American Brandy

American Brandy
Photo/Jeff Harris

Hear the words “exceptional brandy” and you probably think Cognac or Armagnac. While both have impeccable credentials, a growing cadre of domestic makers challenge them with brandy styles that showcase an American spirit of innovation, and unapologetically refuse to copy France. “It’s not Cognac made in America,” says Joe Heron of Louisville’s Copper & Kings. “We make American brandy.”

The trend—both craft and mainstream—is enjoying burgeoning sales and interest from mixologists. Part of the charm is that, unshackled by laws and traditions, they use a free-wheeling ethos, experimenting with grape varietals and aging methods. “We have just a ton of flexibility compared to what’s going on in Europe,” says Paul Ahvenainen, master distiller of Korbel. “There’s no reason we can’t produce some really top-notch product.”

American brandy is nothing new. Settlers made it almost upon their arrival—on both coasts. In the 19th century, domestic product challenged Europe’s, which was devastated by insect infestation. Alas, after Prohibition the industry struggled. The rebirth started in 1982, when Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale obtained a still from Cognac and started recapturing artisanal methods lost to modern French brands. They also used high-priced pinot noir grapes. “Our 30-year-old product is better than Cognac,” says Coale. “We were using better grapes.” The XO (80 proof, $120) has delicate balance with vanilla, caramel, cardamom, dark fruits, fudge and a long finish.

Copper & Kings turned to ex-Bourbon barrels to age its Butchertown Brandy (124 proof, $55) made with muscat, chenin blanc and colombard grapes. The Bourbon-like brandy has notes of vanilla, maple, caramel and fruit. Christian Bros. chose to pursue the bottled-in-bond distinction (see story, page 93) for its Sacred Bond (100 proof, $18). Korbel V.S.O.P. (80 proof, $14) taps such grapes as colombard, pinot noir, chenin blanc and zinfandel to make a nuanced spirit with notes of crisp cinnamon graham cracker, caramel, vanilla and apple.

And the American brand snifter is still but half full. Expect the quest for innovation to continue full force.