Brandy’s Many Branches

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The brandy category is undergoing an evolution; some would say, a revolution. While Cognac has long been the king, a wave of new products has hit the market, from both craft distillers and mainstay brandy houses. The wide range and variety of brandy available can be confusing to the average consumer. Nonetheless, bartenders say that brandy is on the upswing.

Nicolas Torres, bar director and co-owner of True Laurel in San Francisco.

“Brandy has slowly regained recognition,” says Nicolas Torres, bar director and co-owner of True Laurel in San Francisco, “but not close to where it once stood in the cocktail kingdom.” And, he adds, “Most guests still don’t have an understanding of what brandy is, or what it could be.”

Brandy is shaking off its old reputation of being “the drink of choice for stuffy people sipping out of comically large snifters by a fireplace,” says Graham Essex, bartender at The Northcott Liquorette in Chicago. “Slowly but surely, brandy is definitely a growing market in the U.S.”

“Brandy marries the old and the new: Cognac and French brandies have long traditions, and now with new American brandies coming to market, there is a lot of innovation in the category,” says Jared Sadoian, bar manager at The Hawthorne in Boston. “There is room for both to co-exist, the traditional and the leading edge.” 

Although brandy has traditionally been an after-dinner sipper, today most American consumers encounter and enjoy the spirit in cocktails. Mixology with Cognac and other brandies, however, requires more consideration and finesse because of its variety, cost and complexity. And hand-selling is helpful to encourage trial.

“I’m excited to see an increase in people drinking brandy—not just as an after-dinner drink, but as a base in cocktails,” says Sarah Turbett, bar manager at Oak Steakhouse in Nashville, which is operated by The Indigo Road restaurant group. Even in bourbon country, Turbett says that there has been a sizable increase in the varieties of brandy available—especially at mid-tier price points. 

“I am seeing more well-made brandies on the market,” says Nicholas Bennett (shown atop), beverage director for New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group, in charge of Cedric’s at The Shed and Porchlight. Bennett recalls tending bar back when many mainstream brandies were sugary. “If I was trying to convince someone to try a brandy, I always had to preface it with, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not that sweet American-style brandy.’”

New American Wave

Although Cognac still rules the category, American brandy is seeing a resurgence, with producers old and new introducing new offerings. Most have been created with cocktailing in mind, which generally means good quality, higher ABVs and lower price points. 

Not to be outdone, Cognac producers have responded with new products well-priced for mixology.

“Cognac and French brandies are well established in the cocktail world,” observes Turbett. But she also notes the resurgence of American brandy, citing the producer Copper & Kings, specifically its Butchertown Brandy, which is aged in bourbon barrels. This might have crossover appeal to whiskey fans. 

“New styles of American brandies are homing in on consumers’ love of whiskeys, and making brandies that mimic the flavor profiles of bourbon,” says Liz Farrell, bar lead at Herb & Wood in San Diego.

Torres at True Laurel sees California distillers, such as Osocalis and Germain-Robin, paving the way for new American styles. “More accessible brandies are showing up on the market,” he says. He also cites Bertoux and Argonaut: “They are both tasty products at good prices.” 

Oak Steakhouse in Nashville is seeing a sizable increase in the varieties of brandy available. 

“New American brandies are coming into the Chicago market all the time, starting with Copper & Kings a few years ago, and with the most recent being Bertoux,” notes Pat Ray, bar supervisor at The Violet Hour in Chicago. Locally, Rhine Hall distillery has been quietly making high-quality eau de vie since 2012, Ray adds.

At Cedric’s and Porchlight, Bennett has also noticed have the resurgence of new American brandies, mostly from West Coast producers such as Bertoux and Germain-Robin, as well as Chicago’s Rhine Hall and Neversink Apple Brandy from New York. “I also have a very warm spot in my heart for Laird’s bonded apple brandy because of its long history and how well it works in cocktails.”

As part of the new wave, Sadoian points to innovative American producers such as Copper & Kings as well as venerable producers Christian Brothers’ Sacred Bond Brandy from Heaven Hill. 

This latter release is bottled in bond at 100 proof and four years old—like popular bonded whiskeys. And at about $23 per 750-ml. bottle, he adds, “they managed to bring it to market at a price that makes it easy for bartenders up and down the spectrum mix it in cocktails.” 

Pricing Considerations

Brandy ranges in cost and quality levels. Bartenders looking for a price/quality sweet spot for cocktail creation report they are finding more contenders in the market these days.

“The brandies that are making headway specifically in the cocktail scene skew towards value brands produced with integrity,” says Ray at The Violet Hour. “As a bar manager, I am always looking for spirits with a good story, a long history, popular in their native lands, that have not found a home in the cocktail world yet.” 

Among the more unusual selections he carries are Serbian, Austrian, Peruvian and Bolivian brandies.

“Bartenders are constantly looking for the next best ingredient to use on their menus, and quality and cost have to be equally considered,” says Bennett at Union Square Hospitality Group. He looks for top-quality products that come in at a price that won’t throw his cost of goods sold out of whack.

“The brands that make the biggest impact are the ones that market to bartenders,” says Essex. The Northcott Liquorette stocks a modest selection of brandies: a few Cognacs, an Armagnac, a handful of piscos. “And I just picked up a bottle of Stravecchio Branca, an Italian brandy that is new to the American market,” he adds.

Although Cognac can often be too expensive for mixing in drinks, some products are Cognac by definition but don’t command the high price points, says Sadoian. For cocktails, he reaches for Pierre Ferrand 1840. “That is a very flavorful, cost-effective Cognac and it’s built for cocktails, in consultation with cocktail historian Dave Wondrich.” 

Other major Cognac houses now offer competitively priced products for the cocktail market, notes the bar manager, citing H by Hine as an example.

Techniques

“My style is to take a delicate, pared-down approach to mixing, in part because the Cognac already brings so much to the glass,” says Sadoian. “Why would we want to bury that flavor with syrups, infusions, modifiers?”  

What he likes about Pierre Ferrand 1840 is that it’s bottled at 90 proof rather than 80. “The higher proof lends a greater backbone to our cocktails. It also means that in many drinks we don’t need a full 2-oz. pour, but can use a little bit less, which helps with costing and price.”

The Hawthorne’s menu covers every possible corner of the globe that’s making brandy. The Bolivian distillate singani is a recent favorite. The bar stocks about 20 brandies right now, including a 9-year-old, single cask Cognac from Hine, a Laird’s 12-year-old apple brandy, and Pierre Ferrand’s Vintage 1972 Cognac. 

Silk the Shucker, a brandy- and whiskey-based clarified milk punch, at True Laurel in San Francisco.

“Opportunities to pull a bottle like that are few and far between,” Sadoian says of the ’72 Ferrand. “But there are plenty we can pour for $16 and less and feel good about it, and give value to guests as well.”

At Herb & Wood, Farrell incorporates brandy and Cognac in her Tiki cocktails. “Brandy cuts the traditional tropical sweetness with a complex, spice, stone-fruit and vanilla flavor profile that elevates any Tiki cocktail.” She also uses brandy when splitting the base. 

Farrell’s Clarified Milk Punch splits the base among three brandies: American, Cognac and pisco, then mixes it with an herbal liquor, buddha’s hand and local honey. 

She is also excited by metaxa, a Greek brandy made from muscat wines, wine distillate and Mediterranean herbs. “This spirit is a category of its own,” Farrell notes.

Brandy is an easy spirit to work with, says Torres at True Laurel. “If you think whiskey is an easily applicable product, then brandy should be a breeze—barrel notes plus fruit, let’s go!”

Riffing Around

When it comes to cocktail creation, bartenders often riff on the classics, substituting brandy for other spirits.

“Brandy works well in place of whiskey in traditional cocktails,” says Turbett. But there is plenty of opportunity to get creative as well. 

Her riff on the Sidecar mixes Copper & Kings Butchertown brandy, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, a dash of Luxardo maraschino liquor and a tiny dash of saline. “The saline in a game changer in this cocktail, I promise.” 

The Old Fashioned is a whiskey classic, but in Wisconsin the drink is traditionally made with domestic brandy. “One of our top-selling cocktails at Porchlight is the Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned, a spin on the namesake cocktail from Wisconsin,” says Bennett. 

The Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned is one of the top-selling cocktails at Porchlight in New York.

His version uses Bertoux brandy, rye whiskey, citrus syrup and Cherry Heering. The cocktail is so popular that Porchlight serves it on draft. 

“There is such a wide range of brandies available that our uses of them run the gamut,” says Ray. At The Violet Hour, he experiments with aged brandies in classics that originally called for whiskey or eau de vie in cocktails in which traditionally gin or vodka would have been used. 

The Luxury Old Fashioned features a house-selected, cask-strength Laird’s single-barrel apple brandy, Angostura and orange bitters, and a house-made maple apple syrup. Another favorite on the current menu is called Thanks for Asking, which features two brandies: Christian Brothers Sacred Bond and Monastery Tvrdos Serbian grappa, plus an aronia berry liqueur from local producer Apologue, lime juice and Saigon cinnamon syrup.

Inspired libations

Bartenders often reach for brandy when they want to get creative. At Cedric’s, Bennett crafts the Paul Reubens’ Treehouse, made with American-style Pommeau (a mixture of cider and brandy) Italicus, Clear Creek Douglas Fir brandy, ginger and lemon. 

The Cleft Chin blends Irish whiskey, Rhine Hall pear brandy, Cynar artichoke liqueur and cane sugar. And the Nice Spice combines Laird’s bonded apple brandy, creme de cacao, allspice and oat milk.

With eggnog as inspiration, Essex created a dessert cocktail combining Stravecchio Branca brandy with a house-made espresso-bean syrup and sweet vermouth infused with cinnamon. Shaken with a whole egg, “this cocktail tastes like having a decadent coffee ice cream with strawberries and cherries,” he notes.

As a way to reduce food waste, specifically corn silk and cobs from a grits dish in the menu, Torres developed the brandy- and whiskey-based Silk the Shucker. To make this clarified milk punch, he infuses corn silk in whiskey and garnishes the drink with toasted corn cobs.

Bartenders are betting on brandy. What’s next? “The sky’s the limit!” says Ray. “At The Violet Hour, we are currently work-shopping drinks for our winter menu, and I would not be shocked if we had the full spectrum of fruit distillates on display. We love brandy!”

As consumers become more adventurous, they drink more brandy, says Sadoian. “Brandy is having its time in the spotlight, but that is only going to get brighter.” 

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.

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