Your Guide to the World's Greatest Brandies
“Brandy is one of the oldest spirits in the world, but it hasn’t had its time in the sun like whiskey has over the last few years,” says John Codd, bar manager at brandy-focused Gaspar Brasserie in San Francisco.
While Cognac tends to get all the attention (and it can be superb), noteworthy brandies are made all over the world. Most are distilled from grapes (as opposed to grain, like whiskey).
Often considered a straight-up sipper, brandy also plays well in cocktails.
“Brandy was the go-to spirit for cocktails around the world before the phylloxera bug ruined Old World vineyards in the late 19th century,” Codd says. “Without that bug, we would all be drinking Armagnac Old-Fashioneds and brandy Manhattans,” drinks typically made with whiskey.
Here’s your guide to three of the world’s great brandy countries, including cocktails for toasting the holidays and beyond.
France boasts three distinct brandy regions, each with its own style.
North of the Bordeaux wine region, Cognac is known for cobblestoned streets and historic, often large Cognac houses that specialize in creating exquisite blended brandies. The oldest blends—labeled VSOP or XO—are generally intended for sipping, while the younger VS Cognacs are more suited for mixing.
South of Bordeaux, the Armagnac region houses smaller, often rustic brandy producers. Compared to Cognac’s floral and vanilla-laden profile, Armagnac tends toward nuts and dried fruit. Since it’s relatively under the radar compared to Cognac, Armagnac is often a better value.
Normandy is home to makers of the apple brandy known as Calvados. With its distinctive, enticing -apple-and-pear aromatics, Calvados is ideal for cider lovers looking to try something new.
Recipe courtesy Gregory Buda, The Dead Rabbit, New York City
This flavorful drink plays up the nut and spice notes of Cognac by adding rich amontillado Sherry and orgeat, an almond-based syrup.
1¾ ounces VSOP Cognac, like Louis Royer Force 53
¾ ounce orgeat syrup
½ ounce amontillado Sherry
½ ounce lemon juice
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Grated nutmeg, for garnish
Add all ingredients except nutmeg to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well, and double strain into a punch glass. Garnish with a dusting of nutmeg.
Though Americans have only been making brandy for a couple of centuries, fruit-forward, made-in-the-USA brandy has plenty to recommend.
However, grape brandy is only part of what America offers. Peach brandy has been on the stills since the Colonial days. Last year, Mount Vernon Distillery unveiled a peach brandy made using the same methods that George Washington would’ve used. Colorado’s Peach Street Distillery makes luscious barrel-aged peach and pear brandies using fruit from local orchards.
Apple brandy’s storied history dates to the Colonial era, too. New Jersey-made Laird’s Applejack, an aged apple brandy, is a bartender favorite for cocktails. Clear Creek, based in Portland, Oregon, also makes an outstanding range of apple brandies, more similar in style to Calvados.
Myer Lemon 75
Recipe adapted from Drinking the Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails, by Duggan McDonnell (Chronicle Books, 2015).
This seasonal sparkler is ideal for New Year’s Eve toasting. While San Francisco-based McDonnell opts for preserves made with California’s abundant Meyer lemons, orange marmalade works in a pinch, too.
2 ounces California brandy, like Germain-Robin
1 rounded tablespoon Meyer lemon marmalade
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce sparkling wine
Add brandy, marmalade, lemon juice and syrup into a mixing glass with ice. Shake vigorously. Fine strain into a Champagne flute, then top with the sparkling wine.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Spain’s Sherry mecca also produces outstanding brandy, called Brandy de Jerez. Like Sherry, it can be made only in a designated region around the Andalucían city of Jerez.
Brandy de Jerez is aged in former Sherry casks, and also like Sherry, is usually made using the solera system, which involves an intricate succession of barrels, with younger brandies added to barrels holding older brandies. In the end, every bottle holds just a fractional amount of the oldest brandies.
The result: Spain’s brandies are remarkably rich and deep in comparison to French or American brandies, with luscious molasses and dried fruit notes that resemble raisins, dates or figs.
Recipe courtesy Jim Meehan, PDT, New York City
The drink is named after Portland, Oregon-based bartender Dave Shenaut. It was his Ephemeral Cocktail, a gin and vermouth-based creation, that inspired this drink, says Meehan.
In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients except garnish. Stir well, and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.