Jim Pierce and Sarah Burnett Pierce, the farmers and distillers behind Of the Earth Farm Distillery, wasted no time when they saw an opportunity to sell their spirits direct to the public. Earlier this year, the Kansas City Council authorized a new permit that enables Missouri farmers and producers to sell wine and spirits they produce at the City Market. Now, shoppers can swing by the farm stand at the market each Saturday, sample and buy apple brandy, blackberry liqueur and rye eau de vie from Of the Earth.
The Pierces began distilling spirits in 2012 as a way to develop a value-added product from the apples grown on their orchard. The 40-acre farm, tucked just beyond the Crooked River Conservation Area along a dusty gravel backroad in Rayville, Missouri, grows apple varieties such as GoldRush, Redfield and Golden Russet. The farm also grows and sells chestnuts, Asian pears, pluots and other fruits to supplement their sheep and hog operation.
Jim works full-time as a farm outreach worker in the Innovation Small Farmer Outreach Program at Lincoln University. Several years ago, he attended a seminar at the Lied Center that prompted the idea of distilling spirits.
“Distilling adds value to tree fruit,” Jim says. “I wrote a Missouri Department of Agriculture grant, did a feasibility study, market research and wrote a business plan.”
Once Jim and Sarah figured out a low-cost approach to the operation, they were in business with an assist from the state. Jim says, “The Department of Agriculture grant helped us to start.”
They bought a bain marie copper alembic still from Portugal in January 2012. Jim chose the Portuguese still because of the country’s heritage as makers of copper stills. He paraphrased a Maine distiller from Sweetgrass Distilling, who said, “Go to the place in the world where the craft isn’t broken.”
Bain marie, a French term meaning water bath, is a double boiler method of heating liquid. A bain-marie still insulates the product that is being distilled by heating it through a layer of water. As the water heats, it will create steam, and the heat is applied to the distilling substance slowly and indirectly.
In Jim’s case, he built a concrete block box to house the body of the propane-fueled still. The copper helmet and discharge pipe rises above this concrete “sauna.” A separate container collects the first distillation. While the October air outside is crisp and cool, the building’s interior is balmy and humid inside as the still converts liquid to vapor and collects the spirit.
Sarah sits by the still and alcohol levels during a first distillation. Meanwhile, Jim breaks down the time and labor involved with the distillation process.
Fermentation of the fruit takes between seven to 14 hours. The first “stripping” run or distillation takes seven hours. It takes six of these initial runs to make enough volume for a production run, or second distillation, to fill a 50-gallon barrel. Later, Jim will cut the distilled spirit to achieve the desired proof and alcohol level.
The apple brandy uses a blend of apples from the orchard. Blackberries are sourced from the Mule Barn Berry Patch in Lathrop for the blackberry liqueur.
Weighing in at 20-percent alcohol by volume and 40 proof, the blackberry liqueur is light purple in color, reminiscent of fresh-squeezed berries. The sweet-tart berry flavor is followed by a mild heat from the spirit that warms the chest. Its potent and delicious, perfect for an after-dinner sip especially on a cool evening.
Ray County Rye eau de vie uses rye grown in Ray County, Missouri. By the way, the French term eau de vie de fruit, or eau de vie for short, refers to a clear, colorless fruit brandy not made from grapes. Eau de vie de vin refers to what we commonly call brandy in the U.S.
Of the Earth’s grappa uses pomace, the solid remains of grapes after the crush, from nearby Baltimore Bend Winery. In the future, Of the Earth may tinker with developing spirits that incorporate chestnuts or pumpkin as a seasonal spirit.
“We’re using raw Missouri product to create our eau de vie and spirits,” says Jim.
He realizes that his distillery cannot compete in volume with other existing or forthcoming distillers around Kansas City. Instead, he aims to distinguish his spirits by using locally-sourced ingredients. That’s earned him a spot behind the bar at Justus Drugstore and Affare.
“I want to do interesting things,” he adds. “We grow our fruit. We feed the mash to our Berkshire hogs. It’s a sustainable agriculture model.”
After viewing several bins of harvested apples in a metal and wood barn built by hand, Jim walks over to a shipping container and swings open the metal door. Inside are four Missouri oak barrels with a #3 char that come from A&K Cooperage and Barrel 53, both based in Missouri. Jim pulls a cork from one barrel, inserts a large eyedropper to extract a sample and deposit it into two cups, and uses a rubber mallet to pound the cork into place. He hands over a cup.
The apple brandy is as sweet as nectar. A gentle heat follows, not harsh or burning at all. Jim waits for a reaction. Smiles ensue. He’s excited to see that others enjoy his refined spirits. That enthusiastic response is the result of fruit trees planted on his family’s land 15 years ago by his father, a copper still from Portugal and a farmer’s ambitious notion to create something unique and desirable of the earth.