American Brandy Distilled in the Traditional Methods of Cognac Is Starting To Come of Age
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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.
Coale has limited the offering to 100 casks and says he has sold 43 so far. "We have one guy who bought his cask in August of '94 and he just ordered his fourth case of brandy," Coale says with some incredulity in his voice. "I think he has a lot of business clients."
Carneros Alambic's private barrel offering includes a blending session with the cellar master and access to the distillery's oldest stocks to fill a 63-liter (15 gallon) barrel, plus the added inducement of overnight accommodations for two at a nearby inn for both the blending session and the bottling session, for a price of $6,000.
With the barrel yielding about six cases of brandy, this offering is not for the fainthearted, but a number of individuals have figured out creative ways to make it work. Jim Myerson, president of Wine Warehouse, which distributes Carneros Alambic brandies in California, brought the Gamma Forum of the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Presidents Organization to the distillery for a visit, and the members "snapped it up," according to Myerson. The only problem was that during the subsequent blending session, the two CEOs entrusted with the task couldn't come to terms on the blend. Bernard La Borie settled the tiff by offering to custom-blend a barrel of each of the two blends; the YPOers can choose between them at the time of bottling or take half of each blend. (Myerson says he suspects La Borie is hoping they'll pop for the two entire barrels.)
Paul Nerger, a computer executive based in Beaverton, Oregon, put together a small partnership and sold subscriptions to a Carneros Alambic private barrel to five friends, who each will end up with a case of custom brandy. When Nerger initially broached the idea to a friend with whom he was visiting Carneros Alambic, the man blanched. "That's a lot of money," he said. "You don't understand," countered Nerger. "When else will you get an opportunity to blend your own brandy? We'll just bring in other people."
Nerger scheduled the bottling session to coincide with the 1995 Napa Valley Wine Auction, turning the event into a weekend of festivity. And since the first partnership worked so well--it ended up being oversubscribed and a couple of partners are splitting their case--he might do it again. "You can have the barrel after bottling," he muses, "but it seems a shame to take this old Cognac barrel and let it go to waste."