Brandy From the Backyard
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this prickly pear brandy has us feeling California-summery.
How do you make a spirit taste like California?
Kurtis and Scott Major founded Birdview Distillery with that goal. Out of it came their flagship brandy, El Castor, released in February. And apparently the taste of California is a lot like prickly pear: El Castor, made from the fruit native to the Americas, has a tequila-esque bite to it — but with subtle, almost tropical fruit notes.
A spirit should match the aesthetic of a plant.
“My theory is that a spirit should match the aesthetic of a plant,” Kurtis said. “Beavertail cactus have spines and sharpness, but their fruit has a sweet flavor. We wanted the earthy, succulent green cactus qualities of tequila, with a softer fruity element.”
The Major brothers grew up in Malibu. Not the town of movie stars — their grandparents homesteaded a small farm on Point Dume with chickens and fruit trees. The grandparents had planted a hedge of Beavertail cactus — the plant that sprouts prickly pear — to keep coyotes from coming on the property and the young boys from wandering off. The cacti became a backdrop for the brothers’ lives, but they rarely thought about them.
Then eight years ago, Kurtis and Scott returned to their grandparents’ farm to turn the family raspberries and loquats into booze. Using the kitchen stove and a bathtub, these one-day distillers began by making wine. Kurtis explained, “We had a lot of loquats, so we started with those. But one day, we were talking about what fruit is uniquely California. Like the agave to Tequila, Mexico. We both looked outside at the prickly pears growing on the Beavertail cactus, and realized at the same moment, ‘that’s the one.”
The wine wasn’t impressive, so they decided to distill the prickly pear wine and make brandy with it. This had never been done before, so they had to make the harvesting, chopping, filtration and pressing equipment themselves. Scott is a fabricator, and Kurtis makes furniture and jewelry and works with stone. The two set out to build their distillery. “It looks like something out of Willy Wonka,” Kurtis explained. “The parts are disparate, but it functions harmoniously.”
At first they foraged fruit from their family’s property, then from neighbors’ land, even planting more and sharecropping.
They did buy the still. “When we realized this brandy was a good product, we researched the best still to distill it with,” Scott said. “We bought an alembic still from Hoga Company. They pound out their copper by hand on tree stumps. The Alembic style of distilling is 2,000 years old. We felt it best captured the flavor of the prickly pear.”
At first they foraged fruit from their family’s property, then from neighbors’ land, even planting more and sharecropping. This past year they contracted a farmer to grow it for them, so they hope to at least double production by next year.
“These plants are so low impact,” Curtis explained. “They don’t need much water and require virtually no maintenance. Bugs don’t like them, but birds do. It’s good to give back.”
El Castor Claro retails for about $55.00 a bottle. Their Reposado and Anejo are still aging in charred oak barrels and haven’t been released, but they anticipate those will cost $59.00. El Castor is available at a few stores and a handful of bars in California. The Duck Dive Gastropub in Malibu carries it, and manager Nick Daniels recommends that people try it neat at first. “It’s so unique, and so well done,” he said. “I encourage people to try it straight to get an idea of what it is. But it mixes great with citrus like blood orange and lime.”
And tastes like the West.
Maria Finn’s most recent book is The Whole Fish. For more information, visit her website at www.mariafinn.com.