Brandy was produced in the United States when the country-to-be was but a ramshackle collection of colonies. In fact, Laird’s has stood the test of time and remains three centuries later as the oldest family-owned distillery in the U.S. Flash forward to modern times, and many of the first craft distilleries to open were either wholly dedicated to brandy and eau-de-vie, or included it among their key offerings.
Consider the likes of St. George Spirits, Charbay Distillery and Clear Creek Distillery, for starters, along with Germain-Robin, in the news last year when Gallo acquired the legendary distillery. “All of them! St. George, Clear Creek, all of them,” exclaims Dan Farber, owner and distiller at Osocalis, which serves as the north star of aged American brandy, a guiding light for any would-be distiller looking to do things the right way.
Yet, with thousands of distilleries now in the U.S., brandy still lies in waiting for the kind of boom enjoyed by bourbon and rye, let alone American single malt and American gin. What, then, does the future have in store for America’s oft-forgotten spirituous forebear?
What is American Brandy?
The question may seem obvious to you, but it’s not for the typical consumer perusing the shelves of a liquor store. While that is starting to change, the long-standing perception was that brandy is Cognac, and Cognac is brandy, and that’s that.
“When you say like ‘American brandy,’ there was no brandy category,” Farber said. “There was a Cognac category. And Cognac loved that, and they still do love that, and they should! Because they kind of own the whole brandy category whereas bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, rye whiskey, Scotch whisky, all of those things were in the category of whiskey. So there hasn’t been a category, and that’s been the biggest problem.”
The TTB standards for “brandy” are laughably vague, essentially decreeing that brandy is something that should seem like brandy. “Here in the United States, for brandy, there’s no floor,” Farber said. “So you have the category defined by the bottom. It’s one of the few places where the category has been defined by the cheapest swill possible.”
Copper & Kings head distiller Brandon O’Daniel agrees with Farber’s point, and over the past few years has had an up close and personal look at the sea change finally taking place among consumers. “When I first started distilling with Joe and Lesley [Heron, Copper & Kings co-founders] four and a half years ago, there was no such thing as ‘American brandy,’” he said. “There was cheap ‘n’ sweet California brandy and Cognac.”
Capturing the Consumer: Whiskey Drinkers & Cocktail Connoisseurs
“Since that day we’ve seen interest and acceptance change dramatically,” O’Daniel continues.
Capturing the whiskey-drinking public and turning them on to American brandy is a key aspect of Copper & Kings’ approach. Of course, reeling in the whiskey drinker seems to be the common mantra for just about all spirits, and certainly brown spirits.
“We definitely appeal strongly to whiskey drinkers—our profile is similar, our maturation process in bourbon barrels is similar, and we are located in the heart of American distilling in Kentucky,” O’Daniel said.
The whiskey drinker isn’t the only crossover consumer Copper & Kings tries to capture, though. O’Daniel said there are actually three key demographics they’re targeting. “The cheap ‘n’ sweet brandy drinker now has a trade-up opportunity between $15 and $50, the Cognac drinker has an opportunity to trade into a domestic brandy of assumed equivalence, and the whiskey drinker has an opportunity to explore an aligned American brown spirits liquid with confidence,” he explains.
Brandy has just as historic a connection with cocktails as it does with American spirits production on the whole, so utilizing that as an opportunity to grow the spirit today is logical as well. “Brandy’s place in the cocktail canon is well established,” O’Daniel said. “And our cocktail franchise has been largely driven by bartenders who ‘get’ brandy and like using it, and we do have a liquid that is built for mixology—higher proof and non-chill-filtered.”
Even the older guard of American brandy has embraced the cocktail connection as key. “Twenty-five years ago, if you asked me about cocktails I would have been like, ‘Oh! I’m not so sure about that!’” Farber said. What flipped the switch for him wasn’t a consumer response to brandy cocktails, whether classic or modern, but rather seeing the craftsmanship of cocktails rise to new heights. Once he experienced dedicated bartenders mixing beautiful drinks and respecting the quality of ingredients, he came around.
“Once I saw a real cocktail, an artistic cocktail with somebody who was really putting, albeit on a shorter time scale, but as much care and effort into that as I put into a 20-year-old blend, I was like, ‘God, it’s perfect!’ said Farber. “Of course somebody should use my brandy in a cocktail. They’re wonderful.”
The Business of Brandy
Even with more consumers entering the fold, brandy is still handicapped versus other spirits due to the innate challenges it presents in terms of the costs of production and the higher pricing and lack of scalability which result.
“The challenge is making delicious brandy at an affordable price,” said Jenni Karakasevic, Charbay’s owner and director of operations. “It’s a very expensive spirit to make—and age—properly.”
The flip side of the pricing issue is that much of what consumers have had ready access to is what O’Daniel has been referring to as that “cheap ‘n’ sweet” brandy. “It seems you really get what you pay for with brandy,” Karakasevic said, describing both ends of the pricing spectrum.
“Your costs to begin with are just outrageously high compared to other distilled spirits,” Farber confirms. “Both your raw ingredient costs and your infrastructure costs. Because unlike whiskey, you can’t really amortize your investment over the entire year. Our stills are not active right now [this conversation took place in July]. Our tanks have been empty for months, right? And so, our whole production has to be done from late October to late March.”
Setting the Standard
For real and sustained growth then, you need to both educate consumers about the category and also convince them to spend a bit more for something of a much higher quality. “Our challenge is to raise the ‘worthiness’ profile—that the inherent quality is the equivalent of Cognac,” O’Daniel said.
“If the consumer was really more aware of how these spirits are made, where these spirits are made, there would be more of an understanding of what’s really going into what they’re drinking and what it takes to make what they’re drinking,” Farber said. “And then I think people would be much more willing to sort of buy up a little bit. Which is where you’re going to have to see it for high-quality spirits based on fresh fruit.”
Efforts are already underway to take control of matters more directly, with a group of California brandy producers banding together to form a set of standards and a shared identity, similar in nature to what rye whiskey distilleries have done in New York State with Empire Rye. The as yet unnamed effort sets a baseline quality standard and more accurately defines the category.
“It’s a pretty high standard, very much approaching an international standard,” Farber said. “We’ve never had that. So now we’re trying to introduce a premium brandy made in the United States. It’s a slog, but we’re starting.”
Reinforcements on the Way
While Farber has noticed more interest in brandy, the biggest difference he’s seen is on the production side. “In terms of producers and people getting involved, that’s been huge,” Farber said.
The list of brandy producers in the country today is rapidly expanding. While by no means an exhaustive list, consider Virginia’s Catoctin Creek, which makes the acclaimed 1757 Virginia Brandy and a lineup of local fruit brandies; New Deal Distillery’s Pear Brandy; Finger Lakes Distillling’s Grape Brandy; Chip Tate’s lofty plans at Tate & Company; the pisco-style Frísco, an independent brand made by Seven Stills Distillery; Francis Ford Coppola’s move into the brandy realm; Corsair Distillery’s ongoing experimentation; and we still haven’t mentioned long-standing, venerable operations such as Ted Huber’s Starlight Distillery, in production since 2001, and the award-winning Jepson Brandy lineup from Jaxon Keys. Farber is also breaking ground on a New York brandy distillery to add into the mix for good measure.
On the hunt for other recommendations, St. George distiller Dave Smith mentioned New York’s Gardiner Liquor Mercantile from Gable Lorenzo. “That’s where someone can take their local harvest and celebrate it,” Smith said. The operation is a local shop, bar, and cafe rolled into one, producing small-batch, seasonal spirits. “This is a person who makes it because he wants to make it.”
It’s also the kind of operation that can’t be readily scaled up, produced in massive quantities, and distributed widely with cheap pricing. Which brings us back to square one.
But with the increase in quality distillers, the beginnings of consumer acceptance and understanding, and a producer-led categorization effort underway, the future is bright for American brandy. Leave it to the Copper & Kings guys to go full-bore ahead with unbridled enthusiasm.
“We’ve only just started. We are seeing more entrants with Gallo Argonaut—which is a great thing for brandy—and some very fine smaller craft distillers starting to enter the category, as well as people discovering the beauty of a more classical brandy from Osocalis,” O’Daniel said. He continues,
There’s burgeoning excitement, the juice is great, the range and diversity is great because we make brandy from many different grape varietals and many different terroirs—we are quite blessed with huge diversity. It’s a tough category in terms of supply chain, but once that is mastered then it boils down to branding, bartenders and busting your ass.
We [the United States] make the best beer in the world, we make the best wine in the world, we make the best whiskey in the world, why shouldn’t we also be known as making the best brandy in the world? And I think we already do—I really think that with time we have advantages that surpass any brandy nation.”
And, picking up steam, he further insists,
“We are unshackled from the dogma of grape varietal, we are not limited to a small provincial geography but can work with the diversity of an entire continent, we are liberated in terms of wood maturation vessels to spur innovation—the sky’s the limit! And think of the state of American beer and wine not too long ago and what it is today in terms of reputation and quality, American Brandy will share that trajectory, is already on that path actually.”
And that’s capital A, capital B, American Brandy. Get used to it.