Friday, January 18, 2013

Brandy Love

Wow, I have had a ton of fun reviewing brandies over the past few weeks. With whiskey, I feel like there isn't that much exciting being done these days, but just the small sampling of brandies I've tasted over the past few weeks has convinced me that brandy is something worth our attention. The last time I did a brandy series, around four years ago, I liked some of what I tasted, but I found much of it too sweet, too weak and too filled with additives. The market has started to change. While the big houses are still the big houses, there's a lot of innovation going, though you have to seek it out. In addition, you still get a lot of bang for your buck, though the prices tend to be more comparable to Scotch than American whiskey.

I've also been impressed with the amount of positive and enthusiastic feedback I've had with this series. Read through the comments on any of these brandy posts and you'll see wide ranging discussions by people who know far more than I (a particular shout out to commenters Numen, Tom Troland and NP who added a tremendous amount of information). There's a huge thirst for brandy knowledge and discussion out there and a real dearth of on-line resources.

It's funny that most whiskey drinkers don't drink brandy. We have these classifications in our minds...that whiskey is made from grain and brandy is made from fruit, and therefore, they are entirely different categories that have nothing in common. I used to think brandy was more an offshoot of wine, but its flavors have more in common with whiskey. Armagnac is much more similar in flavor to rye whiskey than rye is to Scotch, and I'm pretty sure I could convince someone tasting blind that the Navazos Palazzi Brandy de Jerez was the latest Glenfarclas. The fact is, these new brandies should be very appealing to whiskey drinkers, and their flavor profiles are going to be pretty familiar.

We'll get back to whiskey next week, but I'm going to keep drinking brandy, and I'll keep reporting on it. If you hear about something good, drop me a line or a comment.


Matt L said...

Hey Sku I know you reviewed the Esteve Coup de Coeur Cognac, but have you tried the Reserve de la Famille? I was thinking of grabbing a bottle, but was curious to see if you've tasted it.

sku said...

Matt, I did try it and thought it was very good. Overall, though, I think I liked the Coup de Coeur better, but I didn't do a head to head.

David D said...

I think the thing to remember is that "mash bills" don't mean everything. I compared the new E.H. Taylor Small Batch to the Weller Antique and a few people emailed me to tell me I couldn't compare the two. Why? Because the Taylor is a rye-flavored mash and the Weller a wheat-flavored.

That don't mean shit. I don't need specs to compare spirits to one another. All I need is a mouth.

You've done brandy a great service by using your blog to do these reviews. The fact that they're distilled from grapes doesn't mean we can't compare them to whisk(e)y.

Numen said...

David, you're right about comparing spirits to spirits. I wonder whether, as Sku notes, "whisky drinkers" (those who would self-identify) don't really drink brandy in part because of the difference in branding between Cognac - the major brandy marketing force - and whisky, and the variety of producer and quality on the shelf for whisky related to brandy.

Cognac is now seen either as a hip spirit marketed toward an urban audience or the old, slowly swirling a brown spirit in a snifter while seating in a leather sofa. Whisky, by contrast, is seen as the spirit of the pub, the daily dram, etc. Whisky seems to have successfully marketed itself as more approachable.

Also, there's so much more whisky on the market, and it's much, much easier to find. When I go to any nearby liquor store, I see Cognacs from the big houses, and only really the VS and VSOP. Every so often, I'll see a Remy XO in a show-case, or even the Louis XIII or a Hennessy Paradis, but there's no entry room, or space on the shelf for smaller, quality producers. It's even more of an issue for Armagnac. At even an average liquor store, you can find Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16, Glenmorangie 10, and a host of other very solid whiskies of varying quality and price, so you can dabble in the $30-70 range with good quality rather than having to go from $20 to $140 for the next level (a la Cognac).

This changes for the top-end stores (like your K&L), but in terms of getting the average person to try brandy and then think about it as just another kind of alcohol... well, it's a challenge.

All this, again, highlights the valuable work that Sku is doing here on his blog, and you guys are doing in terms of talking about and getting accessible (and affordable) high-end brandy.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the shout out r.e. brandy discussions. I enjoyed contributing and, especially, reading the comments by you, Numen and others. (Numen, are you in the trade or, like me, just an interested bystander?)

Of course, a whole other brandy category is West Coast brandies. When I was in school in the Bay Area during the 1970s, I got interested in spirits, and I thought California would be a great place to make alembic brandies. Just one more step past wine production. No sooner had I left California for Kentucky than, sure enough, alembic brandy production began on the West Coast. There was St. George Spirits, Germain-Robin, RMS Vineyards, and Clear Creek up in Portland. Even Randall Graham got into the act at Bonny Doon. And there were a few others. They all made some interesting products, some still do. But the movement seemed to stall. RMS went through a few changes in name and ownership. They made large quantities of alembic brandies from seven (I think) gleaming cognac-style copper pot stills. But the products were hard to find on the retail market, and the whole operation then vanished without a trace. I wonder whatever happened to all that booze? Also, Randall Graham got out of the distillation business and eventually sold his still to Clear Creek. Germain-Robin and Clear Creek still make great brandies. But you hardly hear about them.

Curiously, even before the age of alembics (i.e. the 1980s), California made some good brandy. The stills were continuous and the grapes, I am told, mostly Thompson Seedless and Flame Tokay from the Central Valley. But they figured out a way to make flavorful products, like Old San Francisco, Conti Royal, and Setrakian. All this seems to be gone, near as I can tell. A style of brandy now lost. Most of the brandy we see here in Kentucky with California origin names (Paul Masson, E & J Gallo, etc.) is not labeled by place of origin at all. (Some of this stuff is aged and bottled in Kentucky. Used bourbon barrels do have their uses. And Kentucky has lots of bottling lines.)

In any case, Sku, you might salt a few West Coast brandies into your tastings at some time in the future. Perhaps there is interesting stuff available in California that we never see here.

Tom Troland

NP said...

"...getting the average person to try brandy and then think about it as just another kind of alcohol... well, it's a challenge."

Well said. It is indeed an uphill battle.

The only place where one would still have the romantic idea that companies care about promoting the product that is, say, cognac would be Cognac France. The reality is that companies are building brands and the nature of the product bottled does not mean much anymore as long at it sells and helps build brand recognition.

I understand - and I am grateful for - the fact that 100 years ago cognac (and brandy in general) got popularized thanks to the marketing efforts of the big houses, an endeavor that could not have been undertaken by smaller makers.
But from a tool to initially help promote this very spirit, marketing was so successful that sales exploded, brands became the focus, the product sold became largely secondary and mass production was the only answer to meet the demand.
Ultimately marketing became the reason why brandy in general has a terrible image (and often sucks).

I deal with brandy the better part of my day and this word "brandy" itself, every time i write or say it, is associated in my mind with some cheap adulterated blend at 40%. So imagine what the average drinker must have in mind as far as reference point.

What we are facing is the minor task of reversing the effects of decades of very well funded marketing by providing unbiased knowledge and getting people to rediscover brandy. That might take a while...

Hopefully we are at a turning point where drinkers/critics will start slowly to put pressure on companies so they put on the market products that are not as confected, exactly like when whisk(e)y writers pushed for unfiltered/natural color/higher abv.

Thanks Sku for talking about brandies.

Note: I have an Esteve Reserve de la famille and it is not disappointing in any ways. Definitely worth being purchased.

sku said...

Thanks to all of you for the great comments throughout this series. It won't end here. I've got a case of brandy samples that I'll keep trying and intersperse with the whiskeys.

Tom, I'm a big fan of Germain-Robin but haven't had much else in the way of high quality domestic brandies.

patrick bateman said...

for what it's worth, i was scanning through the current issue of esquire magazine, and there's an article on armagnac in there.

Numen said...


I'm just a fellow by-stander who likes good alcohol, and would also like to see better stuff with greater availability on the market. It's generally been happening with whisky, and I'd like to see it apply to brandy, too.

+1 on Germain-Robin's brandies being top-notch. They're also open about using sugar and water in their expressions (for instance, check the Small Blend no. 1 label), but it doesn't distract from the taste of what's in the bottle. G-R's (now discontinued) Anno Domini was stunning, and easily one of the greatest spirits that I've had. A few of us brandy lovers chime in a bit on the cognacforum - and I bet that the other users would appreciate your knowledge and perspective as much as I have. The entire G-R line exhibits obviously superb craftsmanship; I'm rather partial, too, to the Muscat.

NP - right on, completely. The best way that I've found to get 'whisky drinkers' to appreciate brandy is just to have them try some of it, some of the good bottles, just so that they can see what it can be, rather than what they're so used to seeing on the shelves.

Anonymous said...

Sku, Numen and other brandy enthusiasts,

Yes, this has been an interesting discussion! I'm lucky because here in Kentucky we have The Party Source and Cork 'n Bottle. Both stores have a history of carrying hard-to-find items like small producer cognacs, armagnacs and calvados. Not to mention fine brandies from other regions.

It is certainly true that cognac has both gained from and suffered from the history of its marketing. And the entire brandy category, I think, has long suffered from the dominance of cognac. So much so, perhaps, that many consumers may not even realize that cognac is a brandy. I suspect that cognac is often seen as separate from brandy, with "brandy" being a cheap product best mixed with eggnog or poured on a fruitcake. If this is the environment, then it is not surprising that the market for fine quality non-cognac brandy is so limited.

Speaking of which, Stephen McCarthy's Oregon brandy is an excellent product, not terribly old but filled with wonderful fruity aromas. As an eau-de-vie producer of great renown, McCarthy certainly knows how to highlight fruit aromas in a distillate. Any brandy enthusiast visiting Portland should stop by at his Clear Creek Distillery, speak with him and sample some of his great products. Looking for something really different? Try his Douglas fir eau-de vie.

Thanks to all for the comments and thanks to Sku for hosting and encouraging the discussion!

Tom Troland