It sounds like there’s a party going on in the aging cellar at Copper & Kings in Louisville, KY. Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love blasts from speakers placed among the brandy barrels, some painted neon green and pink. It’s a stark contrast to France’s traditional Cognac, where the barrels rest in peaceful silence.
It’s not all about fun and games, though. Copper & Kings is one of a handful of distilleries that use a technique called “sonic aging” to encourage spirits to age more quickly. In theory, that thumping bass allows the liquid to make contact with the wood inside the barrels more frequently. Whether you believe music makes the difference or not, it’s a sign of how America’s brandy producers are applying innovation to one of the oldest and, frankly, stodgiest spirits categories.
If there was ever a time to get excited about American-made brandy, it’s now. What was once a relatively unloved category is getting some new traction, with distillers turning out wonderful bottlings.
Brandy is a type of liquor traditionally made from distilling wine, though any fermented fruit may be used. And to be fair, America has produced brandy as long as we’ve had fruit to ferment, distill and stick into barrels. However, compared to Europe’s legendary polished bottlings, like Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados, most American brandies just haven’t been of the same quality, and have been mired in obscurity for years.
So what’s changed? The short answer: many brandy producers have taken inspiration from the runaway success of America’s other brown spirit: Bourbon.
Laird’s Applejack is one of the most visible producers to have led the charge, with apple distillate aged in former Bourbon barrels, as opposed to more neutral French oak, to add caramel and spice notes familiar to whiskey drinkers.
Joe Heron, founder of Copper & Kings, also uses former Bourbon casks (as well as barrels that formerly held beer, wine and other spirits) to achieve the finesse of Cognac with the robustness of American products. “We’re slipstreaming Bourbon and flanking Cognac,” he says.
The pressure felt to meet the runaway success of American whiskeys is prevalent throughout the industry, even with traditional brandy producers. For example, the first-ever California Brandy Summit, scheduled for April in Yosemite, California, states that its goal is “to help California brandy be acknowledged as ranking among the world’s best brown spirits.”
With or without Bourbon barrels, the next wave of American brandy has been slowly advancing for some time. Part of it builds upon the work of pioneers like Germain-Robin, Clear Creek and Osocalis, which have made excellent brandies for decades. More recently, the craft-spirits movement has helped propel smaller producers.
At Germain-Robin in Mendocino, California, Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale have been out-Cognac-ing Cognac for years, using Old World methods and California wine grapes to create some of the most delicious brandies around. Their single-grape variety and single-barrel experiments are particularly breathtaking. For example, Germain-Robin’s Old & Rare 1985 Chenin Blanc is exquisite, but at $600, it’s a hard one to recommend for the average consumer.
In a bid for younger consumers, Germain-Robin recently released its Millard Fillmore bottling at $35. It’s also pretty darn good, proving that if anyone can bring American consumers to brandy, Germain-Robin is the horse to watch in this race.
It’s also possible that a brandy maker with Bourbon bona fides could steal the show. Keep an eye on Chip Tate, who pioneered Texas-made single malts and Bourbons under the Balcones label. He now runs the Tate & Co. distillery in Waco, where he’s building stills (for himself and others) and experimenting with grapes from Texas Hill Country, an up-and-coming wine region.
Tate doesn’t want to emulate French brandies. He wants to make brandies that are specific to Texas. A first taste of his finished product is scheduled to be released in the fall, a very limited-edition brandy made with Texas-grown Zinfandel grapes. Tate says they create a “fuller,” more fruit-forward spirit when compared to French brandy styles.
“It’s not just about making brandy in America,” says Tate. “It’s about actually making styles of brandy that are uniquely American.” That’s the kind of goal worth throwing a dance party in the cellar.
Four American Brandies To Try
Millard Fillmore Brandy (Germain-Robin, Mendocino, CA); $35, 40% abv. Made with California grapes matured in French and American oak. A versatile sipper with mellow almond and vanilla and a a baking spice finish. Sip or mix.
Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy (Osocalis, Soquel, CA); $40, 40% abv. California grapes and Cognac-style distilling equipment yields robust dried-fruit flavor and a smooth, elegant sip.
A&G Reserve Michigan Brandy (St. Julian Wine Company, Paw Paw, MI); $46, 40% abv. Brandy from Michigan? That might be a surprise, but this honeyed offering shows it belongs with a subtle mix of vanilla, oak and cinnamon.
3 Marlenas Apple Brandy (Copper & Kings, Louisville, KY); $40 for 375 ml, 50% abv. A five-year-old apple brandy finished in Tequila barrels, which yields a surprisingly zingy, spicy profile. Add water to taste…