Most of the time, brandy is an afterthought. Or, it’s a cheap brown liquor that gets unceremoniously dumped into eggnog. Or, according to most people I asked, it’s what old guys drink with cigars.
Brandy is currently engaged in a fight against its image, which until now has turned would-be connoisseurs away. Unlike wine, it doesn’t have an army of salespeople, sommeliers, and retailers committed to educating consumers with a myriad of tastings, dinners, and seminars. And unlike Scotch or bourbon, brandy isn’t tied to a particular place, ingredient, or process, which makes it confusing to buy or use even for drinks professionals.
Poor brandy didn’t ask to be the stepchild of the booze world. But its many names, colors, flavors, and uses have made it hard to understand and enjoy without an expert mixologist by your side. In other words, brandy has a branding problem.
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Part of brandy’s mysterious reputation comes from its broad definition. Unlike wine or whiskey, which are tightly controlled, brandy can be any distilled spirit made from a fruit base. That means any type of fruit can be used to make brandy. And that means the flavors of brandy can range more vastly than any other spirit.
Grapes, apples, peaches, plums, and pears are the most common fruits used to make brandy. The fruit is first fermented into a wine, where it retains the distinct flavors and aromas of the original fruit. It is then distilled to liquor strength. Sometimes it’s released clear and unaged, but often brandies are allowed to develop for decades in various types of oak barrels. Then they’re usually blended to accentuate various aromatics and flavors. Cognac, Armagnac, applejack, Poire Williams, eau de vie, and Slivovitz are all names for various brandies.
Despite its lowly status in today’s booze ecosystem, brandy has rather an elevated status in American history. For much of the colonial era, brandy — not whiskey, beer, or wine — was the epitome of classy, American drinking.
“Brandy is a prestige product,” spirits expert and historian David Wondrich explains. “It was the way we drank wine hundreds of years ago.”
Shocker, I know. But early pioneers made brandy as a process of preserving excess fruit, often peaches and apples, on the East Coast, where wine grapes never flourished. When wines were available, they often spoiled quickly, inspiring colonial Americans to fortify them with brandy to prevent oxidation and make the wines taste better. On the West Coast, the tradition of producing high-end grape brandies emerged during the Gold Rush of the 1850s and was sustained by a climate perfect for viticulture coupled with thirsty, nouveau-riche prospectors.
After the Mother Lode(s) of gold were pulled from California soils, there remained a thirst for booze. There were also ever more settlers, and plenty of money, which allowed the industry to thrive on quality production. Combined with the expansions of the railroads, this trifecta fueled the rise of high-quality California grape brandies.
Prohibition stunted the brandy biz the same way it impacted other alcohol production. But of all the kinds of booze in the U.S., brandy has had arguably the hardest time coming back.
Part of that has to do with the competition. Like American wine, American brandies had to compete with well-established French brands from regions like Cognac and Armagnac after Prohibition. These expensive, aged French brandies brought complex flavors, but also complicated and confusing labeling to the American market. Like wines with French labels, these brandies had phrases like VSOP, XO, and VS on the labels to indicate their aging regimens. But that only served to confuse American drinkers. Plus, these brandies often trade on their names, the way Champagne does. People are more likely to be fans of Cognac than they are of brandy.
But another part of the brandy struggle has to do with the way it tastes. “We think brandy lies in a distinct flavor territory,” said Ernest Gallo, a California brandy distiller.
I was able to test his theory a few weeks ago, when Gallo and four other California brandy distillers coordinated a tasting. Surrounded by a slew of spirits professionals who laugh at the 14 percent ABV of wine, I sat before a flight of 20 brandies inside the historic McCall Distillery in Fresno, California.
Compared to other brown spirits, the California brandies were fruitier, with aromas and flavors of citrus zest and peels, plus red cherries, golden apple, and peach. Unlike bourbon, these brandies weren’t dominated by the vanilla-smoke-toast trifecta that makes many whiskies hard to resist. Instead, we coined these spirits “more-ish,” meaning we wanted more and more to savor and articulate the complexities of these bottles. In cocktails, the brandies weren’t as heavy as whiskey can be, and instead had a more delicate mouthfeel.
Pure grape brandies, like those from Osocalis, Korbel, and Argonaut Distilling Company, are remarkably expressive. Distillation doesn’t remove or hide the flavors of the fruits or grains of a spirit’s base. Instead, the flavors are intensified as more aromatic molecules are pulled from the wine base and condensed into the brandy. That means the same aromatic complexities we love in wine — floral aromas, bright fruit character, and spices — are still present in the finished product.
And yes, you can taste those flavors over the alcohol content, usually tinged by butterscotch, smokiness, or the vanilla that oak aging adds to wine. Really, pure grape brandies provide the best of both worlds — the complex aromas and flavors of wine, but the shelf life of high-proof spirits.
What brandy really needs isn’t a snifter or a spot on the top shelf, but the marketing, education, and shelf and menu space that’s made rosé summer’s most popular wine, or Champagne a drink for Wednesday night instead of New Year’s Eve.
When my inevitable hangover subsided, I dusted off my brandy shelf and you should, too. I’ll be storing mine next to hand-crafted bourbons or Scotches, and I’ll be savoring it whether it’s mixed with pineapple and mint or spritz-style with Aperol and Prosecco.
If you’ve tried these, let me know what your think or your favorite recipe. If you haven’t tasted California’s best kept secret, you should.