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American Brandy Is Surging, Even in Whiskey Country

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Though overshadowed by the bourbon boom, domestic brandy has a growing appeal. Adventurous young consumers, weaned on craft whiskey and beer, are eager to try something new. Bartenders love it because many classic cocktail recipes call for brandy, and new American expressions like Copper & Kings emphasize flavor and power over the more subtle notes found in Old World brandies like Cognac.

“It’s fruit forward, and it packs a punch,” said Julia Momose, a cocktail consultant and former bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago.

Distilleries like Copper & Kings are opening, while older, more established producers like Germain-Robin and Osocalis Distillery, both in California, and Starlight Distillery in Indiana are finding a sudden uptick in interest.

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Joe Heron, owner of Copper & Kings American Brandy Company, at his distillery in Louisville, Ky. He is aiming to reorient the brandy category toward younger, hipper audiences. Credit Aaron Borton for The New York Times

Producers of other craft spirits, like Corsair Distillery in Tennessee and Finger Lakes Distilling in New York State are expanding into brandy. Even mass-market heavyweights like Christian Brothers Brandy and E&J Brandy are polishing their images in response to renewed interest: Christian Brothers, owned by Heaven Hill Distilleries, recently revamped its packaging, while this week Gallo, which owns E&J, already the best-selling brandy in the country, announced a new, premium brandy line called Argonaut, along with the reactivation of 20 traditional Cognac stills.

“It feels like it’s the right moment, when people are ready to try something new and different but that they’re still familiar with,” said Chip Tate, the founder and former owner of Balcones Distilling, a whiskey maker in Waco, Tex., who is now distilling and aging brandy in a new venture called Tate & Company Distillery.

Broadly speaking, brandy is simply fermented, distilled fruit juice, and any fruit will do. Until Prohibition, apple, peach and pear brandies were some of the most popular drinks in America, though hundreds of distilleries made grape brandy (essentially, distilled wine) as well. Since then, American brandy has been dominated, and defined, by a few brands — Christian Brothers, E&J, Korbel — and their thick, super-sweet style.

Perhaps the most famous brandy isn’t American at all: Cognac, which must be distilled and aged in the Cognac region of France. (Armagnac, another kind of French brandy, is made in Gascony.) Cognac producers follow strict rules, including a limited choice of varietals — primarily ugni blanc, a mild grape also known as trebbiano.

American brandy faces none of those constraints. That freedom is drawing craft distillers who feel crowded out of the whiskey market and, at the same time, see an opportunity to remake American brandy as something other than a syrupy-sweet concoction.

“Brandy is the Wild West of American spirits,” said Marko Karakasevic, the co-owner of Charbay Distillery in the Napa Valley, whose family has been making brandy and other spirits since the late 18th century in Serbia.

If there is a single definition of American brandy, it is a style built around robust flavors, in contrast to the muted elegance of Cognac.

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The stills at Copper & Kings are named after women in Bob Dylan songs: Isis, Magdalena and Sara. Credit Aaron Borton for The New York Times

“In Cognac, the soil is dominant, and they use a neutral grape, so all the character comes from the soil,” said Hubert Germain-Robin, widely considered the godfather of modern American brandy. He grew up in an old Cognac-producing family in France, but as a young man, he took his skills to California. There, in 1982, he helped found the Germain-Robin distillery, where he turned out a series of cult-favorite brandies (coveted by, among others, Ronald Reagan).

“Especially on the West Coast,” Mr. Germain-Robin said, “the fruit is very dominant.”

There are two clear camps among American brandy distillers: the innovators and the traditionalists.

Mr. Heron, of Copper & Kings, is an innovator, aiming to reorient the category toward younger, hipper audiences. His email signature reads “Brandy Rocks.” His three stills are named Isis, Magdalena and Sara, after women in Bob Dylan songs. And he trades barrels with some of the country’s leading craft breweries, like Jack’s Abby in Massachusetts and 3 Floyds Brewing Company in Indiana, for aging, infusing his brandies with malty, hoppy undertones.

“We don’t play by the old rules,” Mr. Heron said. “We’re looking for the finesse of a brandy with the muscle of a whiskey.”

Mr. Tate, 42, of Tate & Company in Texas, takes a similar approach. A self-taught coppersmith, he makes his own stills, with added features to personalize his brandy. (In fact, he earns extra money building stills for other companies.) And he embraces locally grown grapes; for the moment, his favorite is zinfandel, a choice unheard-of, let alone legal, in France.

“I don’t want to use the term irreverence, but distilling is inherently an artistic endeavor,” Mr. Tate said, adding, “We just step out and try something new,” and hope that it won’t disappoint.

A much different story is being told in California by a geophysicist-turned-distiller named Daniel Farber. An erudite former New Yorker and former professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Mr. Farber, 54, took up distilling as a hobby in the 1980s, though he didn’t start selling brandy, under the Osocalis label, until 2002. Even today, he makes just two expressions, Rare and XO (along with an apple brandy), and he recently planted his own vineyards.

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Mr. Farber, in the barrel aging room of his distillery, uses French-built Charentais stills and ages his brandy exclusively in French oak. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

If Copper & Kings is punk rock, Osocalis is classical. Mr. Farber uses French-built Charentais stills, the same as Cognac makers, and he ages his brandy exclusively in French oak. For him, a good American brandy is a matter of interpretation and translation: taking Old World techniques and figuring out how they work in New World soils and climates, with New World grapes.

“I really love Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados,” he said, referring to a French style of apple brandy. “So for me it’s really about understanding the quality factors of traditional brandy and trying to obtain these qualities with the fruit, climate and soils we have in California.”

If there is any hesitation about American brandy, particularly among old-timers, it’s that they have seen this excitement before.

Many people thought American brandy would break through in the 1980s, and in 1982, the French spirits giant Rémy Martin opened a dedicated brandy subsidiary, RMS, in Carneros, Calif. But production was delayed, and when the bottles finally appeared, they fizzled in the stores. RMS shut down in 2002, selling its stills to academic departments and start-ups around the country.

But there is reason to believe this time is different. In the ’80s, the liquor market hadn’t been primed by a decade of rapid growth in brown spirits and craft distilling. Palates hadn’t been trained for the nuances of a complex domestic spirit. And brandy, though always a solid sell in regional markets, was just a blip in the spirits business, compared with where it is today.

It is also increasingly popular with bartenders. Many popular classic cocktail recipes, like the Sidecar, call for brandy, but Cognac is expensive, and many American brands are too sweet. The new generation of craft brandies solves both problems.

“Sometimes I get more out of an American brandy because it doesn’t have all the restrictions, so you get more and different flavors,” said Christopher Marty, an owner and bartender at Best Intentions in Chicago.

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A lineup of brandies at Osocalis Distillery. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The truly exciting thing about American brandy, though, is the range of variables — grape variety, yeast, soil, barrel, climate — that can combine to produce a vast range of styles.

“It’s still in the infancy of American brandy,” Mr. Germain-Robin said. “It has so much potential. If people are distilling in the Finger Lakes or Virginia, we’re going to have many varieties. It’s unbelievable what we’re going to be able to do over time.”

A Few American Standouts

American brandies are nowhere near as well known as their French cousins. Here are some bottles that offer a good introduction.

OSOCALIS RARE ALAMBIC BRANDY, Soquel, Calif., 80 proof, $45

A blend of varietals with a heavy dose of pinot noir, sémillon and colombard, aged for about six years. Citrus and spice notes dominate.

COPPER & KINGS BUTCHERTOWN BRANDY, Louisville, Ky., 124 proof, $55

A monster spirit drawn from a wide variety of grapes, bottled at cask strength and redolent of dark fruits and caramel.

CATOCTIN CREEK 1757 VIRGINIA BRAND, Purcellville, Va., 80 proof, $50

Made from a blend of Virginia-grown grapes and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels, it is the most whiskeylike of the bunch, with notes of vanilla, spices and stewed cherries.

FINGER LAKES DISTILLING GRAPE BRANDY, Burdett, N.Y., 90 proof, $45

Made from upstate New York grapes and aged in used American oak barrels, with hints of vanilla, stone fruits and raisins.

CHARBAY BRANDY NO. 89, St. Helena, Calif., 92 proof, $250

One of the oldest, and priciest, American brandies, No. 89 — named for 1989, the year it was distilled — is made from pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. It offers notes of banana, toasted coconut and cloves.

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