Of Paw-Paw Brandy



I’ve written here a lot recently about brandy production in Southern Indiana and I thought I’d use this short break between two stories I’m currently working on (an interview with a former Orange County Moonshiner and a lead on a large copper still associated with Edward Ballard who was the owner of most of the Casinos in French Lick) to explore a bit of diversity in the art of brandy distillation amongst the Hoosier farmer-distillers.

As has been seen and well documented apple and peach brandy were the favored types and were widely distilled throughout southern Indiana.  Peach brandy was seemingly preferred but apples were far more abundant and it is from the later type that the Hoosier Farmer-Distiller industry seemed to emerge and thrive.  But what about years in which those fruits did not bear well and were in short supply?  Of what base wine then was our Hoosier brandy made from?  Pears?  No, because while pear brandy was made, it was never extensive, for many reasons, chief amongst them that there are only but a few varieties worthy of distillation limited mostly to the Bartlett/Williams (very popular in European Eau-De-Vie distillation) and the Seckel.  Another consideration is the flavor of the brandy itself is very light and delicate and does generally not hold up well to barrel aging and is also extremely volatile, meaning a still ran “inappropriately” (too fast or hot) would produce a spirit with little to no pear flavor.  The types of pears ideal for distillation are a factor as well as they tend to ripen and turn to mush quickly, within a couple days, leaving but only a small window within which to work to get them “mashed” in or juiced for fermentation before rot sets in, a consideration that would have been paramount to a farmer-distillers aversion to working with them at a time in the season when he was already struggling with harvesting his many crops.  Of course, any good home distiller (who has truly earned his stripes) will tell you that gathering pears for any type of fermentative journey knows that the task is replete with fighting, smacking, running from, and subsequently tending to the many stings and wounds from the flying bullet-assed creatures who are after the same sweet nectar as us, including but not limited to; wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and other of their ilk!  It should be noted as well that pears are typically far less disease resistant as well which makes their cultivation and a successful harvest less likely than with a crop of apples.

So that eliminates the pears from the realm of possibility, but what of the berries?  Berries similarly are too volatile for much other than liquors or “cleaning runs” (Neutral spirit packed with berries and then redistilled).  Of course, the quantities needed to produce a true berry based Eua-De-Vie of any quantity are mind numbingly large as well.  So where does that leave us?  Well, seemingly it leaves us with very few options for meeting the heavy brandy quota of the area at that time.  Unless we consider something unconventional and almost unknown outside of the mid-west….

Attention, should be turned to that stalwart Hoosier native, the Paw Paw or “Indiana (or variously Ohio or Michigan) Banana”.    So revered was this now oft overlooked fruit at that time in Indiana history that the Courier Journal out of Louisville KY once annotated that if you “Deprive a Hoosier of his favorite fruit he will be your enemy for life!”.  For us Southern Hoosiers the Paw Paw is well known, typically foraged from wild trees in the forests in September (a tradition shared between multiple generations of Hoosier families) and eaten directly out of hand, the trees grow nearly everywhere in the southern country where deciduous forests abound, often in groves, and typically these groves are the hotspots of wildlife such as deer, turkey, and the humble box tortoise. The fruit grows in clusters, is typically green to yellow green skinned and later turns black as the fruit ripens.  The paw paw is incredibly aromatic with a very tropical/floral note.  The fruit softens to a custard like consistency when ripe and has a flavor not unlike a banana, although richer and creamier.  The skin is typically slightly bitter and the seed is highly phenolic/tannic and was at one point in history used as a coffee substitute.  The paw paw is sweet as well and contains high levels of fermentable sugars (roughly 18 brix or the equivalent of a 1.072 Specific Gravity if one were to mash in one lb. of paw paw to one gallon of water.  This would also make the finished wine close to 9% alcohol without the addition of sugar!)

Now, don’t get what I’m saying here wrong, was the paw paw a venerable fermentable?  Yes.  Was it preferred? No.  But sometimes one makes due with what they have and this is certainly the case with Paw Paw brandy as it is typically only mentioned in passing, during bad years for other fruit crops, and rarely gets mentioned again, and probably for good reason as I’ll explain from personal experience momentarily.

The first reference we have in Washington County occurs near the town of Old Pekin.  Around 1830 or so Pekin had become a bustling little hamlet near the Mutton Fork of Blue River replete with two Taverns or Inns (one known as the Pekin Inn, possibly because it set at the top of the knobs, so the stage coach was said to be peeking the knobs, or because some neighborhood boys made it a habit to peek in through the windows at the “ladies” on staff) as they were known and was a well-known stage coach stop on the Old Grade which led up from Beargrass (Louisville) to Falls City (New Albany) and then north.  As you can imagine liquor in this area of the county was quite common and a great bulk of it was sold here including fruit brandy (Plum Brandy was also very popular) but there weren’t much in the way of fruit trees at that time in this township, thus most of the locally produced liquor was of corn extraction while the brandy was “bought in” from neighboring townships.  Johnathan Spainhour set out to fix that and settled on the local Paw Paw patches for his brandy wine salvation!  History hath not recorded but I do not doubt, knowing the nature and spirit of my hometown, that this brandy was likely served at the first recorded Pekin Fourth Of July Festival (the longest consecutive in the United States I might add!).  Around this same time Christian Bixler (the spiritual founder and the man who plotted the town) set out in the same business of distilling the fragrant yellow fruit himself for a short while.

Both the aforementioned Thomas Green and a man by the last name Miller near Becks Mill were supposed to have fermented and distilled the libation with some success according to oral tradition.  One old timer had remarked that the fruit was better left to rot on the ground for what it is worth.

During the years of the Civil War Paw Paw brandy became much more common as other fruit and grains were allocated to other needs.  Though not well documented in Washington County it is apparent that elsewhere in Southern Indiana the spirit was becoming more common and respected as stories of children being paid to pick them up are abundant as are historical contracts for thousands of bushels of the fruit to be delivered to X distillery on a given date.

Around 1915 the very last of our Washington County commercial distilleries, the spiritual successor to that of Henry Robertson (located near to but not in Caver River Valley), Mr. Adam Brewer was mentioned in the pages of the Southern Wine and Spirits Bulletin:

One Adam Brewer living near Campbellsburg in Washington county Indiana not far from New Albany is to make the experiment of distilling brandy from pawpaws Mr. Brewer has maintained a fruit distillery on his place a number of years but as there is a scarcity of apples in that section this season but an abundant crop of pawpaws he is going to try making brandy from this fruit and claims that a palatable beverage can be made So far as is known this will be the first experiment with pawpaws in the making of brandy

According to local historian John Hughes the brandy was not a success as the local Dr. Lawrence W. Paynter described it as “the most potent liquor ever made, equal in kick to the tequila made south of the border.”

The historical study of this Hoosier Paw Paw brandy would not be complete without the telling of the sad story of Mr. Baily Boling and his unfortunate passing.  Mr. Boling came from a long line of Washington County ancestors living near the Elk Creek area and had lived the life of a genius inventor applying for and receiving multiple patents including one for an early form of power steering on steam engine tractors.  By the 1920’s, approaching 70 years of age, he was in need of money and living near South Boston.  By this time prohibition was well underway and the fastest (though never easiest) way to put a good amount of cash in your pocket was via the still house.  In early October of 1923 word got out to the revenue agents that Mr. Boling was involved in the production of Paw Paw brandy.  They showed up at his farm and commenced an attempt at apprehending him.  Shots were apparently fired by both sides and Bailey believed he had killed one of the agents.  He took off into the country side and stopped for a bite to eat and to apparently confess his sins at the homes of a couple of friends/family and then proceeded on his journey.  A few days later some children playing in a nearby cave in the vicinity of lake John Hay found his body in what is now referred to as suicide cave.  Baily had taken his own life over his guilt.  He was laid to rest in Winslow cemetery.  I wish there was a stone to share a picture of here but none exists (many suicides were not given even a proper burial, none the less a stone at this time).

So, you might be asking, why was there a seeming aversion to Paw Paw brandy?  Particularly when the fruit was abundant, high in sugar, a great yielder, and free for the taker?  Well, to put it simply, most distillers of the time had poor fermentation practices that led to an inferior quality.  Remember how I mentioned the phenolics of the seed and skin?   Well, those phenolics are highly distillable and create a flavor profile that is heavily tannic in nature.  Any skin or seed membrane in the fermentation will be immediately noticeable in the distillation.  As well, the high sugar content made the aromatic compounds very volatile, similar to pears, meaning that poor distillation would lead to a spirit that tasted “hot” and highly of ethanol components.  The distillate itself is also very oily and lingers long after drinking.  As well, unripe paw paws have a high pectin content (ironically the skin contains the enzyme needed to break down the fruit) and when fermented and distilled produce an abundance of methanol.  A good spirit can be produced from Paw Paw, but intense care and time must go into it.  It isn’t a spirit to be produced quickly and without concern, but one which takes finesse, a finesse generally lost on most commercial distillers, particularly in the early days.

If one were to attempt Adam Brewers experiment, my advice would be to use a good stainless steel 1/8-inch screen to press the ripe paw paw pulp through, using as little pressure as possible in order to allow the seed, seed membrane, and skin behind.  No chaptalization should be attempted and fermentation should never reach a temperature about 70 degrees, meaning at the very least either temperature control or a cellar will be necessary.  Strain the mash after fermentation, perform a stripping run (or several) and hold back 10-20% wine to add back to this in the still for the doubling run.  Make a crisp and very clean head cut and cut to tails no lower than 92 proof.  Enjoy in moderation.



Another interesting tid-bit about Adam Brewer.  Adam died in 1931, having never returned to his previous business.  It is not that Adam died that is peculiar but it is is that the evening before his death he had a dream or a preminition that he would die that day and related the dream to his wife.  That day he was hauling corn to a mill to be ground when the load overturned on him and killed him.



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