Paw-Paw Brandy: An Underutilized and distinctly American product.

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“Mango” paw paw variety. Pic courtesy of Darren Bender-Beauregard of Brambleberry Farm.

Paw-Paw Brandy: An Underutilized and distinctly American product.

In keeping with my historic bent on American Distillation I’ve decided to explore an underutilized Midwest fruit for the production of fruit mash brandy. If one were to enquire of most Midwesterners now days what a “Paw-Paw” is most would stare back in confusion but as little as 20-30 years ago this mostly wild foraged fruit was well known in the countryside as it was considered a fall treat gathered in abundance by many during the prime wood cutting and ginseng hunting season.

Asimina trilobal is known by many names; The Hoosier Banana, Michigan Banana, Kentucky Banana, Quaker Delight, American Custard Apple, and my personal favorite “The Hillbilly Mango”. The Paw-Paw is the largest native tree fruit to the Americas and has wide distribution as far west as Oklahoma and as far east as New York and ranges as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada. The flesh is custard like in consistency, usually of a yellow coloration, and carries flavors of Banana and Mango and the aroma and muskiness of Cantaloupe. Typically the trees are bushy affairs that grow in groves underneath a canopy of deciduous neighbors although they can reach heights of 30-40 feet and can produce prodigious crops of fruit from 2-6 inches long which are very aromatic.

Many of my own personal memories of childhood growing up in the southern Hoosier Hills of Indiana involve taking the time to pick bags of paw-paws with my grandparents to snack on and deliver to an elderly man in town to enjoy between sessions of cutting wood for the winter. To this day the fragrant aroma of the fruit can transport me directly back to any of a handful of Autumn days spent learning the lore of my family and the expectations of farm life from my grandparents. The fruit also attracted large numbers of box turtles to feast upon them as well, providing me hours of joy and the turtles a six year old tormenter. To say that the Paw-Paw was an integral piece of my life would simply be an understatement regarding the importance of this fruit so often though of a “lowly” nature and unfortunately forgotten and consigned mostly to be considered of no commercial value.

Although the fruit was looked upon fondly by George Washington who enjoyed them chilled and served for dessert and Thomas Jefferson who cultivated his own at Monticello the true commercial value of the fruit was never realized due to their tendency towards poor storage. At the ripe stage a paw paw will begin to break down and ferment in a short window meaning that shipping of the fruit was never a commercial possibility. The quick breakdown is actually a function of enzymes stored in the skin and seed membrane of the fruit which help facilitate natural fermentation.

In recent years a renewed interest in the fruit has spurred the breeding of new larger fruited varieties, many with excellent culinary qualities, commercial orchards are currently grown in Ohio (who made the fruit their state fruit in 2009), Kentucky, Indiana, and Maryland. The fruit is incredibly easy to cultivate and suffers little from known pests. Sometimes pollination is an issue and is facilitated by planting two or more genetic varieties or by placing rancid smelling items to attract flied for pollination. Yes, you read that correctly, flies, not bees.

If you live anywhere in the native range of the fruit the chances are you can easily find a grove that could provide enough raw material to consider the production of brandy from paw-paw or even possibly find a local grower experimenting with cultivated varieties. Considering that the fruit is native to the Americas , is fairly abundant, and is mostly pest free, it would be an excellent candidate for the latest wave of craft distillers. The distillate produced by this fruit resembles in many ways that produced from the fermentation of banana but is far more complex in it’s presentation and carries with it a lot of mineral character not dissimilar to Chenin Blanc grape distillate as well as a strong vanilla aroma and slight tones of butterscotch, all of these making it a strong candidate for proper maturing in used rye barrels which would give some spicy contrast or if affordability isn’t an option then the spicy nature of the French Oak Barrel would be an excellent choice.

The handling of material for fermentation would present a handful of challenges but those are all easily overcome using simple manual labor. The skin and the seed membrane both contain bittering compounds and the fruit is generally very seedy but the seed is of a large size and easily removed and should be as they too are bitter and were once used as a coffee substitute. The wine would be made in the method of a fruit mash brandy much like slivovitz or palinka. A simple hand press framed with untreated lumber with 1/8 inch stainless hardware cloth could be constructed in order to easily press the ripe fruit against allowing only the inner flesh of the fruit pass through. I would suggest 2-3 gallons of fruit per gallon and aim for a specific gravity of 1.060 or 14.7 Brix using sugar to raise the SG if needed. The aroma of paw-paw is very volatile so I would choose a good fruity white wine yeast and ferment in the mid 60’s. Double pot still distillation will really pull the flavors across into the finished product and give plenty of levity for making cuts.

Here in Southern Indiana the Paw-Paw was a well known distillery feedstock with records of distillation dating back as early as the eighteen teens. Near my home village of Pekin a distiller by the name of Johnathan Spainhour made quite a name for himself distilling this fruit and in the later days of commercial distilleries here (1877-1914) many of the apple and peach brandy distillers made use of the fruit as a tertiary option in years when the orchards of apple and peaches didn’t fare so well, this spirit they sold locally but also on the open market as far away as New Orleans. If we want to build our craft to show the world what we are capable of then these innovative and native distillation feedstocks must be utilized in order to differentiate ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Paw-Paw Brandy: An Underutilized and distinctly American product.

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  1. I’ve made paw-paw beer before. I’ve found that the seeds don’t really add bitterness as long as the hull on the seed is undisturbed. The plant used the digestive tract of extinct mega-fauna (mastodons and mammoths) as part of their reproductive cycle.

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