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Brandy Moves at Its Own Pace

Every ancestor I’ve known was a whiskey drinker. I’m proud to continue their traditions as I pour evening cocktails into glassware left in their wake. Over the last few decades, though, I have added brandy to the rotation, for three reasons. The first is simple: Brandy is astoundingly delicious. Armagnac Sidecar? Outstanding. The second is that brandy is different from other spirits. Gin, rum, and even many whiskeys feel like now to me (and vodka can seize the night’s reins with a right now urgency), but brandy is something else.

In the United States, a negligible amount of fruit spirits is made as clear, sometimes excellent, eaux de vie. (Neutral brandy, distilled to such a high proof that it lacks much fruit character, is practical for producing cordials, amari, and fortified wines, but we don’t see it so much on its own, so forget that.) Instead, the distillates I find most compelling come from barrels. Years, even decades, may pass before such a brandy reveals itself. Over time, fruit is subsumed. Grape no longer tastes like grape exactly, nor apple, pear, or other fruits quite like themselves, each transmogrified into something new and wonderful.

California distiller Dan Farber has made such long-aged brandies at Osocalis, one of America’s oldest craft distilleries, since the 1980s. “The lifetime of brandy,” he says, “is really on par with the lifetime of a human. It’s the only brown spirit that can age as a human does and still improve; 65 years, 80, even a hundred is possible.”

Why make brandies that don’t show their best for so very long? “I see the sun setting much more than I used to,” Farber explains. “The only reason to make brandy like this is because you think there’s a there there, and after you’re not there, maybe people will take what you’ve done and say, ‘Wow, that was really interesting!'” Farber initially intended to make brandies that would be ready in five or 10 years. “Now, I’m trying to put down spirits that have the potential to go 80, maybe 100 years,” he says. “But it won’t be me who finishes them. It will be another generation.”

Unfettered by strict regulations that give structure and predictability to, say, majestic old Cognacs, American distillers are reasonably free to make brandy however they like. 

Those new generations are the third reason I dote on brandy. New American distillers are making audacious fruit spirits. Unfettered by strict regulations that give structure and predictability to, say, majestic old Cognacs, American distillers are reasonably free to make brandy however they like. Once-extinct specialties such as pawpaw and peach brandies are available again, albeit in frustratingly limited quantities. New spirits like a solera apple brandy and a smoked apple/country ham pechuga-style brandy from Baltimore Spirits make me reconsider what American brandy might be.

Some drinkers give specialty barrel-finished spirits the stink-eye, but there’s no denying their popularity. Copper & Kings of Kentucky has offered apple brandies aged in oak and finished in used tequila barrels. Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall at Charleston’s High Wire Distilling make the occasional watermelon brandy as well as peach brandy from local fruit; they plan to release a limited run of bourbon made with their signature heirloom Jimmy Red corn, then finished in barrels in which their own peach brandy aged. Making brandy as well as whiskey gives High Wire a degree of latitude in how they make spirits, Blackwell says. “We love making brandy. It’s a fun way to express our creativity a couple of times a year.”

As the sun sets over the ocean, I’ll mosey over to my grandfather’s old copper-topped dry sink to pour a sundowner that’s become my go-to drink. It’s just a small thing, maybe 10 seconds to put together. If pressed, I’ll call it a Dephlegmator, but in truth I’ve never given it a name. Tumbler. Ice. A five-count of bourbon. Finally, a fat float of well-aged apple brandy. Unlike Dan Farber’s long-aged brandy, I know who will finish this.

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