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Andalusian Ambrosia

As Brandy Consumption Declines at Home, Spanish Producers Look for New Connoisseurs
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

(continued from page 1)

As a result, lunch is now typically a quick, hourlong affair, often consisting of a sandwich or even a fast-food hamburger, and if drinking is done at all it likely will be beer. Some stores and offices still close for the midday meal, mostly in rural areas, but far fewer than before. And when today's Spaniard goes out at night to a club or a bar, he or she is more likely to drink a cocktail or a glass of beer than a Spanish brandy. "They say, 'Yes I remember my grandfather drinking brandy,'" Osborne says. "'It's old, it's strong, it's harsh.' All the characteristics we found in the research were negative."

No Osborne CEO had ever found it necessary to tour the U.S. market. It didn't make sense, when so much of Osborne's product line--the crisp sherries, the Rioja wine of Montecillo, the intensely flavored Jabugo ham--was consumed at home. But Ignacio Osborne is a different kind of CEO, which is fortunate because he's living in a different time. Trained as an engineer, he started his career in 1979 designing oil rigs in Norway. His only contact with the family business was the Conde de Osborne brandy he'd sip on a late Nordic summer night.

He'd been away for seven years when he realized he was raising Norwegian children, not Spaniards. So he found a job in Madrid helping run a firm that made agricultural and mining equipment. He worked there another seven years, until his father called in 1993 and told him the company needed someone from the next generation. By 1996, he was running the House of Osborne.

Before planning this two-city visit to the United States, where he hopes to make selling brandy a priority, Ignacio Osborne took steps to resurrect his domestic market. His method was a new brandy designed to appeal to younger drinkers. Called Toro--after the black bull that is the Osborne logo--it is light and eminently drinkable, made to be drunk on ice with Coca-Cola, just like most Spaniards drink gin or whiskey today. Its matte-silver bottle doesn't bear the Brandy de Jerez designation that has for years told Spaniards that they are getting a genuine product from the Jerez region, because in Osborne's estimation his consumers don't care. That in itself is a tiny revolution.

Toro is not available in stores, but only in a few hundred of the hippest, trendiest discos and clubs around Spain; places with the look and the clientele of The Court hotel. It has helped revive the image of brandy among a certain class of young Spanish people, those who would rather watch a soccer game than a bullfight. Whether they'll ultimately graduate to more serious brandies is an unanswered question.

In America, where other hard liquors dominate, only about 132,000 bottles of Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez were sold in 1999. That's all brands, across the entire country of some 275 million people. "That's the real opportunity," Osborne says. And so he is in New York.

In a clamorous room quite unlike the Icon restaurant and an ocean away, Marcelino Piquero sits at the head of a dinner table, a platter of crayfish and lobster in front of him. We are in Venta Antonio, a popular seafood restaurant just outside Jerez de la Frontera on the highway to Seville. On this weekend night, its many rooms are filled to capacity as usual. Clouds of smoke from cigars and cigarettes float above tables of customers who are casually dressed in open-collared shirts or pants suits and who laugh and talk and pick from plates of ham and Manchego cheese. They murmur contentedly as waiters appear with platters of various crustaceans, and they drink: beer, wine, and orange and lemon soda.

Just now, however, someone has ordered brandy, and the excitable Piquero, the export director of Sanchez Romate, twists his head, eager to discern the brand. He has been telling me all night about the proper setting for brandy, yet he has not seen a glass served since we arrived.

The five major Spanish brandy producers each export a Gran Reserva brandy to the United States. Osborne has its Conde de Osborne; Piquero's Sanchez Romate has Cardenal Mendoza; Gonzalez Byass has Lepanto; Pedro Domecq has Carlos I, and Williams & Humbert has Gran Duque de Alba. All sell for $35 to $50, and together they accounted for more than 95 percent of those 132,000 bottles of Gran Reserva sold in America last year.

Each of the five is distinct. They might not seem to be if you drink them individually, over the course of months, because the uniform grape variety and the solera system impart more similarities than differences. But line them up in a tasting and you'll discover the singular character of each. I find Cardinal Mendoza the sweetest, perhaps because of the small amount of the molasses-like Pedro Ximenez sherry that is illicitly added to the brandy while it is aging in the casks. Cardinal Mendoza tastes like toffee on the palate, like deep, smooth, alcoholic Butter Rum Life Savers, and that appeals to a Hispanic market accustomed to the alcoholic sweetness of sugarcane rum. Sanchez Romate sells two-thirds of the Cardinal Mendoza it exports to the United States in New York or New Jersey, and another 16 percent in Florida.

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