Of all the spirits, brandies are the broadest category. Whether enlivened by fruit, macerated with botanicals or aged in traditional oak casks there are endless variations. But all share a common birth: Grape or fruit wine is carefully heated in a still, the alcohol rises into a chilled pipe, condenses and drips out as a pure, tasteless spirit. From there, flavors are up to the creator.
Yet for all their drinkability and fascinating diversity, brandies have suffered from a frumpy reputation until recently. The current craze for historical drinks and retro-style “speakeasies” are prompting mixologist to dust off old concoctions, like the Sidecar, and shake up new versions. For one, apple brandy, a quintessential American spirit, is making its way into rustic-style drinks that are getting applause from the cocktail crowd. The US, Spain and elsewhere offer many more excellent examples in countless regional styles quickly evolving this spirit.
But while fashion is fun, there is nothing like a classic. The world’s top brandies include the Armagnacs, twice-distilled Cognacs and the pear-and apple-based Calvados—all from France. Cognac and Armagnac adhere to a strict grading system. For example, V.S.O.P. means “very superior old pale” and denotes a spirit aged at least four years in a cask. True aficionados enjoy them unadulterated, properly warmed in a large globe of glass and drunk with much swirling and nosing of the fumes.
A change in government oversight is also helping the industry. Distilling has long been tightly regulated in the US, but laws have relaxed in a bid to promote the agricultural economy through value-added products of the popular, alcoholic kind. Here in apple- and grape- growing New York State, exciting new brandies are springing forth from distillers like the Black Dirt Distillery in Warwick Valley, about an hour northwest of Manhattan. Their Apple Jack is a current darling of the foodie crowd and trendy bars everywhere.
One Long Island winemaker dedicated to the craft is David Page, co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards, a biodynamic winery on the North Fork. Five years ago, he shipped a 400-liter, hand-made copper still over from Portugal and set about learning to use it. One of Page’s many creations is Eau de Vie. The young brandy offers aromas of cherry and honeysuckle and has a pink hue from brief aging in barrels that formerly held cabernet franc wine. His Julius Drover Craft Distilled Alambic Brandy is refined from chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc wine and has nuances of cinnamon, spice and a hint of delicate rose petals on the nose. It’s named for Page’s grandfather, a Wisconsin farmer of field crops and “whiskey farmer” (a.k.a. distiller during Prohibition).
A full glass by a fiery hearth with good company is a worthy way to chase away the chill and experience this tipple that embodies modern appeal, a prestigious legacy and also a spirited bootlegging past