For all the excitement about local small-batch spirits, why is brandy lagging behind?
Somewhere in Wisconsin at this very moment, a cherry and an orange slice are being muddled in a glass. They’re being pulverized with a sugar cube and a dash of bitters. A few ice cubes get added, then a slug of rail brandy and a pulse of 7-Up from the gun. The drink is sweet and fizzy, boozy and cold. It tastes like manna with smelt or braunschweiger.
For what it is, the Wisconsin old fashioned is a near-perfect drink. It speaks to the very soul of Midwest drinking, one whose spiritual home is in the supper clubs and deer stands—the places that could give a damn about the craft cocktail movement. There, Korbel is king. Blackberry brandy is for keeping toes warm on a frozen lake. Brandy is utile and necessary and nothing fancy and that’s the way we like it.
But also in Wisconsin at this very moment, Philippe Coquard is thinking about brandy in very different terms. “I’ve been in Wisconsin 32 years,” says Coquard, a thirteenth-generation winemaker from France. “I’ve been dreaming of the day I could make a Wisconsin cognac. That day has finally arrived.”
Imagine that—a local sipping brandy. A refined brandy. A brandy you don’t have to douse in soda to be drinkable. A brandy you drink because you actually want to taste the spirit. What blasphemy is this? “We have no aspirations to compete with Gallo or Korbel,” Coquard says, adding that a crowd numbering in the thousands lined up at his door for the brandy’s debut.
He’s now released three batches of his Coquard Brandy from Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac. He blends Wisconsin-grown grapes—La Crosse, St. Pepin, and La Crescent—picked a little under-ripe to preserve their acidity. He ferments a wine and distills it to 120-proof in a pot still. The spirit ages in Wisconsin oak barrels for about two-and-a-half years.
“We don’t recommend mixing it,” Coquard says. “And we see people are sipping it, neat or with one ice cube. They are using it for celebration.”
Such is the strange dichotomy of brandy in the Midwest. It’s a spirit that lives on the lowest and highest shelves. We’ll slug down a brandy-7 on a random Tuesday, and toast a special occasion with a fine cognac. But brandy seems absent from the space in-between. If we’re looking for a $40 bottle to stock the home bar, the spirit will almost assuredly be made from grains, not grapes.
In turn, small Midwest distillers have been reluctant to produce aged brandy, deciding mostly to age whiskies instead. If a distiller is willing to tie up overhead in barrels, the safe bet is on the continued popularity of rye or bourbon. Distillers might also worry about how a brandy will be received—they can’t compete with Gallo on price or cognac on prestige.
But the Midwest has the right mix of variables to produce competent craft brandy. We have a population already endeared to the spirit. We have oak barrels coopered in Minnesota. And our cold climate grapes have exactly the high levels of acidity you need for a long-lived grape spirit.
J. Carver Distillery got their brandy grapes from Sovereign Estate, a winery not too far down the road from them, in Waconia, Minnesota. J. Carver has made the most serious foray into grape spirits of any small distillery in the Minnesota. When Gina Holman and the other founders discussed their spirits planning years ago, it was quickly decided to get some brandy into barrels. “You miss the harvest, you miss the whole year,” she says.
Holman predicts a sea change in the common perception of brandy. She points to the renaissance of rye whiskey—from cheap Canadian plonk to craft spirit darling—that was spearheaded by craft bartenders. “And right now, mixologists are really coveting the old eaux-de-vie, cognac, and other brandies,” she notes. “I wholeheartedly believe that trend from whiskey to brandy is the next thing.”
She expects to release J. Carver’s first aged grape brandy in 2017. “We’ve had some tastes of it, a year in, and we’re excited about where it’s going,” she says. “The fragrance and aromatics, a real depth of spirit coming off the still. And seeing what it’s done in the barrel a year later, it’s intriguing. We’re excited.”
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