You’re barreling down a narrow rocky path with no signs, searching for an address you only vaguely remember. You take a wrong turn and loop back around a meadow, your eyes scanning snow-covered hills for the correct house. A horse looks at you questioningly from behind an ice-glazed fence.
Then, you find Edelbrand Pure Distilling. Located on a former horse farm in Marthasville, Missouri, the business is a passion project for husband-and-wife team Martin Weber and Lynn DeLean-Weber. The couple draws on Weber’s Swiss heritage to produce fruit brandies reminiscent of those that Weber grew up drinking in Switzerland.
The process calls for mash from fresh fruits to be distilled into brandy. In Switzerland, people often use fruit from their own trees for the mash and take it to a master distiller. It becomes a family tradition, Weber says. “My grandpa made his own mash. My sister’s husband makes his own mash and has it distilled. It’s pride. It’s common over there,” he says.
Edelbrand’s brandies are called vinars, a word deriving from a language spoken by a small mountain region in Switzerland. Weber grew up there before moving to the United States more than 32 years ago to work for a Swiss machining company in the Marthasville, Missouri, area. DeLean-Weber, who had just moved to Marthasville, met Weber at a party. The two have been married 20 years this July.
In 2012, Weber and DeLean-Weber decided to start tinkering with brandy distilling. They bought a small, 7-gallon copper still made by one of Weber’s friends and began producing moonshine in the basement. “We played with it and perfected it. That’s what kicked us to the next step,” Weber says.
The couple converted a tack room and wash room on their farm into a distillery. Edelbrand got licensed in Missouri in 2013. The same year, the company got a federal liquor license. The license process was arduous, especially because Edelbrand had to convince a zoning board that their plans wouldn’t interfere with local farmland.
“Part of our strategy was agreeing not to have a tasting room. It was never an issue for us because our primary motivation for moving here was to have peace and quiet, and to raise our kids here,” DeLean-Weber says. “We’re encouraging people to support local retailers that sell our products.”
Plus, the couple wants to keep things small. In 2014, a trip to the West Coast to tour big distilleries convinced them that microdistilling was the best way to proceed. It would allow them to keep costs low while producing a more flavorful product. Edelbrand makes about 1,100 to 1,200 bottles of vinars a year.
“The way the big distillers handle mash, they have to play it safe. They can’t lose 10,000 pounds of product. Their brandy is always the same because it has to be. For us, every batch of apple brandy each year is different because of the fruit,” Weber says.
Weber and DeLean-Weber buy most of their fruit from local from local farms. Apples comes from Rasa Orchards in Lexington, Missouri, and Thierbach Orchards in Marthasville. Grapes are sourced from Lost Creek Vineyards in Hermann, Missouri. The couple works with Roger and Tricia Hotop of the Hotop Family Stand at the Soulard Farmers Market to source other fruits such as apricot, plums and cherries.
Edelbrand’s distilling process is a family affair. DeLean-Weber’s daughter Tess, who lives in Boston (and is also an owner in the brand), and Weber’s oldest son Claudio, who lives in Switzerland, often come during the fall during apple season to de-stem and prepare fruit. Friends and neighbors also show up to help with 1,200 pounds of apples, DeLean-Weber says. The extra help is important as Weber still works full-time and only distills on weekends. DeLean-Weber recently retired from teaching to focus on Edelbrand’s sales and marketing.
The distilling process takes 10 hours start to finish. Weber starts by crushing fruit. He then adds water and Champagne yeast, which kickstarts fermentation. The mixture sits in plastic tanks for three to four weeks. Then, Weber allows the fruit mash to sit longer, which gives the resulting brandy more flavor. Most of Edelbrand’s fruit mashes sit for three months, but apple mashes can sit for eight to 10 months.
On Saturday and Sundays at 5:30am, DeLean-Weber and Weber set up the stills. Edelbrand has expanded from its original 7-gallon still and now has 8-, 12- and 18-gallon copper stills. DeLean-Weber and Weber load the mash into the stills and heat the water surrounding the pot stills. The heating process takes about two and a half hours.
Weber puts the distillate through two runs: The first run produces heads, which most people recognize as moonshine, and tails, which are not poisonous like heads but still have a bitter taste. Weber retains some of the tails to add flavor to the final product.
During a final run, or spirit run, Weber puts the distillate back through the still. Then he filters the product through a paper or cartridge-style filter. He lets the vinars sit for two to three weeks in jugs before he dilutes the spirit down to drinking strength with fresh well water and bottles it. The final spirit is 80-proof, compared to 160-proof when it comes out of the final run.
Edelbrand has already found a market for its vinars. DeLean-Weber gets the word out about the product by cold-calling businesses, and her persistence has yielded fruitful results. Edelbrand’s products are picking up steam at local restaurants and specialty shops. The brandy is available at The Wine & Cheese Place in St. Louis, a partnership that gave Edelbrand a wider distribution channel. St. Louis-area restaurants such as Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, Missouri, and Stone Soup Cottage in Cottleville, Missouri, also offer the vinars.
Carl McConnell, chef and co-owner of Stone Soup Cottage, first met the couple when they were eating at the restaurant. He has since started serving Edelbrand’s vinars at his restaurant and using them in his cooking. “The vinars are very popular with my clients, especially those who are brandy drinkers. I also put them in my dessert sauces and savory sauces. It’s a very versatile, old-world, wonderful product,” McConnell says.
Edelbrand is also expanding outside of St. Louis. In November, DeLean-Weber and Weber went to Kansas City to shop around their product. Restaurants including Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room and The Antler Room picked up the vinars. Leslie Goellner, co-owner of The Antler Room, says DeLean-Weber charmed her through a cold call and convinced her to take a chance on the vinars.
“The brandy blew us away. The thought, process and producers they’re using to make them are amazing. I know it’s not going to be something to fly off our shelves. I have to make a conscious effort for conversation. But it’s something we’re excited to support,” Newsam says.
One of Edelbrand’s biggest challenges is marketing its product. Vinars require explanation, and many restaurants often don’t have time to tell a customer the story behind the brandy. DeLean-Weber looks for restaurants and businesses that are willing to a little spend time with a customer and tell them about vinars. She has also distributed surveys directly to customers to get feedback.
Edelbrand’s vinars recently caught the eye of George Reisch, the former brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch. Resich was so taken with the brandy that he introduced Weber and DeLean-Weber to Doug Frost, a master sommelier based in Kansas City. Frost encouraged the couple to enter their brandy in regional and national competitions.
The vinars cleaned up at the contests. Edelbrand’s plum brandy took gold and best spirit in the Mid-America competition. The company’s apple and plum brandy won the gold three weeks later in The Washington Cup, the national competition.
Edelbrand’s success speaks to the quality of its product but also a new movement in the beverage industry, Frost says. A hundred years ago, the country, especially the Midwest, was dominated by large breweries.
“It became a business of just a few giants with tiny guys nipping at their heels. Hopefully now, we’re entering an era when wine, beer and spirits can be made locally again,” Frost says. “People recognize high quality and the small distillers will be able to make money and be rewarded for their hard work.”
Liquor consumers, especially young ones, are looking for different experiences when they drink. The company’s backstory and its rich flavor convinces people to try their product, DeLean-Weber says.
“The Midwest has a practicality to it that’s conducive to people trying to run a business like this. You also have an interested community that’s willing to take a chance on you. That makes all the difference,” she says.
Edelbrand Pure Distilling, 314.282.7528, edelbrandpuredistilling.com