From colonial to contemporary
Nov./Dec. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Matt Salvo
Apple brandy and hard ciders show new spirit
Judy and Jay Watson welcome visitors to their apple orchards, distillery and tasting room near Sonora.
When fall breezes ruffle the leaves of Indigeny Reserve's apple trees, the Watson family knows harvest is near. It's a hectic, happy time in their orchards on the outskirts of Sonora, but they say it's their favorite time of year.
The Watsons welcome visitors to their organic farm year-round, but late fall is perfect for enjoying pies and pumpkins, and scarecrows decked out for the season. In December, Santa makes a visit for photo ops before heading off on his round-the-world tour.
Tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the ranch produces about 300,000 pounds of apples each fall, and the family sells some fresh to visitors while turning the rest into brandy, hard cider and other beverages.
Co-founders Jay and Judy Watson opened Indigeny Reserve to the public in 2012. They say the business is a lot of fun, especially during harvest.
"I get to meet the public; new people come in every day, and we have returning families," Jay Watson said on a busy fall morning. "It's rewarding. But the best part is developing products that people can enjoy on the spot."
Double-pot stills have been used for centuries to create agricultural spirits. Stills heat fruit juice and pulp to boiling, then condense the steam and draw it off to a second "pot" as spirits.
Cider, brandy and more
Visitors are welcome to see the brandy production part of the operation, which includes a distilling room with a double-pot copper still, and the barrel room, where the brandy ages in 55-gallon American oak barrels.
In the cider works, the Watsons are busy bottling, with plans to triple cider production and sales—to nearly a million bottles—by the end of the year. The aroma of apples is everywhere.
For grown-ups, there's a tasting bar with a number of hard ciders on tap. In addition to apple brandy, Indigeny has introduced a new line of infused, triple-distilled vodkas for sampling. Visitors also are invited to peruse the gift shop for locally created art and treats, and meander along the ranch's tree-lined paths and hiking trails, which pass an old gold mine and offer views of Phoenix Lake.
Jay Watson, a former communications executive, said, "Things have really taken off, and having visitors taste our products before we go to market is also very helpful. Building a business is fun and getting direct feedback from consumers is important."
He said he also enjoys working with his sons, Joe and Ben, as well as having his grandkids running around the ranch.
The Watsons' 160-acre apple ranch near Sonora has 20,000 Granny Smith apple trees, which produce the fruit used in Indigeny's crisp hard cider.
The family purchased their primary orchard in 2005—and that 80-acre apple ranch became the inspiration for their business. Although they didn't know much about growing apples at the time, they purchased the orchard near their mountain home, rather than see the property developed.
Some of the apple trees there date back to the early 1900s, Jay Watson said, and varieties now number more than 50, including 1,700 honeycrisp apple trees. While spending the three years needed to transition into an organic operation, the family found that nearly half the apples the orchard produced were not salable.
"That's how we got into hard cider," he explained. "We had all these apples and needed to find something to do with them. Once we got into hard cider and began to blend it, we found we had leftover product, and that's how we got into making brandy and vodka."
The Watsons' newer 160-acre apple ranch near Sonora has also gone through the organic certification process and now includes 20,000 Granny Smith apple trees, with those apples used in Indigeny's crisp hard cider. There also are 400 red Rome trees and 7,000 honeycrisps.
The Watson family opens its 160-acre apple ranch for visitors to enjoy tree-lined paths, a covered bridge, picnic grounds and hiking trails.
History in the making
Jay Watson leads tours of the facilities when he's not making brandy and vodka, and his wife, Judy, serves as Indigeny's program director, focusing on speakers, concerts and family events, as well as overseeing the gift shop.
Establishing a small distillery and cidery isn't especially difficult "if you like paperwork and have patience," Jay Watson laughed. "But don't get me wrong: Running an apple farm and distillery is a lot of work."
But it's work with a long history, he said. In America, apple brandy—sometimes called applejack—has been made since the early 1600s.
It was often made on colonial farms from homegrown fruit, especially apples, as a way to put perishable produce to future use. Historical records show George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made apple brandy on their farms—and it's still being produced today in small quantities at Washington's Mt. Vernon plantation.
Rooted in American history and agriculture, apple brandy, hard cider, apple beer and now flavored vodkas have been enjoying a revival in recent years, and the number of artisan U.S. distilleries continues to grow. The California Artisanal Distillers Guild has member distillers, cider houses and breweries in nearly every county.
At Indigeny, brothers Joe and Ben Watson handle production in the cider house and distillery, and also oversee orchard management. They explain that brandy generally contains 35 percent to 60 percent alcohol by volume, compared to wine at 12 percent to 15 percent and beer at 4 percent to 8 percent. Whiskies and vodkas can be 80 proof or more.
Joe Watson said consumer interest in hard cider is growing and the family has seen the numbers of visitors to their distillery increase "tremendously."
The tours and tastings help foster understanding of the process and enjoyment of the beverages, he said, and experimenting with flavors and developing new ciders, brandies and vodkas is all in a day's work.
"But what keeps us going is a love of the trees," he added, "and the many ways we've found to enjoy and share the fruit."