. Braunstein and Rabino do everything here, from grinding fresh fruit to loading bottles into cases. They get no respite on weekends, either: That’s when they preach the good word of eau de vie at farmers’ markets.
Eau de vie can be a hard sell to the “Drink Brown” generation. These are drinkers who came of age in the ’00s, when locavores and sophisticates had rebelled against the tyranny of imported vodka in the ’80s and ’90s. At farmers’ markets, where drinkers can sample NeverSink’s whole array, Braunstein observes that “people see our brown spirits and think that’s what they want.” He usually persuades customers to try going clear but, Braunstein admits, “it’s certainly easier to sell something that’s brown.”
“Brown” in distilling is largely the effect of barrels on raw distillate. Wood (and char) imparts color and the dominant caramel notes to, say, bourbon or aged apple brandy. Rabino explains, “Because eaux de vies are not, by nature, oaked, they’re really pure flavors ... the drinker has the opportunity to taste the delicate flavors of the fruit varieties and even the particulars of the regions where they were grown.”
It might be true. NeverSink’s unoaked apple brandy is aromatic and bears a nuanced, pretty flavor; these are not words one generally associates with booze.
In Europe, the tradition of eau de vie is old and obscured by myth. In the 1600s, there was perhaps an Alsatian monk, a still and a bumper crop of cherries. What is factual is that there are almost as many eaux de vies as there are European fruits. On the well-known side, there is slivovitz (Damson plums), kirsch (Morello cherries), Calvados (apple) and Poire William (pear). In Alsace, where the tradition gets exuberantly weird, there is also Mirabelle (yellow plum), sapin (pine buds), gratte-cul (rose hips), myrtille (bilberries) and sorbe (rowanberries).
It makes sense; from an agricultural point of view, distilling eau de vie is a no-brainer. Not only does the practice preserve the delicate flavors of quickly rotting crops, but it multiplies value. People pay top dollar for intoxicants.
NeverSink is part an overarching entity called The Food Cycle that also includes the highly respected Kent Falls Brewing Company and Camps Road Farm, both in Kent, Connecticut. The businesses were conceived to be interdependent by Braunstein, Rabino and their partners. The distillery and brewery generate spent grain and fruit waste, which becomes animal feed and compost on the farm. The farm grows hops for the brewery, along with obscure varieties of heirloom apples for the distillers’ research. Meanwhile, brandy- and whiskey-infused barrels from the distillery have a second life imparting their flavors to Kent Falls beer.
The Food Cycle businesses support each other in other ways as well. Explains Braunstein, “beer is a shorter-term investment. We can focus on beer at maximum capacity, and then invest that cash flow into the barrel-aged whiskeys and brandies that take longer.” Though he notes that they’ll always be passionate about fruit-based spirits, NeverSink will be debuting a New York State straight bourbon in April. It’s made with 100% New York State grain, and, unlike most local whiskeys, contains 20% wheat rather than rye. After two years in American oak, the bourbon is finished in NeverSink’s apple brandy casks. Like all of its spirits, NeverSink’s whiskey is nuanced and slightly left of the dial.