AFTER YEARS of watching bourbon sales soar, American brandy distillers are ready to get in on the action. The first step: education.
Brandy encompasses a whole range of spirits: Cognacs and Armagnacs, distilled from (grape) wine; Calvados and other apple brandies, made from cider; and fruit brandies derived from berries and tree fruits. The most sought-after brandies are barrel-aged, yielding a liquor as brown and aromatic as any bourbon.
Traditionally, American brandy has been “a bit of an underdog,” according to Thomas Pastuszak, executive wine director for the NoMad Hotel chain. In August, along with Jeff Bell, bar manager of PDT in New York and Hong Kong, Mr. Pastuszak launched Bertoux, a new California brandy intended for mixing into cocktails.
The word premium has long been attached to French brandies, particularly luxe, highly regulated Cognac. By comparison, American-made brandy has been pigeonholed as an unremarkable “value” spirit—a reputation long deserved, on the whole, especially among the largest producers.
In recent years, however, American distillers have been turning out excellent brandies made from a variety of fruits, often in regions not traditionally known for brandy. In Texas, for example, Chip Tate, best known for building the Balcones brand of whiskies, is designing and assembling his own stills and producing brandy made with grapes from the Texas Hill Country wine region. In North Carolina, High Wire Distilling is experimenting with old-school peach and watermelon brandies, made with fruit grown in state.
Even in bourbon central, Louisville, Ky., Joe Heron, co-founder of Copper & Kings, has been garnering attention with his line of grape- and apple-based brandies. Mr. Heron—who founded the popular Crispin Cider and then sold it to MillerCoors—has injected a youthful rock ’n’ roll personality into a category often considered fusty. He names stills after characters in Bob Dylan songs and blasts Queen, David Bowie and Kanye West in the aging cellar (at least, that’s what was playing when I visited), so the pulse of the bass agitates the liquid in the barrels, a technique called “sonic aging.” In January, beer, wine and spirits giant Constellation Brands took a minority stake in Copper & Kings.
“The resurgence is built on the shoulders of an increasingly adventurous consumer within a brown spirits palate preference,” said Mr. Heron. In other words, he said, brandy is “slipstreaming” bourbon. Mr. Heron also credits crossover between wine and brandy—most often made with wine grapes—with helping to introduce the spirit to wine drinkers. Bartenders, too, have played “an enormous role” in raising consumer awareness, he said, and bringing brandy to a place where it is “not traditional and boring.”
‘ He names stills after characters in Bob Dylan songs and blasts Queen, David Bowie and Kanye West in the aging cellar. ’
In California, America’s most established brandy-making center, a coalition of producers met in April to brainstorm the promotion of the state’s considerable stocks of “America’s other brown spirit.” Participating distilleries at the inaugural California Brandy Summit in Fresno included E. & J. Gallo, F. Korbel & Bros., and smaller producers such as Germain-Robin (since acquired by Gallo), Charbay Distillery & Winery and Osocalis.
Brandy “needs to get out of the commodity box,” lamented Paul Ahvenainen, Korbel’s director of winemaking and master distiller at the summit. “If brandy isn’t sexy, it’s because we’re not making it sexy.”
Ansley Coale, co-founder and principal of Germain-Robin, a craft producer noted for exquisite small-batch brandies, echoed Mr. Ahvenainen’s sentiments. “People don’t know enough about brandy to understand how good it can be, to really believe in it,” he said.
Among the ideas floated for rehabbing California brandy: Emphasize the “terroir” of brandy, similar to that of California wine. Create a “straight brandy” category similar to straight bourbon, with additional legal requirements regarding production, to help drive the premium association. Push more brandy into the cocktail world, where drink recipes are currently far more likely to call for, say, whiskey or rum.
The cocktail push has gained the most traction. Over the last year, Gallo has been touting its Argonaut line intended for mixing into cocktails. The most recent entrant to the fray, Bertoux—named for the inventor of the motorcycle sidecar, an oblique reference to the brandy-based drink of the same name—is a versatile blend of brandies aged three to seven years, sourced from a contract distillery in Parlier, Calif.
Compared to more rigidly defined styles from France (Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados), premium American brandy has yet to find its limits. Expressions range widely, from Copper & Kings’ muscular brandies to the elegance of Germain-Robin to light, easy drinking Bertoux. Among the diverse list of bottles above, any lover of brown spirits should find a winning way into this category.
American brandy “doesn’t have a unique style, so there’s room to play and develop new ones,” said Mr. Pastuszak. “It’s the Wild Wild West appeal there.”
BRANDY, YOU’RE A FINE DRINK / American Bottles to Suit a Range of Tastes
1. Osocalis XO Alambic Brandy (40% ABV, $120)
An outstanding choice to sip straight, fireside. This velvety mix of fresh-cut apple and orange zest mingled with honey, vanilla and sweet spices has a super long finish.
2. Bertoux Brandy (40% ABV, $45)
This bartender-blended brandy intended for mixing into cocktails is relatively light on the palate, melding oak and apricot, and finishing with a flurry of ginger sparks.
3. Argonaut Speculator (43% ABV, $38)
From California brandy giant E. & J. Gallo, this very mellow brandy offers layers of dried fig, caramel and spice. A versatile choice for either sipping or mixing.
4. Germain-Robin XO (40% ABV, $200)
Think elegance and finesse. This is aged longer than most American brandies—about 17 years—yielding a silky sipper accented with vanilla, coconut and roasted nuts. An ideal dessert drink.
5. Copper & Kings American Craft Distilled Brandy 45% ABV, $35)
This robust brandy made in Louisville, Ky., hints at honey and baking spice, with lots of toasty oak tannins providing a dry, puckery finish.
An artifact of an era when brandy was a bartender go-to, this cocktail makes a great showcase for the new wave of American brandies.
Combine 1½ ounces Bertoux Brandy, ¾ ounce lemon juice, ½ ounce Cointreau and ¼ ounce simple syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
—Adapted from Jeff Bell of PDT, New York/Hong Kong