In the booze world today our country is best-known for bourbon, but a couple hundred years ago it wasn’t the only popular domestic spirit in the young United States. America’s fertile land yielded not only excellent corn and rye for whiskey, but it also produced apples, grapes and other fruits for making brandy.
In the intervening centuries (and thanks in part to the one-two punch of the phylloxera epidemic destroying the French cognac industry in the late 1800s and worldwide temperance movements passing Prohibition laws a few decades later), brandy lost popularity across the globe. Now, the trend is starting to reverse: Smart drinkers and bartenders have been getting back into brandy in recent years, and that’s leading to a new American brandy revolution. Creative distillers are making some amazing fruit-based spirits, some in traditional styles and others something completely new. Here are some all-American brandies you should look for.
KINSMAN RAKIA ($56)
Brandy made from stone fruits like plums and cherries is very common in Eastern Europe, and this spirit from Dorcol Brewing & Distilling Co. of San Antonio, Texas, was inspired by a visit to co-founder Boyan Kalusevic’s family in Serbia. The company itself is actually named after the Belgrade neighborhood where Kalusevic was born. Kinsman Rakia is made from Serbian apricots and bottled without aging, which means it’s an explosion of pure-fruit flavor with no oak to get in the way. You’ll find sweet notes of apricot of course, but also tropical fruits like mango and pineapple.
MILLARD FILLMORE UNITED STATES BRANDY ($35)
Germain-Robin is a pioneer not only in American brandy but also in craft distilling, period. Way back in 1982, the partnership between a Frenchman from a brandy-producing family and a Northern California rancher became one of the first new distilleries opened in the US since Prohibition. Germain-Robin’s cognac-style brandies are fairly expensive, and the new Millard Fillmore is an effort to create a more affordable spirit for a wider audience. It’s a blend of pot-still brandy from Germain-Robin’s distillery and column-distilled brandy from elsewhere in California, aged in both French and American oak. The result is smooth, oaky and good for after-dinner sipping or cocktail mixing. Why the name? Because most drinkers know as little about American brandy as they do about the 13th President.
COPPER & KINGS BUTCHERTOWN BRANDY ($60) One of my favorite booze rebels shaking up distilling, Copper & Kings recently built a brand-new distillery in bourbon-country capital Louisville dedicated to making grape and apple brandy. Only unaged bottlings of brandy distilled in-house are available right now, but as their own stuff ages, Copper & Kings is selling some excellent brandy distilled elsewhere. Butchertown is the most powerful of these, bottled at a staggering 124-proof and boasting huge whiskey notes from the mix of ex-bourbon and new American oak barrels it’s aged in alongside fruit and flowers that mark it as definitely not a grain spirit.
VENTURA SPIRITS STRAWBERRY BRANDY ($40) From trash to treasure: Southern California distillery Ventura Spirits makes both a vodka and this brandy from strawberries that are too misshapen or bruised to be sold in supermarkets and would otherwise be thrown away. The one-of-a-kind spirit is aged in French oak for two years, which contributes a bit of spice, but doesn’t overshadow its essential strawberry-ness. The spirit is a sophisticated taste of springtime you can enjoy any time of year.
RHINE HALL OAKED APPLE BRANDY ($56)
Chicago’s Rhine Hall Distillery specializes in a variety of European-style brandies, including Austrian cherry and pear schnapps, Italian grappa and this spirit, made in the style of French calvados. It’s distilled from apples and aged for about a year in a combination of toasted and charred American oak barrels. There’s a subtle oakiness behind an assertive apple flavor that makes it a wonderful digestif.
TREE SPIRITS PEAR BRANDY ($45)
Maine’s Tree Spirits is perhaps the most New England of all the world’s booze brands, making both wine and spirits from local apples, pears and yes, maple syrup. The distillery’s pear brandy is the best of the bunch, offering juicy-pear ripeness but with the sometimes-harsh edge of unaged brandy smoothed off by a short time in oak.
LAIRD’S BLENDED APPLEJACK ($22)
No story on American brandy would be complete without Laird’s, the oldest extant distillery in the country. It traces its history all the way back to 1697, supplied brandy to George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War and was granted the fledgling United States’ very first distilling permit in 1780. Its flagship spirit is applejack, a lightly aged apple brandy that’s an American original and very cocktail-friendly. Laird’s version is actually a blend of spirits made from apples and from grain, so it shares some flavor notes with both whiskey and brandy. Try it in an American Trilogy, a modern-classic Old Fashioned riff made with sugar, orange bitters and equal parts applejack and rye.