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You may know brandy by one of its international names: Cognac, pisco, eau-de-vie, Armagnac. “But few know America was distilling brandy hundreds of years before whiskey. It’s America’s original spirit,” says Leandro DiMonriva of Hollywood's The Educated Barfly. “It’s a versatile spirit with a deep history in cocktails—from classics to tiki and everywhere in between.”
Today’s bottles are just as diverse, from those that are great for mixing brandy cocktails to those flavored with foraged berries. Here, the best of the bunch.
Though this California brandy is relatively new to the market, its story pays homage to America’s brandy heritage—even the name “Fat Thumb” refers to the Gold Rush tradition of paying for drinks with a pinch of gold dust. “California has a deep history with grape brandy, going back to the Spanish Missions starting in the 1630s,” describes DiMonriva.
Argonaut’s blend is made from a blend of eight different pot and Coffey still brandies ranging from two to 16 years in age, all left to rest in old bourbon oak barrels. It sips with a rich mouthfeel and gives off caramelized pear, toasted oak, nutmeg, and vanilla notes.
“Honestly I'm a cocktail guy so I apply this brandy to cocktails of all different types from tiki, to classics, modern classics, and of course, my own creations!” says DiMonriva, “That's not to say I won't pour out a finger or two and just drink it neat—it’s the perfect nightcap.”
While brandy is produced all over the world, those labeled Cognac are made only in the Cognac region of France. “Ferrand Cognac is a line of Cognacs that are all distilled exclusively from Grande Champagne grapes, also known as Premier Cru of the Cognac vineyards,” describes Guillaume Lamy, vice president of Maison Ferrand. “It is a chateau-to-bottle Cognac in that every step of production—from tending to the vineyard, making the wine, distilling the wine, aging the ‘eau de vie,’ blending them together, bottling the result of such marriage—is carefully controlled. This creates a small-batch, exceptional Cognac.”
With ripe pear and delicate floral notes, Ferrand Cognac does an excellent job of showcasing the quality of the grape in the spirit—it’s bottled at a hot 45 percent for a bold flavor that performs well in cocktails and on its own.
“Back in the 19th century, Cognac was more popular than whisky today. It was the key ingredient in a third of all cocktails and commonly sipped with seltzer in French cafes and on the menu of every fine restaurant.” — Guillaume Lamy, vice president of Maison Ferrand
Of course, you don't have to shell out a fortune for a good bottle of brandy. “For cocktail purposes, Fundador is my favorite right now,” says Jason Allmond, Bar manager at The Broughton Common in Savannah. “It's a really subtle brandy that is perfect for mixing in drinks.” The liquid is steeped in history—Fundador is known as the first Brandy of Jerez. The recipe, now made by Pedro Domecq at one of the oldest bodegas (distilleries) in the famed region, dates back to the 1730s.
It’s a strong, smooth brandy with a hint of sweetness, aged in sherry casks to give the spirit a reddish-golden hue. “This is a super nutty brandy with a round mouthfeel," Allmond says. "I’m currently using it in my improved Chatham Artillery Punch. It lends itself to that application perfectly with the lemon notes and other flavors.”
“What's not to like about a classically produced American brandy with all the backbone and depth we see in Cognac?” asks Shawn Lickliter, bar director for LA's Republique and Petty Cash. Though this brand is California-based, it has a strong French heritage: Germain-Robin was born when Ansley Coale picked up Hubert Germain-Robin, a Cognac distiller hitchhiking through California.
The duo makes brandy from California-grown Colombard grapes distilled in Prulho Charentais pot stills and aged in Limousin oak barrels for seven years.
“Germain-Robin is allowing me to dive into what terroir and quality of California's wine region offers,” says Lickliter. Expect a caramel and toffee on the palate, with a luscious mouthfeel and a subtle fruity finish.
“I like brandy neat in a nosing glass at slightly less than room temperature. Drinking brandy is an experience that should be savored. I'll sit with a glass for time on end to see how it develops. Almost every occasion I'll find something new and interesting that I didn't recognize before.” — Shawn Lickliter, Bar Director for Republique and Petty Cash
Western Grace Brandy comes from La Mancha, Spain, where brandy grapes have grown and been harvested since the 13th century. “Western Grace brandy is a spirit that travels the world before it lands in America, picking up flavor notes at each stop,” says Ellen Talbot, lead bartender at Nashville’s Fable Lounge. “It’s produced in Spain and solera-aged in American oak barrels, then finished in sherry casks. It then travels to Mexico where aged tequila staves are introduced into the juice, bringing out oak, vanilla, and caramel notes.”
Finally, the spirit is bottled and distributed in the United States. “It’s a roller coaster of emotions and culture in each sip,” says Talbot. Western Grace is made with Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo grapes. It drinks with complex, full-flavored notes of oak, grape, walnut, and pear.
“BERTOUX is nice and clean, easily sippable, and has these nutty and honey notes that make a perfect end to an evening,” says Allmond. Understandable considering the bottle’s provenance: The blend was crafted with insight from PDT’s Jeff Bell and The NoMad’s sommelier Thomas Pastuszak.
As such, BERTOUX is designed to stand up well in cocktails, from classic brandy drinks (like sidecars, brandy Alexanders, or the Vieux Carre) to more modern creations—even the name is a nod to Jean Bertoux, the inventor of the sidecar. The American-made brandy is composed of a blend of three- to seven-year-old pot-distilled brandies aged in French and American oak. Sip it on the rocks, or use it as an excuse to stir up some classic cocktails—perhaps a sidecar?
"I love turning whiskey drinkers on to brandy. It seems like the next evolution for someone looking to expand their palate away from grain spirits. Brandies can be rough and rugged or they can be soft and elegant. The joy is discovering which personality will be in your glass.” — Shawn Lickliter, bar director for Republique and Petty Cash
“St. George Raspberry Brandy is one of my favorites,” says McLain Hedges of the James Beard-nominated Morin and RiNo Yacht Club in Denver. “While it has a fresh, pungent raspberry flavor, it also has aromatics that remind you of rhum agricole. There’s a complex, vegetal side that’s absolutely intoxicating—think bright red berries and funk.”
Each bottle is crafted with raspberries so ripe and lush “you could find them in the dark.” The brandies are unaged and made in a pot still with no added sugars or flavorings. At a bold 40 percent alcohol, the raspberry brandy has an incredible perfume of bright, rich, ripe fruit.
“In cocktails, it adds unbelievable depth. We love to use this as a daiquiri base instead of rum, along with lime juice and simple syrup because it shows off the flavors. Plus, the spirits producer is also up for a James Beard this year!”
Bolivians have been making singani 6,000 feet up in the Andes for over 500 years. Recently, the brand entered the mainstream when director Steven Soderbergh tried a sip of the spirit when filming Che. He was enthralled and brought Singani 63 around the world.
Bartenders are equally as hooked. “It's floral and herbaceous,” describes Maya Wilson, of the James Beard-nominated Wolf’s Tailor in Denver. “It's a very unique spirit both for sipping and for cocktails!” Made with Muscat of Alexandria grapes, the clear spirit has a subtle floral sweetness. Try it out on its own, or sub it for white rum in a range of cocktails.
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Kate Dingwall is a sommelier and spirits writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for five years and has her BarSmarts and WSET certification. Sidecars, sazeracs, you name it—she loves a brandy cocktail.