Mason & Dixon has a few drinks that stuck out to me as defining when I first read it. White corn whisky and madeira top the pile, as I wrote about the day I finished the book. Peach brandy doesn’t get anything like the airtime those two command, but it has nevertheless always sung to me as containing its own share of the essential spirit of the book.
Peach brandy perfumes the early American air M&D breathes, being arguably the first truly American spirit. According to a (fascinating) Daily Beast article, it was a top go-to drink for 17th and 18th century Americans. Supposedly, early versions were distilled with peaches grown on trees planted by the Spanish during their earlier explorations of the continent.
George Washington even got in on the action. He was first and foremost a rye whisky distiller, but Mount Vernon records show for a while there the presidential distillery produced 60 gallons of peach brandy a year. The contemporary iteration of the Mount Vernon estate revived this production in 2014 on their reconstructed interpretation of an 18th century distillery. George Washington’s Peach Brandy would have been pretty perfect for my purposes here, but after a few years of hunting I have conceded that I’m not getting my hands on that particular bottle any time soon.
I count myself lucky to have found any real peach brandy at all. Horrible sickly-sweet imitation peach flavoured brandy abounds, but that stuff bears zero resemblance to genuine brandy distilled from peaches. The real deal is very thin on the ground indeed, especially down here is Australia. Somehow though, I earlier this year found a bottle of Chicago distillery Koval’s one-off peach brandy, “Susan for President.” Weirdly, Qantas was selling it.
We’re drinking it neat out of wonderful little glasses my grandmother got on the Orient Express. The aroma is very floral, almost jasmine-like, with gentle peachy notes and something slightly creamy and minty, all carried along by a pronounced spicy booziness and a little honey sweetness. At first sip, the flavour comes across as sharply boozy and rough. But it really mellows out into something sophisticated and delicate as you spend some time with it. There’s an airy whisper of white peach, light earl grey tea, and a whisky-like grip and cinnamon spice. The peach is most pronounced on the aftertaste, where it lingers and lingers and lingers. Very pleasant, subtle stuff.
Pynchon first cracks the peach brandy in Chapter 35 of M&D, which begins with Rev Wicks Cherrycoke and Uncle Ives arguing convivially about the nature of history and the duty of the historian. Another of the several uncles in attendance finds this thirsty listening:
The Company redeploy themselves in the direction of Comfort, as the moistly-dispos’d Uncle Lomax steers again for the Cabinet in the corner, presently returning with a bottle of Peach Brandy.
Upon his first Sip, the Revᵈ reels in his Chair. “Why bless us, ’tis from Octarara.”
“Amazingly cognizant, Wicks.”
“I once surviv’d a fortnight, Snow-bound,” replies the Revᵈ, “upon little else. ‘Twas at Mr. Knockwood’s, by Octarara Creek, in the terrible winter of ‘sixty-four–‘sixty-five, when after four years, the Surveyors and I once more cross’d Tracks….”Mason and Dixon, p. 352.
Cherrycoke has quite a palate on him to pick the specific creek the brandy was distilled by! Also, should I be adding “moistly-dispos’d” to my twitter bio?
Peach brandy appears early in the next chapter too, when our beloved astronomers Dixon and Mason enter a somewhat mysterious inn where Rev Cherrycoke is “already down a Pipe and a Pint.” The weather is bleak again, but it’s good for business at the inn:
The weather continues to worsen. Taproom Regulars come in the voice openly Comparisons to the Winter of ’63 and ’64, the freezing and Floods. New casks of peach Brandy are open’d daily. The Knockwoods begin to raise their voices. “But I was saving that one.”
“For what? The Book of Revelations? These are cash customers.”Mason & Dixon, p.364.
It’s pretty cold here too, and I have nowhere near of whole cask of peach brandy. But I will have to ration the stuff out, as it is needed for one other drink still to come…