Features 20 April 2020

1,000 trees in a single glass: English eau de vie

Prince Charles' Highgrove orchard is a genetic repository of over 1,000 ancient and distinct apple trees, which provides Barney Wilczak with the key ingredient for Capreolus Distillery's special eau de vie

Words by Joe Rogers

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The orchard at Highgrove is home to some of the world’s rarest apple varieties. The collection, which is located on the grounds of the private residence of the Prince of Wales, forms part of an organic farm run by David Wilson, a specialist in the preservation of heirloom crops.

Among the species grown there are many forgotten by modern agriculture: ancient varieties that thrive in the temperate British climate. Ironically, the orchard had little commercial value until very recently, with the sheer diversity of the apples having no appeal to supermarkets that prize uniformity of appearance and flavour. Year after year, they had been sent for juicing and blended away into anonymity – that is, until the orchard came to the attention of Barney Wilczak, owner and operator of the nearby Capreolus distillery. When Wilczak enquired about buying apples to distil into eau de vie, Wilson responded by simply asking ‘does it matter if they’re mixed?’

It was only when the first three tonnes of apples arrived that Wilczak realised the variety of apples he would be working with; each of the 1,000 trees at Highgrove is genetically distinct, with fruit ranging in colour from blood red with golden webbing, through yellow and green, to deep black. Some are small as hazelnuts and others large as melons, and the breadth of flavour and aroma represents a unique resource for distilling. Fittingly, Caproelus is a unique distillery.

The Highgrove orchard
Wilczak in the Capreolus distillery

At the heart of the operation are two custom stills in a lean-to on the side of the Wilczak family home, while the distillery’s bonded warehousing is an old double-wide garage on the property. Wilczak makes his eau de vie with obsessive attention to detail. He sorts and cleans the fruit by hand, uses slow, natural fermentation, and gentle distillation. His fruit spirits are listed at Simon Rogan’s Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria in the north of England, while influential London sommelier Jan Konetzki has described Wilczak’s Siegerrebe Grape EDV as his ‘desert island grappa’. The work at Capreolus is hard and yields are low, but the quality of the finished product speaks for itself.

The 2018 edition of 1,000 Trees Apple Eau De Vie came to just 955 bottles, but production of this year’s release is currently underway. As before, Wilczak will donate £5 from every bottle sold to the Prince’s countryside fund to continue the preservation of heirloom fruits and support sustainable farming. The orchard at Highgrove is not just a curiosity; it serves as a genetic repository that may well help tomorrow’s farmers confront the challenges of climate change. A cause well worth raising a glass to.

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