Five things I’ve learned about…American Brandy

The December 31, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Brandy.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. American Brandy is an underappreciated, or at least under-publicized, category. A handful are every bit as good as French Cognacs – but the prices are much, much gentler. (I also just received a press release for an intriguing-sounding oak-aged Canadian brandy….could this be yet another nascent category? UPDATE 5/7/12:  Apparently, not a new category, at least not yet. Went back to the release – and it’s for an American brandy with a French-Canadian name.)

2. Many of these brandies are made from interesting wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Semillon. But not all brandies are grape – in particular, there are some amazing American apple brandies, such as Laird’s. And although I didn’t sample any for this review, the category also includes a number of good peach and other fruit brandies.

3. Unaged fruit brandy = eau-de-vie.

 4. Some brandies (such as those from Paul Masson) are produced in California, but are then transported to Kentucky, where they age in former Bourbon barrels. As a result, many have lovely Bourbon-like caramel and vanilla notes.

 5. It turns out that Americans have a long history of brandy innovation, dating all the way back to the original maverick:  George Washington. Though better known as a general and statesman, he also distilled his own rye whiskey and brandy. In fact, according to the Mt. Vernon Museum, the year Washington died, in 1799, his plantation account book shows he had 60 gallons of peach brandy and 67 gallons of apple brandy sent to his main house from the distillery.

Got a favorite American brandy, or brandy cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.

6 thoughts on “Five things I’ve learned about…American Brandy

  1. I have lots of thoughts. I’m reminded of the boast of many a Wisconsinite, which I heard first from Robert Simonson: the Dairy State consumes a huge amount of Korbel’s annual brandy production. I think Simonson said around half of Korbel’s bottles ship to Wisconsin each year. Wow.

    I’m a big fan of Laird’s apple brandy but I’ve never understood why the Applejack is, a) slightly more expensive than the bonded straight apple brandy, and b) half grain spirits. Why water it down with something that dilutes its warm apple flavor and then charge more for it? Also, Laird’s 7 1/2 year old apple brandy is delicious and a fantastic value. It’s under $30 a bottle! I like that for sipping and the bonded stuff for mixing.

    Finally, a question. I’d love to find an American brandy (grape) that can stand up against Pierre Ferrdand’s Cognac Ambre, which is generally under $40 a bottle (on sale now at Astor Wines in NYC for $32!). I like Ferrand’s cognacs so much better than anything I’ve tasted from the big guys like Hennessey, Courvoisier, or Remy. I’d love to find a good value American brandy. Any recommendations?

    • Re value brandies — I was pleasantly surprised by Paul Masson VSOP Grande Amber Brandy ($14). But it’s not purely an American brandy, it’s mixed with French Cognac, so perhaps this isn’t a fair fight.

  2. I would encourage you to not write off all Cognacs as unaffordable. There are many examples, but one of my favorites is Ansac, which is a brand of Cognac priced in the $20 range for 750mL. While not as complex as something twice its price, it offers a fruity and woody character which I find works perfectly in cocktails. I even used it in my “grape spirit mix” which I aged in my small barrel at home:

  3. I went back and looked up the release — and it turns out that I read it too quickly, it’s not a Canadian brandy after all. The release is for another American brandy (this one produced in Traverse City, MI), named after “a French Canadian term for happy hour.” So much for identifying a new category!

  4. I’ve yet to find an American brandy better than Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP. It’s been in my “cabinet” since I’ve tried it, and shall be until I find something better at that price point…..

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