Innovation, Variety—and a
Splash of Brandy—Pay Off
for Shelburne Orchards
STORY BY AMY HALORAN
PHOTO BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
Nick Cowles’ life seems to be a stack of nesting dolls, each one enfolding all the lives he’s lived: organic orchardist doing bulk sales, pick-your-own operator, curator of festivals and, now, distiller. At the very center is Shelburne Orchards, where Cowles was born and where, in 1977, he began running the family orchard. Given the times, he chose to go organic, which is a big deal in apples.
“I took out this huge loan, built this storage building,” he said of the enterprise. “It was such a grind. I was competing with all the other large packing facilities around.”
The work was too hard for its minimal return, and he began to consider other ways to run the orchard. A sea change seemed in order. Rather than shipping everything off the land, why not shift to selling everything right on the farm?
“We’re right here on Lake Champlain, just south of Burlington, which is the highest population in Vermont,” said Cowles. “I just decided that I was going to take advantage of the location.”
The idea was to make the orchard a destination where the experience would be more than picking apples. Toward this goal, Cowles set up festivals and planted all sorts of things besides trees: local food, live music, hayrides, a petting zoo and racecourses through the orchard.
By now, harvest seems like an eight-week-long performance and party. The 11th Small Farms Food Fest was held this past fall, as was the Cider House Run and Pie Fest. Daily pick-your-own apple harvesting coexists nicely with these events, and toward the end of the season a couple of special events draw other pickers. Senior Citizens Day invites seniors to pay a special rate per bushel.
Each year the grand hurrah is Truckload Saturday, where people can fill a pickup bed or their car with apples. The orchard’s Ginger Jack is available that day, and people can bring carboys to fill with a special blend of cider to harden at home.
“We do a mixture of many different varieties, depending on what is good that year,” Cowles said of the blend, which includes crabapples and heirloom varieties, things you don’t get in supermarket cider. “When you’re fermenting, you want a lot of different types. The sweet, the tart, the high tannin—generally the more varieties, the better, the more rounded the flavor.”
This flavor is what Cowles seeks in the cider he uses for distilling too, though eventually, he might think otherwise. Predicting how fresh cider will taste eight years out, once it’s, bottled is kind of tough. “Could be the best apple brandy comes from a single variety,” he said, his voice lit up with curiosity.
The unpredictable and long-term nature of what he’s doing seems to be part of its appeal. The oldest brandy has been aging three years, and it will be another five before it’s bottled. He’s collecting old heirloom varieties for grafting; each grafted tree won’t produce enough apples to add to the brandy for 10 years. Aging that brandy will take another eight to 10 years.
“I’m kind of looking at the clock,” he said with a laugh. He’s 61 years old. “Am I doing this for myself or am I doing it for future generations? When I think about it, I don’t care. How many things do you do that look that far ahead?”
Though orchards are constantly planting for the future, this process is different. When you plant Bartlett pears, you know what you’re going to get. Planting and grafting for something that will accumulate taste over time, incorporating the vagaries of the fermentation process and the nuances of barrel woods in the aging and finishing process, is a whole other thing. A thing Nick Cowles is really embracing. “I’ve just fallen in love with any kind of brandy,” he said.
Brandy is alcohol made from fruit sugar. In his quest for learning about apple brandy he’s sampled brandies from lots of places, and the stuff has captured his taste and imagination. Distilling, he said, fits like a glove around everything else that’s happening at the orchard. The still runs in December and January, and Cowles invites anyone who is interested to come visit, sit on the sofa, maybe practice a tune while he hones his skills on his mandolin. While he doesn’t claim to be an expert on distilling, he’s happy to share what he knows. Such sharing is what’s gotten him where he is now.
The American Distilling Institute hosts a convention every year, and he has attended one in Louisville, Kentucky, and one in Portland, Oregon. He learned as much from talking with distillers as he did from workshops, and has found the online forum a wealth of information. Last December, Shelburne Orchards sold 100 bottles from its first batch of apple brandy. The bottles met their owners at a splashy event catered by Cowles’ friend Bob Blumer, who has a show called Glutton for Punishment.
“He made unbelievable apple brandy-related hors d’oeuvres,” Cowles said. And helped get a lot of people ready for the next bottling, which will not happen for another five years.