When you say “American spirit,” most people think “whiskey.” But this month we sampled America’s other brown spirit: brandy.
According to most accounts, brandy was America’s first distilled spirit, made from the abundant apples, peaches and pears that grew among the colonies; wheat-based whiskeys came much later. But over the centuries, France’s brandies—Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados—have taken center stage in the premium brandy arena.
Can America’s brandy compete? In a word: maybe. They are certainly not lacking on the innovation front. Louisville’s Copper & Kings is pushing boundaries by playing bass-thumping David Bowie tracks to the barrels in their cellar in a bid to speed up aging; Baltimore Whiskey Company is experimenting with unaged apple brandy distilled “in the style of traditional mezcal.”
Amid those bells and whistles, another producer quietly came through again and again with stellar scores: California’s Germain-Robin. To be fair, many of the bottles reviewed are limited editions, made from what the producer calls “one-time blends” or single barrel/single varietal bottlings from their “old and rare” collection. It’s almost unfair to put them in the same line-up as more conventional bottlings. But it also goes to show that American brandies are capable of excellence, just like their French cousins.
Despite some rave reviews, American brandies are still not on people’s radar.
“People don’t know enough about brandy to understand how good it can be, to really believe in it,” said Ansley Coale, co-founder and principal of Germain-Robin.
If you’re among those who have never tried American brandy, here are several bottles worth a pour right now, from a California take on pisco to a luscious, long-aged apple brandy from Arkansas.
Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy One-Time Blend No. 25 (USA; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); $75, 98 points. Snap up this limited edition bottling: Given a few minutes to open in the glass, this brandy entices with fresh fig, golden raisin and baked pear aromas. The soft palate intertwines crème brûlée, fruit and baking spice, finishing long with subtle dark chocolate, leather and dried orange peel accents. Some will say it’s reminiscent of excellent Armagnac, but really it’s the gold standard of what American-made brandy can be. A blend of 1993 Pinot Noir, 1997 old vine Sémillon and a younger Colombard married in French oak. abv: 42.7%
Arkansas Black 21 Year Old Straight Applejack (USA; Timberlane Distillery, Novato, CA); $125, 95 points. This limited-edition apple brandy offers big, rounded stone fruit and fresh apple integrated with palate-coating vanilla, almond and honey, finishing long with zingy ginger, cinnamon and clove. Overall, a good balance of fruit and oak, suited for sipping or mixing. Aged in French ex-Chardonnay barrels, the producer bills this as the “longest-aged domestic apple brandy available anywhere.” 20 barrels made. abv: 46%
Millard Fillmore Brandy (USA; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); $35, 93 points. A budget-minded option from a maker of some of the finest American brandies around. Look for a honey hue and mild vanilla aroma. The palate feels light, as fleetingly sweet vanilla and almond winds into a cinnamon and nutmeg finish. Sip or mix this versatile California grape brandy. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Angela & Gene A&G Reserve Michigan Brandy (USA; St. Julian Wine Company, Paw Paw, MI); $46, 92 points. While made with Michigan grapes, this brandy is reminiscent of Calvados, Normandy’s apple brandy. The aroma suggests orchard fruit and oak, while the drying palate offers dark honey and baked apple, finishing crisp with hints of vanilla, tea, oak and clove. Made from a base of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay grapes. abv: 40%
Frísco Brandy (USA; North Channel Spirits, San Francisco, CA); $35, 92 points. This pisco-inspired immature brandy is made from California grapes. It’s clear in the glass, with a sweet, distinctly fruity scent. The palate echoes that sweetness, warming all the way down and finishing with an echo of tropical fruit. Mix into cocktails and you just might fool your favorite pisco lover. Best Buy. abv: 45%
Blue Sky Mining Brandy (USA; Copper & Kings, Louisville, KY); $40/375 ml, 90 points. Honey hued in the glass, look for jazzy, bright orchard fruit on the nose and palate, plus an herbaceous chamomile note and a hoppy effervescence on the tongue reminiscent of beer. The long finish hints at pear. Made from seven-year-old Muscat brandy finished for 30 days in a Kentucky hogshead. At 100 proof, be sure to add dilution to taste. abv: 50%
Dogfish Head Esprit Malade (USA; Dogfish Head Distilling, Milton, DE); $34/375 ml, 89 points. Think of this as a spirit-cider hybrid, made with a blend of barrel-aged apple brandy, hard apple cider and sweet, non-alcoholic cider. It’s juicy and relatively light on the alcohol content, though it still packs plenty of punch. Look for an amber hue, bright apricot and vanilla scents and a distinctly sweet palate enlivened by citrusy tang and mouthwatering acidity. It’s similar to French beverages like Pommeau or Pineau de Charentes, which also combine juice and brandy. abv: 34%
3 Marlenas Apple Brandy (USA; Copper & Kings, Louisville, KY); $40/375 ml, 88 points. This unusual apple brandy is aged five years, with two of those in used tequila barrels. It has a bright golden hue and light aromas of vanilla, oak and fresh apple. The zingy palate starts soft but accelerates into cayenne, oak and vanilla on the midpalate, and edges into a long, spicy fade. Adding water coaxes out tropical fruit notes, but the flavor doesn’t hold up with too much dilution, so go easy. abv: 50%
Christian Brothers Sacred Bond Bottled-in-Bond Brandy (USA; Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown, KY); $26, 88 points. This California grape brandy is aged four years in former bourbon barrels, then bottled at 100 proof. Expect a dark amber hue and Bourbon-like nose and palate suggesting vanilla, cocoa, oak and a hint of dried fig. Adding water tames the fire a bit and brings more vanilla forward. Recommended for mixing into sidecars. abv: 50%
Spirit of St. Supery (USA; St. Supery Estate Vineyards, Rutherford, CA); $100, 88 points. Distilled from a base of Moscato made from estate, this straw-hued brandy is light and reminiscent of honey and white flowers on the nose and palate, finishing rounded and floral with a faint ginger flicker. abv: 36.6%