Brandies: A Tasting Tour

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Beyond its use (and misuse — see the Wisconsin Old Fashioned) in mixed drinks, brandy is not much understood or valued on this side of the Atlantic. Aged in wooden casks (or colored to simulate said aging), brandy is a spirit made by the distillation of wine, which brings its alcohol content comfortably up into the 70-90+ proof range.

Chilly winter evenings seem to be a good match for the warm, sometimes buttery flavor of a good brandy. It was on such a night that I headed out to Cave Vin to meet up with Craig Drehmel and Jeff Mitchell, the two-man team behind Gastro Non Grata. We got started late, opening the first bottle after 9pm.

JAMES NORTON: I don’t really know brandy from any other brown liquor out there. Based on a convincing and glowing review, I bought my father a bottle of Germain-Robin alambic (if memory serves) for Christmas last year and he loved it. But I’m not really up on the stuff — can you give me a sweeping overview of what we’ve got here tonight? Am I right in thinking that there are some broad differences between, for example, a lot of the Spanish brandies and their French counterparts?

CRAIG DREHMEL: Well, I sort of cleaned out the cupboards on this one. We’ve got everything from fruit eau de vie from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, traditional French Cognac, some Spanish brandy, good California brandy and an apple brandy for good measure.

As for their differences, the answer is yes. Brandy is a very sweeping term and flavors depend on the fruit it’s distilled from, if and how long it’s aged in wood and what kind of barrel amongst many variables. I guess we should talk about the clear ones first.

The Clear Creek Gewurztraminer Marc and Kirschwasser, now these are eau de vie (water of life) made by some really nice people in Portland. They call the Gewurz brandy Marc in honor of it’s French background. This is definitely my favorite of their library, the spicy overtones mixed with lychee are just subtle enough to handle the extreme burn and the Kirschwasser is really mild with a hint of sweetness.

Be it known that these aren’t really the kind of brandy you sip and savor — it is meant to burn a hole in your stomach when you’ve had too much to eat and the chef keeps bringing out more courses. But they serve their place and can be very, very good.

NORTON: I’ve been to the Clear Creek distillery and done their tasting, and it’s powerful stuff, particularly on an empty stomach. You’re not kidding about the “burn a hole” thing — it really seems to be a perfect fit for a stomach full of cheese. I was fortunate enough to try some homemade Swiss Kirschwasser while eating fondue at Roth Kase, the Monroe, WI-based cheesemaker. By itself, it blows off your eyebrows, but it hits the spot when it’s cutting through gouda and bread.

This Gewurztraminer Marc conjures up honey and fruit for me, and that lychee observation is spot on. On a related note, I’m really surprised by this Etter Cuvee Jubilee stuff from Austria. It’s… I mean, there’s cherry, pear, raspberry, apple, grape going on here. It’s a tutti-frutti Hawaiian Punch explosion, minus the sweetness and with some chemical fire. Not my favorite drink of 2009, but interesting, for sure.

DREHMEL: Let’s move on from the barn burners into a more sophisticated realm, cognac. Grandaddy of French Brandy, swilled from snifters and rhymed about more than disses on your mama. Now Cognac is a region of France, with four different grape growing areas and only brandy made in Cognac can have the distinction of being called cognac, everything else is just brandy.

Let’s take a look at the two French brandies we have here, a Meukow VS with a golden panther adorning the bottle itself and Pierre Ferrand Ambre. As we will prove here, just because it’s from Cognac doesn’t automatically make it good. The Meukow is fairly forgettable, a little hot in the end. A good cooking brandy or nightcap for drunken friends at best.

The Pierre Ferrand on the other hand, uses grapes from only the grand cru growing area of Cognac, the best of the four. How do you think that compares to the Panther juice?

NORTON: The Meukow — aside from the name, which makes me think of a six-year-old talking about a Holstein — doesn’t have a lot to offer, it’s true. There’s a chemical kick to it that makes me think of drinking cologne, not cognac. The Pierre Ferrand, is, as you say, a horse of a different color — there’s a butterscotch note to this stuff, and what I think is a hint of peppermint. Kind of wild. A little sharp for my liking, but not at all bad, and absolutely interesting. Speaking of butter, this Spanish stuff really delivers mellow dairy notes, in spades. Like this Solera Magno Reserva Brandy de Jerez by Osborne.

DREHMEL: I hear you, Spanish brandy in general has a richness and sweetness about it that I really like. I don’t know how well they’d mix, but they can hold their own all by themselves. The Osborne Magno is a great, inexpensive alternative to the E & J and Korbel’s of the world. It’s got some depth, a little burn and some nice rich, sweet sherry overtones.

Where Spanish Brandy really gets going is with these Torres Brandies. The 20 year is like a butterscotch bomb going off in your mouth, rich, unctuous and big. Something to take the chill off a cold night to be sure. This should be where people are spending their brandy dollars.

NORTON: This Jaime I — which is, what, a $100 bottle or something? — is really, really remarkable. It’s got that buttery sweetness and warmth, and something on the back that’s almost like orange marmalade — very unexpected, and really well balanced. Absolutely one of the top three spirits I’ve tried this year, up there with Orinoco white rum and that remarkable gunpowder-tasting wine you shared with me.

Where should a brandy appreciator — or would-be brandy appreciator — go around here to pick up an interesting bottle or three…? Who’s got the good collections and the staff who know their way around ’em?

DREHMEL: Zipp’s is the only place in town to find the Jaime, but hopefully that will change soon, and the rest of their brandy selection is pretty good. Brandy is one of those things where cheap crappy American brandy and over marketed French cognac proliferates on shelves all over town. Not to say that all American brandy is crap, Remy Amerique has been gone for over a decade now, but dusty bottles can still be found in certain liquor storesĀ  around the state. This 7-year I picked up 8 years ago is the closest California ever came to Cognac, nice rich fruit, a long finish and big flavor. Once Remy stopped production, the people at Germain-Robin came into the fold and have been at the pinnacle of American alambic brandy.

NORTON: My sense is that, thanks to Korbel, many people have given up on the idea of good American brandy, and as a result, excellent stuff like Germain-Robin can be had for a reasonably low price. If you were going to recommend one solid all-rounder solid starter bottle that someone interested in brandy should pick up — $50 or less, let’s say — what would you go with?

DREHMEL: For pure decadence and richness I’d go with the Torres 20 yr, it’s an all around great brandy. Not your standard brandy flavors, but it’s an impressive bottle for the money and has a lot of wow factor going on. In France, I think Landy VS or the Hardy’s red label cognac are a great alternative to the sir rap-a-lot big boys at a lesser cost. If people would just stop buying cheap crappy brandy they’d realize that good booze shouldn’t make you wince after you drink it.

Well put, sir.


  1. geoff roether

    the conversational angle is precious, and I appreciate the fine photography, but this post could really benefit from a concise summarizing list of those brandies you tried. a list that includes what they were, what you thought, where to buy them and what they cost.


    the editor who seems to have taken the day off.

  2. gastro

    So you’re saying we should write a list up before we start drinking? And are you saying precious in a good way or smart assey cute way?

  3. geoff

    doesn’t matter when you create the list, just that it’s there. Regarding the meaning of precious in this context, I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one frustrated with writerly ambiguity.

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