American Brandy Distilled in the Traditional Methods of Cognac Is Starting To Come of Age
Jean T. Barrett
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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Professional Cognac tasters have long used a much smaller glass, shaped like a tulip with a narrow, chimney-style aperture. Carneros Alambic's hospitality center sells three variations on this "cellar master" glass, priced at $5.50 (with Carneros Alambic logo), $10 and $36 per stem. Austria's Riedel glass company has two glasses for Cognac, a "Cognac XO" and a "Cognac VSOP," that fit the bill as well and are priced at $49.50 per stem.
Bernard La Borie of Carneros Alambic believes that the classic balloon-shaped snifter will soon go the way of the Champagne saucer, which was the glass of choice for bubbly until the flute became popular in the 1970s. "The next generation of brandy drinkers will be drinking out of the cellar master glass," he predicts.
UNDERSTANDING BRANDY DISTILLING
Mention American brandy and the big brands come to mind: E.&J. Gallo, Christian Brothers, Paul Masson and Korbel. These large-volume, well-established brandies are produced using the continuous still--also known as the Coffey, patent or column still. This type of still permits a continuous inflow of distilling material, greatly boosting volume. The continuous still is used to make most high-volume distilled products, such as gin, vodka, much blended whiskey and American brandy.
Alambic brandy is produced in a uniquely configured pot still that is used to produce French Cognac. Alambic and other pot stills produce brandy in batches and require that the still be emptied and cleaned after each distillation. The alambic pot still, also known as the alambic charentais, features a bricked-in heating chamber over a source of direct fire, an onion-shaped still head to collect alcohol vapors, and a "swan's neck" curved pipe to carry the vapors to the cylindrical condensing chamber, where the vapors are cooled by circulating water and condensed into liquid. Most alambic stills also have a preheating chamber for heating wine to be distilled. Both alambic brandy and Cognac are produced using two distillations. Pot stills are made in a variety of configurations and sizes, but only a still that meets the above specifications is an alambic still.
One wall of the Germain-Robin barrel room is lined with small 50-liter barrels, each bearing a brass plaque. "The White House," reads one. Kuleto's, Mustards Grill & Bistro Rôti, Corti Bros., Lark Creek Inn, Wally's, Beltramo's, BIX--these plaques could be a Who's Who of fine spirits purveyors. The barrels contain private blends of brandy that Hubert Germain-Robin prepares to customer specifications, lets age in the small cooperage, then bottles and custom labels. Doug "Bix" Biederbeck, owner of BIX restaurant in San Francisco's Jackson Square district, was the first restaurateur in the United States to select a Germain-Robin private blend; he has had his barrel refilled year after year. Biederbeck is such a fan of Germain-Robin's brandies that he features a classic Sidecar made with Germain-Robin Fine Lot 11 on his bar list, although, as Biederbeck admits, "It's sort of a waste of good brandy."
Biederbeck says he seeks a floral, delicate quality in his custom blend. "My model for fine brandy is Hine, particularly the early landed Cognacs," he says. (Early landed Cognacs were shipped to Britain in casks and aged in bonded warehouses, then bottled. Unlike French-bottled Cognac, early landed Cognac may carry an age designation.)
Because the 50-liter casks are sized for commercial use, Coale is now offering individuals the opportunity to age bottled Germain-Robin brandy in handmade 10-liter casks produced by Tonnellerie Vernou from 50-year-old grande Champagne Cognac barrels. The miniature barrels hold about a case of brandy, so the prospective customer buys the brandy and the $200 cask, then fills the cask with the brandy for aging. Due to the higher ratio of brandy to oak surface (more brandy, per volume, touching the sides of the barrel), Coale says that the brandy ages about three times faster in the small cask than in the standard 350-liter Cognac barrel.
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