It seems that time spent in a barrel is particularly important with brandy. Grape spirits tend to have a more tightly defined flavor. They’re piercing and direct, uncompromising in their expression. Because of that, unaged brandies—kirsch, eau-de-vie, grappa—are challenging and standoffish at best, but are more likely just fusel and harsh. Similar to that unpolished sear you get from a white whiskey, tasting even the best clear brandies serves as a reminder of how helpful a couple years of oak can be.
Brandies also benefit from blending. Whereas whiskies draw strength from their specificity—a single malt or regional style—brandy gets better when it draws from a wider well. Raynal XO, a great everyday cocktail brandy, is a blend of three eaux-de-vie from different regions in France. The famous Louis XIII cognac is a blend of 1,200 different brandies. More blending, more age, better brandy.
That’s something Jon Palmer at The Bachelor Farmer understands rather well. He has about 40 brandies on his list, likely the most comprehensive in town, but his house mixing brandy is a proprietary blend of five different bottles. “It starts with a more neutral base,” Palmer explains, “and then gets enriched with brandies that have a lot more character.”
While a well-rounded mix is necessary for balanced cocktails, he notes that good brandies exhibit a range of flavors that can appeal to anyone. For the Islay Scotch drinker, he’d suggest Camus Ile de Ré, made from grapes grown in the saltwater breezes of a small island. For the wine drinker, Dudognon Réserve is an effortless sip—light, floral, and soft.
“I think fruit is awesome,” Palmer says. “You don’t have to convince anybody that wine is really cool—the way the fruit is grown and comes out of the ground and gets transformed is magical. The same applies when you distill it, intensify the essence of the fruit, and watch it change as it ages.”
To appreciate good brandy is to celebrate the capacity for change. And making good brandy requires faith and patience. Coquard needed years of experimenting to arrive at the right technique for his brandy. Holman hopes to build a catalog of different ages of brandy to blend into the most complex and well-rounded spirit. It’s going to take years before the Midwest has anything resembling a selection of fine local brandies. And even then, will we ever trade in our Korbel–7ups to take notice?
It’s hard to say. Perhaps good brandy will remain that once-in-a-while celebration spirit. Or maybe it will start encroaching on whiskey’s territory. Maybe you’ll go to Meritage, the sun shining and the oysters cold, and you’ll order their house cognac Manhattan. You’ll sip it and think, wow, I should do this more often.
For some great brandy cocktail recipes to try at home, check out Mix This Now: Brandy cocktail recipes.
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