“We are bored of whiskey; let’s get on to the next thing already—Cognac and brandy,” says Liz Pearce, the group beverage director/partner of Chicago-based bar/restaurant operator Bonhomme Hospitality Group. Pearce speaks for many questing bartenders and curious consumers who are exploring brown sprits beyond whiskey and turning to brandy in a big way.
Interest in brandy today is multifaceted. Much of the action is in the cocktail arena—both classics and new wave variations, thanks to value and mid-range products aiming at mixability.
“Cognac was at the heart of so many classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, Old Fashioned and the Sidecar, but was replaced by rye and whiskey when it got too expensive or hard to find,” says Alexandra Albu, director of sales and marketing for CIL US Wines & Spirits, subsidiary/distributor of Camus Cognac. Mixologists are now rediscovering why Cognac was the original ingredient, she notes.
Another factor is the crossover from the whiskey category, says Lisa Laird Dunn, executive vice president/world ambassador for Laird & Co. “The customer for brandy is primarily Millennials, but also anyone who enjoys brown spirits and is looking to try new products, new cocktails.”
But brandy still reigns as queen of the after-dinner sippers, with plenty of top-shelf Cognacs and Armagnacs offering transportive experiences. Cognac is reporting record exports, with the U.S. as its major market. And while American brandy makers E&J, Christian Brothers, Paul Masson and Korbel account for the lion’s share of the national market, craft producers are entering the category.
Brandy specialists such as Copper & Kings, Osocalis, Clear Creek, Laird and St. George are driving consumer interest. What’s more, E&J Gallo recently bolstered its brandy portfolio with the purchase of California craft producer Germain-Robin.
Apple and fruit brandies are also performing well. And some less-well-known grape distillates such as pisco and grappa are garnering more consumer interest.
Brandy and Cognac enjoyed growth of 5.4% in volume, close behind American whiskey’s 6.8% rise in 2016, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. More telling, brandy and Cognac’s revenue growth of 10.9% surpassed the 7.7% revenue increase for American whiskey last year. Much of that boost came from the superpremium segment that rocketed over 18%.
The Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac announced that shipments during 2016-2017 rose to the highest levels to date in terms of both volume, 10.2%, and value, 15.2%. As the leading market for Cognac, the U.S. drove much of the increase.
Leading the charge is Hennessy, with an 19.6% growth that climbed to 3.6 million nine-liter cases in 2016 and put the brand at the summit of the brandy peak, according to data from The Beverage Information & Insights Group’s 2017 Liquor Handbook. That stellar performance has also helped fuel category growth as a whole.
A Wider Range of Options
Brandy toiled under a few misapprehensions for a long time. The spirit was relegated to an occasional after-dinner sipper, a special-occasion indulgence or for holiday gifting. And choices seemed limited to either super-pricy, top-shelf bottles or cheap, lower-shelf jugs, with little else in between.
“Brandy hasn’t had a good reputation,” says Gabe Ayers, beverage director for Bacon Bros. Public House, a farm-to-table, southern-inspired restaurant concept with locations in Greenville, SC, and Sugar Land, TX. “American brandy was looked down on as a cheap way of getting drunk with a terrible hangover, while Cognac has been a pure luxury item.”
That’s all changed, however. Brandy is now starring on the cocktail list, and there’s a bottle to fit every pocketbook and consumption occasion.
Consumers are also discovering category outliers such as South American pisco, Italian grappa, American applejack and Spanish brandy.
Ayers sees brandy now getting a boost from American craft versions and more play in cocktails. Bacon Bros.’ drinks list includes a classic Sazerac ($10), as well as the unusual Cola Egg Cream ($9), a mix of brandy, amaro, cola syrup and fresh cream. “The brandy renaissance in this country is exciting,” Ayers says.
At Bonhomme Hospitality Group, “We always have at least one brandy cocktail on our lists, and usually a Cognac or American brandy on the menu,” Pearce says. Cognac used to be too expensive to use in a mixed drink, she says, but now there are more affordable VS Cognac options.
American brandies such as Copper & Kings and Germain-Robin mix well in cocktails, too.
“We sell a lot of Sidecars—cousin to the Margarita—which seem to be having a moment of popularity, and Brandy Alexanders are making a comeback, ” Pearce notes.
Brandy drinks still need hand-selling, however, she adds. “We tell customers, you’ve had that whiskey cocktail, now try a brandy drink that’s similar—like a Manhattan but with more fruit character.”
Besides riffs on whiskey drinks and classics such as the French 75, Pearce has created some original brandy cocktails, often with split spirit bases.
The Walking On Water cocktail ($13) at Bonhomme’s Celeste discoteque concept, for instance, is made with Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac, Lot 40 rye, Amaro Nonino, Cocchi Torino and jasmine oil.
Whiskey bars are hugely popular, as are tequila and mezcal specialists. Now more bars and restaurants are starting to specialize in brandy.
The Cambridge Lobby Brandy Bar at the Kimpton Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge, MA, offers 105 different brandies (pictured atop). These include Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, applejack and American, as well as brandies from Spain, Portugal, Germany and other parts of the world. The brandy focus was the idea of Mike Ryan, Kimpton’s director of bars, and Bill McKinney, the director of restaurant operations in the Northeast.
“Guests have been very receptive to the seasonal cocktail menu, which features brandy in one shape or another,” says Brandy Bar head bartender Dennis Cargill. The Vieux Carre was a hit from the start, he says. The fall menu will feature a white brandy Negroni made with blanche Armagnac, Aperol, Meletti Amaro and mole bitters. Cocktails are priced at $13.
Curious customers can investigate the range and nuances of the world of brandy in five flights of four 1-oz. pours. Ranging in price from $18 to $30, flights explore Cognac, Armagnac, barrel finishes, European brandy and eau-de-vie. All of the brandies are available in ½-oz., 1-oz. and 2-oz. pours.
The hotel’s executive chef Dennis Bazirgan developed a food/brandy pairing menu. Brandy bar menu items include artisanal and house-made charcuterie, a dry-aged burger and choereg (spiced Armenian bread) served with whipped honey butter.
To promote the Brandy Bar, which opened earlier this year, Kimpton created the “I’ll Take It Neat” promotion. The guest package starts at about $499 and bundles an overnight stay with a welcoming bottle brandy and snifters, a copy of the book Brandy: A Global History, a three-course dinner with brandy pairings and a night cap for two in the Brandy Bar.
As its name implies, the Grapperia in Pittsburgh specializes in the wine-based Italian spirit grappa. “We are the only cocktail-forward grappa bar in America,” says manager Louis DiNonato.
The list includes 26 different high-end grappas, which strictly speaking is a cousin to brandy. It’s made from wine pomace, the skins, seeds and stems left from winemaking.
Grappas range in price from $6 to $30 for a 2-oz. pour. For the uninitiated, there are four flights ($20 to $50): Intro to Grappa, Distillery Flights, Barrique and Dealer’s Choice.
But the grappa-based cocktails are the real draw, says DiNonato. There are half a dozen at the Grapperia, priced $10 each.
Selections change seasonally, but popular drinks include Above The Clouds, made with Wigle grappa, rye whiskey, rhubarb bitters, with a cherry; the Italian 75, a riff on the classic made with grappa; the LaVanda, made with lavender-infused grappa, green pepper honey and lemon juice, and the “Dom” Collins, a variant of the Tom Collins with chamomile-infused grappa, lemon and prosecco.
“Grappa was a hard sell initially,” admits DiNonato, “but people are starting to really love grappa.”
Pisco Paso Doble
Interest in the South American brandy pisco has risen in tandem with the prominence of Peruvian cuisine in the U.S. Pisco’s rise in popularity on-premise has been fueled by the trendy Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch cocktails.
“Pisco has become commonplace in bars over the last two years,” says Pearce. “It seemed like overnight everyone discovered Pisco Sours.” The trend was augmented by availability and affordability of brands like Kappa and Pisco Control.
One of the most popular cocktails at Bonhomme’s Fulton Market Kitchen is the Peas and Cues, made with Kappa pisco, spring-pea cordial, lime juice and ginger ($13). The drink’s bright green glow makes it unusual and Instagrammable, says Pearce. Fulton Market Kitchen describes itself as “part art gallery, part cocktail bar, part restaurant.”
At the company’s Bordel concept, “Pisco Punch is insanely popular,” says the beverage director. The cocktail is served as a single for $13 or in large-format for $60.
The latter is served in a traditional porron, a sort of communal decanter with a pouring spout, Pearce says. “No glasses, people just pass it around and pour it into their mouths. Which is great because the drink goes fast and they have to order another.”
The experience generates plenty of me-too sales at neighboring tables. “It’s messy, but a good icebreaker,” says Pearce.
Brandy for All Seasons
Brandy demonstrates a clear affinity for the fall and winter months, when it is a symbol of holiday cheer and is a traditional component of hot holiday punches. Indeed, most brandy producers report their best sales in the fourth quarter of the year.
But it is more of a year-round drink these days, thanks largely to cocktails. “We are seeing more and more consumers enjoying Cognac year-round, from classic V.S.O.P Privilège cocktails like the Sazerac to newer methods like Hennessy X.O over ice,” says Jordan Bushell, head of mixology and brand education for Hennessy.
At Bacon Bros., Ayers sees a bigger and brighter picture for brandy. “I’m always doing experiments for future cocktails and I love mixing brandy,” he says.
The Cambridge Lobby Brandy Bar is planning to do a brandy-pairing dinner. What’s more, Cargill is currently awaiting a much-anticipated brandy cart: “Something we can push around the hotel and further our exposure, while selling some higher-end brandy,” he says.
Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.