For years now, American brandy has been dominated by a few big brands at the value end, and by French (and French-inspired craft) brandies at the high end. Lately, however, a fresh breeze of innovation has roused the category.
New directions come from experimentation by both established names and new players. An American style has emerged, with a nod to terroir.
Intrigued by whiskey, consumers are exploring other brown spirits, which should give a boost to American brandy. And these new directions offer much to discover.
“The next chapter in American brandy is now being written, as we explore what American brandy can be,” says Chip Tate, president and head distiller of Tate & Co. Distillery in Waco, Texas.
Recent history has been dominated by big brands making conventional brandies with table grape varietals, or by the French school of craft traditions. Not that this is necessarily bad, but it does tend to be restrictive. Tate himself has taken a new direction: the former founder of Balcones Distilling traded whiskey for brandy. At the recently established Tate & Co., he experiments with grapes indigenous to Texas. Currently, he has laid down stocks of zinfandel-based brandy.
“American Brandy is definitely rising. But the new wave is actually quite old school in some ways—the original craft distillers in the 1980’s were all brandy distillers,” says Joe Heron, co-owner of Copper & Kings American Brandy Co. in Louisville, Kentucky.
When Heron founded the company in 2014, he introduced an adventurous new dynamic, with a proliferation of as many as four new product launches a year. These include everything from brandies aged in craft beer barrels, rye whiskey casks and tequila barrels to Geogr&phy Bi-Continental Brandewijn, a blending of South African and American brandies.
Copper & Kings produces “American brandy that is definitive, not derivative of a European tradition, and built on a modern energetic platform vs. a traditional brand persona,” says Heron.
He’s far from alone in this focus.
“American brandy seems to be gaining vibrancy right now, after years of stagnant sales (for the category overall),” says Kim Roberts, director of marketing, spirits business unit for E. & J. Gallo Winery. “Many American brandy offerings are focusing on their fruit expression and smooth taste, which is appealing for newcomers to the category.”
Gallo recently launched the Argonaut label, which sources from the company’s extensive vineyards, and uses both Coffey and alembic pot stills. Current Argonaut expressions include Speculator, Fat Thumb, Saloon Strength (on-premise only) and the limited release, The Claim.
“All spirits have come in and out of favor with generations, I think the pendulum swung for a long period of time out of favor for American brandy, but it is coming back in full force and looks like it will be here to stay,” says Jeff Bell at Bertoux Brandy. The PDT mixologist teamed with NoMad somm Thomas Pastuszak to create a Solera-style blend of pot-distilled California brandies aged three to seven years in French and American oak.
Factors for Change
What’s driving this change in direction for the category?
“The emergence of craft distilling has allowed many producers to focus on a host of products, and with such explosive growth it’s natural that someone was going to focus on brandy,” says Scott Harris, founder and general manager of Catoctin Creek Distillery. Early next year, the Virginia-based producer will introduce 1757 Virginia Brandy, 8-year-old Bottled in Bond, made from a blend of Seyval blanc and Chambourcin grapes grown within 10 miles of the distillery.
“The rise of cocktail culture has had a major influence on the category, as brandy cocktails have a long and rich history in America,” says Elizabeth Hurst, brand manager at Heaven Hill for Christian Brothers Brandy. The company recently introduced Sacred Bond Bottled-In-Bond, with bartenders’ needs in mind. Sacred Bond is the only grape bottled-in-bond brandy on the market. It’s produced in copper pot stills with California grapes and aged four years in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels.
“The farm-to-table movement,” has moved beyond food menus to beverages, including fruit-based brandies, says Jeanine Racht, development and marketing manager for Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon. Owned by Hood River Distillers, Clear Creek specializes in brandies made from Northwestern products, notably pears, cherries, plums, raspberries and even Douglas fir buds.
“Before Prohibition, apple brandy and rum were the most produced and consumed spirits in the U.S.,” notes Racht. “We are just seeing history repeat itself.”
“We see growth due to the increasing interest in brown spirits that is driving all categories falling under it–including bourbon, Scotch and Cognac. Brandy is no exception,” says Roberts at Gallo. “Consumers are looking to go deeper into well-established brown-spirit categories, and to explore other brown spirits like brandy.”
The Whiskey Connection
“Undoubtedly the interest in American whiskey has helped boost the American brandy and apple brandy category,” says Lisa Laird Dunn, vice president of Laird & Company.
The Scobeyville, New Jersey-based company is America’s oldest family-owned licensed distillery. It produces Laird’s Blended Applejack, Laird’s Apple Brandies and Laird’s Jersey Lightning, as well as Laird’s Straight Applejack 86, which revives the company’s pre-Prohibition style.
Recently Laird re-released its Bottled in Bond Straight Apple Brandy. “Brandy has a longer history in America than whiskey,” notes Laird Dunn. “Applejack has been distilled here since the 1600s and was more commonly drunk than whiskey.”
Laird Dunn also sees crossover of interest from the burgeoning cider category. “They are enjoying cider and think, let me try some Applejack.” Boilermakers joining apple cider and applejack seem like a natural combo.
“American Whiskey is the front end of the spear in terms of encouraging brown spirits consumption,” says Heron, which translates into interest in American brandy and American-made spirits in general.
Hurst at Heaven Hill agrees. “The rise of American Whiskey contributes greatly, as there is a symbiotic relationship between the two categories. Consumers are more interested in education and the authentic heritage of a bourbon or American whiskey, of which brandy has a similar story to tell.”
Sip or Stir?
What is the best way to introduce newbies to brandy—in a snifter or a cocktail?
“Cocktails are the category door opener—as it is for most brown spirits,” says Heron. At-home consumption is likely to be brandy on the rocks, or to a lesser degree, the home cocktail enthusiast.
“Brandy is versatile,” says Laird Dunn. It can be enjoyed both neat in a snifter, on the rocks or in a cocktail like the Jack Rose (apple brandy, lemon or line juice, grenadine). Most consumer trial, she notes, begins on-premise.
Mixologist Bell designed the recently launched Bertoux brandy with mixology in mind.
An American Style?
Is there truly an American style? Or does the lack of regulations and parameters liberate American producers to carve out their own?
“Our opportunity as a brandy-producing nation is that we are not poisoned with provincial dogma, and the rigidity of neutral grapes and prescriptions,” says Heron. “Our opportunity is continental diversity, and the use of highly nuanced aromatic grapes (or other fruits) and continual invention and innovation relative to barrel finishes.”
“American, and specifically Californian, brandy offers bright notes from grapes used to craft each distinct style,” says Roberts at Gallo. “In contrast to most imported brandy, we utilize a wide range of grape varieties that allows for complex characteristics and unique taste profiles.”
American style is still emerging, believes Harris at Catoctin Creek. “The dominant style is certainly defined by California brands that have been around for ages.”
“California has a particularly close association with brandy dating back to the times of the Spanish Missions, and is the epicenter of the country’s brandy-making,” agrees Bell at Bertoux. But he notes: “American Brandy has more leeway than categories like Cognac or Armagnac; more styles of brandy can be made from a wider range of varietals and the region of ‘America’ is vast and one of the most climatically diverse countries in the world.”
“American Brandy, compared to Cognac, has more room for innovation and freedom to craft products that fill the niche consumers or bartenders want,” says Hurst. She cites the Christian Brothers line as an example, producing traditional grape brandy as well as flavored expressions, such as peach, honey and apple.
Consumer Education Required
Most consumers remain unclear about what brandy is and how it is similar to—and differs from—other brown spirits.
Education is needed in this area, believes Laird Dunn. “Brandy is a flavorful and complex brown spirit. It’s not the sweet, artificially flavored product made from neutral grain spirits that some consumers think it is.”
“Part of the work we have to do is not only explore brandy-making, but also make it more approachable,” says Tate. “And help people understand that on a basic level, brandy is as simple as it gets: you grow fruit, ferment it and distill it.”
In Search of Terroir
French brandies are all about the appellations, the place and the terroir. Will that sort of concept take hold in the U.S.? Is terroir truly important? And how will that term translate in America?
“Terroir is important with all crops, whether they are eaten, fermented or distilled,” says Bell. “They provide the fingerprint of the region.”
“I have mixed feelings about the word ‘terroir,’” says Tate. He notes that the French term encompasses a wider meaning than its literal translation. As a brandy producer, his focus is grapes indigenous to Texas, partnering with local farmers and working in the soil of his own small vineyard.
“Our Virginia brandy has a minerality present in the grape-wines we source from Virginia vineyards,” says Harris at Catoctin Creek. “Experienced vintners in Virginia can definitely pick out the ‘Virginia’ element in our brandy when they taste it.”
What’s in the glass is more important than any concept of terroir, believes Heron.
“Just as it does with vineyards, terroir plays a part with fruit orchards, and the brandies produced from them,” says Laird Dunn. “It’s a subtle difference, and I don’t think there will be designated regions like the French regions for Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados.”
“Terroir is an important factor of any brand’s story, says Heaven Hill brand manager Hurst. “Whether that is sourcing grapes from California, or where and how the product is distilled. These elements all play an important part in the taste profile, and often legitimacy, of a brand.”
Will American brandy supplant whiskey and tequila to become the next “it” spirits trend?
“Not only do I think it is poised to be the next ‘it’ category, but I also think it is becoming so,” says Laird Dunn. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
“It’s about time the U.S. became world-renowned for a spirit other than Bourbon,” comments Bell at Bertoux.
“The outlook for American brandies is promising,” says Roberts. “We believe the category will continue to grow.”
Although it would be great if brandy became the next “it” spirit, Racht says that “instead of trying to push it into the market, at Clear Creek we just want to continue focusing on great spirits in the hopes that the consumer recognizes the quality above any trend.”
And besides, Americans already drink large amounts of brandy. “Where it moves next is to a state where it stands at parity with Bourbon and Cognac as a perceived peer in terms of quality and compelling personality,” notes Heron.
“American Brandy has all the makings of the next big category, from the cocktail culture, to the rich heritage, to the offering of quality products,” says Hurst. “If consumers latch onto these ideals, then the category could see an American brandy renaissance.”
At Laird & Company, Laird Dunn’s son Gerard is joining the team as the 10th generation for the family-owned and -operated business. “We are looking ahead to the future,” she says, “it will be an exciting time for American and apple brandy.”
Says Racht at Clear Creek, “2019 is shaping up to be one hell of a year.”
At Cooper & Kings, Heron has only one word about the coming year: “Boom!”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions. Read his recent piece U.S. Vodka Trends in 2018.