It’ll sound like an infomercial but it’s true: why pay high prices for a long-aged product, when you can pay a lot less for something comparably aged, and arguably as complex? (We won’t say anything about “zero money down” if you buy in the next 10 minutes…)
We’re talking about brandy here, maybe not the “sexiest” spirit out there (will anything ever out-sexy bourbon?) but still sorely overlooked by drinkers looking for complexity, oak-aged or otherwise. Before you ask, not all brandy is French. In fact, there’s a mini brandy movement happening right here in the States. And personally we can’t think of anything better for sipping (no giant snifter required) as the winter months wane on.
A few basic facts: brandy’s basically the distillate of a fruit-based wine (many are made from grape wines), and can be oak aged or not—a lot of variables yielding a range of flavors that go from rich with dark fruit and spice to fresh, brightly fruity, and warming. An “eau de vie” is just a brandy made with a fruit (non-grape) base. Most brandies are 40% ABV (though one on our list gets above 60!), and none have a real residual sweetness—more a lingering sense of fruity sweetness that’s balanced by palate-cleansing heat or oak. And don’t let the letter system confuse you—many American brandies don’t deal in the brandy alphabet, but even if they do, it’s not all that complex.
What is complex is what you’ll find in the bottle, often for a lower price than what you’d get in a 12-year-old whiskey or a comparable Cognac. (Not that we should stop drinking either of those.) There are, of course, incredibly cheap—and not at all bad—American brandy brands like Paul Masson, E&J, and the Christian Brothers. But we’re focusing on some marquee brandies that showcase America’s naughty flirtation with a classic French spirits category.
Cooper & Kings has a pretty solid lineup, including an aged American brandy, an unaged “immature” brandy, and this power-packed bottle. Copper-pot distilled and aged in both bourbon and new American oak barrels, it’s got a whiskey quality to it overlaid by hints of dark fruit and subtly spicy, drying oak on the finish. Slightly higher price tag, but it’s a special kind of brandy—and at 62% ABV, is meant to be sipped.
Osocalis Rare Alembic Brandy — BEST BUY OVERALL
A California brandy made primarily with Colombard and Pinot Noir grapes, distilled with an antique Charentais alembic still, and aged a minimum of six years (though blended with older brandies), this one’s rightfully teeming: classic chewy brandy fruit notes and chocolate, spice, pepper, and brightening whisps of aromatic citrus and florals. $45 seems more like a deal.
Made at Iowa’s first micro-distillery, where they also produce whiskey, rum, and gin, this is a classically warm, fruity apple brandy. Fermented and distilled twice (in a European-designed pot still, retaining more funky apple character) aged for three years in American and finished in French Limousin Oak casks, a balance of round fleshy apple sweetness balanced by spicy, drying oak, vanilla, and a 40% ABV warmth.
A well-made pear brandy is a thing of beauty—capturing all the floral, nectary essence of a ripe pear. And Clear Creek knows what they’re doing—they’ve been at it in the Pacific Northwest for 30 years—which is no doubt why their pear eau de vie is so well received and reviewed. Made with locally grown Bartlett pears and distilled in German-made pot stills, there’s plenty of lush body in a still pure, green fruit expression. The “pear in the bottle” variant will cost close to double, a great option for a gift (or for you).
Germain-Robin Coast Road Reserve — BEST SPLURGE BRANDY
Another California brandy, a slight splurge at $72 (considering we’re talking about generally affordable brandies), but if you find yourself loving the category, spring for this bottle. They make their brandy from California grapes with a still from an abandoned distillery in Cognac. And this particular offering is actually made after the style of an XO Cognac, a ripe, pinot-noir-based brandy swimming with dark fruits, fudgy toffee, and spicy complexity. A blend of 9 year-old and up to 20 year-old brandies.
Apple and pear tend to show up most in the world of fruit brandy, but as American brandies expand, so do options—berry, cherry, and this, made with Indian blood peaches. Not gushing with peach the way a ripe fruit in summer might, but moderately juicy, with velvety peach skin overtones and hints of honey, spice, and florals.
Unlike a lot of the other brandies on our list, this Korbel entrant is made using column stills—like feeding a steam engine, you never have to stop and clean them, though in theory you lose some of the complexity that a pot still retains. On the other hand, the grape distillate is aged for 12 years minimum (and up to 17) in older American Appalachian oak barrels (to compare, an “XO” brandy is aged a minimum of 6 years). So you’ll get less fruit-forward brandy but lots of complexity and tamed muscularity from the older barrels.
The higher end of the Laird’s spectrum—and if you don’t know Laird’s, get to—with a minimum 12 years aging for a richer, smoother product (than, say, their Jersey Lightning). Notes of baked apple and hazelnut mingle with baking spices, some dark dried fruit, and a palate-washing lean oak edge on the finish. The higher ABV (44%) pokes through any impression of sweetness, lending a warmth and coaxing out some welcome spice.
St. George Raspberry Brandy — BEST BUDGET BRANDY
An un-aged raspberry eau de vie that gushes with a kind of just-picked freshness. Think round, fat, ripe California raspberries flesh out the palate, with drying notes of bramble and some overlaying florals keeping the juice complex. Unapologetically ripe with a subtle earthiness at its core, as close to bottled fresh fruit (at 40% ABV) as you’ll get. From $20 to mid $30’s, a steal, but shop around.