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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 2)

Spaniards like it, too, of course. "That's ours!" Piqero confirms, spotting the distinctive yellow label from several tables away. As he resumes his conversation, his ebullience quickly fades. "After lunch, about 4:30 p.m., with coffee and a cigar," he says. "That's the ambience of brandy. Isn't that right?" he asks waiter Paco Garcia, the restaurant owner's brother, who stops by to replenish a wine glass. Garcia confirms that it is. "Cafe, copa y puro," he says. Your coffee, your glass of brandy, your cigar.

With the wheels of the new European economy turning, who has time for a glass of brandy at 4:30 in the afternoon these days? Piquero draws a diagram that explains the evolution of the spirit. Circles represent the size of the marketplace as of 30 years ago for the three categories of brandy; Solera, Solera Reserva and Solera Gran Reserva. Solera, the lowest quality, is the largest circle, about the size of a quarter. Reserva is the size of a dime. Gran Reserva is tiny, a pinprick. Below he draws three more circles showing that today they are all more or less equal. "Although the total consumption of Brandy de Jerez has diminished, the consumption of Gran Reservas hasn't," he says, excited again. "It has grown!"

To exploit this trend, Sanchez Romate has released two brandies even higher in quality and price than the Gran Reservas. One is Carta Real, from a small batch removed from the solera in 1982 and left to mellow in casks ever since. It costs about $100. The other is Non Plus Ultra, even older and rarer, which was created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sanchez Romate and costs $220. There are 600,000 bottles of Cardenal Mendoza released every year, but only 2,571 bottles of Carta Real and 1,428 bottles of Non Plus Ultra have been produced.

Inside the Sanchez Romate barrel room the following morning, Piquero opens one of those 1,428 bottles for me. Non Plus Ultra is deeper and darker than any Spanish brandy I've seen. Its layers of flavors unfold in the mouth, carried along by an alcoholic content so smooth as to be almost imperceptible. Piquero is almost beside himself with glee. "This kind of product is our future," he says. "It projects the elite image."

I visit two more producers and find they have a similar plan. Tasting a Carlos I Imperial surrounded by the timeless beauty of the Domecq cellars, I learn that it has been aged for 15 years in American oak casks seasoned with sherry. At Williams & Humbert's charmless, poured concrete bodega, director Roger Tamayo unveils his company's upscale release, the $130 Gran Duque de Alba Oro. "By definition, you have a consumer target that's a minority," he says. "So you have the opportunity to produce something special. This is it."

It is. Rich, subtle and gorgeous, with a taste of orange peel and chocolate, the Gran Duque de Alba Oro ranks just a shade less elegant than the Non Plus Ultra. For a moment, I am optimistic. I'm certain Americans will love these brandies. But then I wonder what good any of the premium brandies can do. There are only a few thousand bottles of them in all, and the solera system does not allow for sudden increases in production. Even if a product such as Gran Duque de Alba Oro catches on in America and becomes the splurge of choice for dot-com millionaires and investment bankers, how can the company capitalize? Earmarking more grapes for it now will pay off only decades down the road.

Not every brandy producer is looking across the Atlantic to grow its brand. Gonzalez Byass's Lepanto is the lightest-colored and driest of the Gran Reservas, the closest to a Cognac. That's why many Spaniards order it, although I've always felt that if you want to drink a spirit that tastes like a Cognac, actual Cognac is usually available. Lepanto is aged in barrels previously used for Oloroso sherry, which has a nutty flavor and is not nearly as sweet as Pedro Ximenez. The United States accounts for only 5 percent of its total sales.

To promote a high-end tie with Lepanto, Gonzalez Byass is introducing a line of mild Cuban cigars with the same name. For obvious reasons, the cigar will be unavailable in the United States, although that would seem to be the main target for such a campaign. International marketing manager Paul Kerstens shrugs. "Lepanto is 36 percent alcohol," he says. "It's a strong drink, let's face it, and strong drink is suffering from the whole bad image in the United States." With the market for Lepanto at 5 percent of his sales, he can be cavalier.

Ignacio Osborne understands that he needs America. His Conde de Osborne is a fine product, but it doesn't have a market niche like some of the others. Not dry, not sweet, not the oldest or the most popular or the most expensive, it's simply a fine, drinkable brandy, with a chestnut color and a smooth, long finish.

In the United States, the brand has for some time been available in an odd-shaped ceramic collector's bottle designed by Salvador Dalí, but sales for such an obscure high-end item have never been brisk. Still, the stakes in America are high for Osborne, which is too large to be a small company, yet too small to easily compete with huge, multinational consortiums such as Allied Domecq.

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