The Rebranding of American Brandy

With whiskey in their sights, a clutch of upstart makers is reimagining what the old-fashioned grape spirit could—and should—be.

Until very recently, if you wanted an American brandy, you had a tough choice to make. You could bend low for a bottom-shelf, mass-market brand like Christian Brothers or Paul Masson. Or you could spend a few hours, and a lot of money, tracking down a bottle from one of the few California distilleries making Cognac-style brandy, like Osocalis.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you may have found yourself lately reaching a few shelves higher for a clutch of new names: Bertoux. Copper & Kings. Journeyman. Buoyed by the sustained boom in bourbon and rye, American craft distilleries are moving beyond the increasingly crowded whiskey category and turning their sights toward brandy. At the same time, establishment value brands are stepping up their game, releasing higher-quality (and higher-priced) expressions—like E & J Gallo’s Argonaut line—to capture the discerning curiosity of a new generation of drinkers.

In a way, the brandy renaissance is a return to history. Brandy made from all sorts of fruit—especially peaches and pears—was among the most popular spirits in colonial America. (According to current federal regulations, a product labeled “brandy,” by itself, is made by fermenting and distilling grape juice; brandy made from other fruit has to be specified as such.) But by the turn of the last century, as the grain industry grew and whiskey became cheap and ubiquitous, American brandy suffered, and, like rye, largely disappeared after Prohibition.

It’s ironic, then, that the resurgence in American brandy owes much to the return of American whiskey. Modern drinking culture is heterodox and curious, and even diehard whiskey fans are eager to explore other brown spirits, especially one with such close flavor and aromatic parallels. Bartenders, too, are constantly seeking new spirits with which to tweak classic cocktails. And American brandy, with its balance between fruit and wood, makes an apt agent for experimentation—swapping for whiskey in an Old-Fashioned, or sprucing up a traditional Cognac-based drink, like a Vieux Carré.

That crossover appeal, and distillers’ awareness of it, is evident in a new breed of upstart brands. Some, like Starlight, are attached to wineries; others, like Journeyman or Catoctin Creek, are distilleries already known for making whiskey and other spirits. Where an earlier generation of higher-end brandy distillers—Osocalis, Germain-Robin and Charbay, all based in California—was self-consciously European, using Old World grapes to make Old World flavors (think thick, oily rancio notes), newer brands aim for something different: more muted grape notes, more vanilla and caramel from the wood.

Bertoux, a brand developed by Jeff Bell of PDT and Thomas Pastuszak of The NoMad, could easily pass for a whiskey among unsuspecting drinkers. Copper & Kings, based in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, borrows blatantly from its whiskey-making neighbors, using charred new oak barrels and used bourbon barrels to age its spirit. And Argonaut Fat Thumb, from Gallo, offers a sweet, fruit-forward profile that can easily substitute for Cognac in a Sidecar.

A recent tasting panel at PUNCH examined 20 American brandies, old and new, to figure out where the category is headed. Here are the 10 standouts:

Argonaut Fat Thumb, E & J Gallo

Made with some of the distillery’s older stocks (33 percent is two and three years old; the remainder is nine to 16 years old), Fat Thumb smells of white chocolate, vanilla and red fruit, with a bright-fruit palate that tastes slightly artificial—think Jolly Rancher. Still, it’s a great candidate for a cocktail all-star.

  • Price: $50
  • From: Modesto, California
  • ABV: 43 percent

Argonaut Speculator, E & J Gallo

A blend of mostly three-year-old brandies with some older stock, this is part of Gallo’s effort to capture upmarket, crossover whiskey drinkers. Aromas of vanilla and loads of tropical fruit lead to a palate that is redolent of cherry candy and old wood, with a thick, creamy mouthfeel.

  • Price: $38
  • From: Modesto, California
  • ABV: 43 percent

Bertoux Fine Brandy, Bertoux Distillers

This is a brandy designed for cocktails, by two masters of the modern bar scene. It offers butterscotch and red fruit on the nose, with butterscotch on the palate, too, along with a bit of heat and a slight vegetal funk and a short, bitter finish.

  • Price: $45
  • From: Parlier, California
  • ABV: 40 percent

Charbay No. 83, Charbay Distillery

For 36 years, Charbay has been quietly producing world-renowned wine and spirits out of rural Northern California. Its No. 83 brandy, made in 1983, was among the distillery’s first ventures—and the oldest brandy on this list. Dark and somber, its nose has black tea and pencil shavings, while the palate offers more tea, dark fruit, and, toward the finish, mint.

  • Price: $475
  • From: Ukiah, California
  • ABV: 40 percent

Charbay No. 89, Charbay Distillery

Six years younger than Charbay No. 83, and significantly spryer. This has bright fruit and vanilla on the nose, with pepper and subtle fruit notes on the palate.

  • Price: $225
  • From: Ukiah, California
  • ABV: 46 percent

Copper & Kings American Brandy, Copper & Kings Distillery

Maybe the highest profile of the upstart brandy distilleries, Copper & Kings borrows heavily from its bourbon-making neighbors. Its basic release offers a funky fruit note on the nose, with flavors of toasted vanilla and black tea.

  • Price: $35
  • From: Louisville, Kentucky
  • ABV: 45 percent

Copper & Kings Butchertown Reserve, Copper & Kings Distillery

A selection of older, higher-quality casks bottled at high proof, this “reserve” expression is more like a Cognac than its younger stable mate. A bit of rancio and varnish emerge on an otherwise fruity nose, followed by a palate of salty butterscotch and dark fruit.

  • Price: $55
  • From: Louisville, Kentucky
  • ABV: 62 percent

Germain-Robin Craft Method, Germain-Robin

In 1982, Hubert Germain-Robin, a French immigrant, teamed up with a California rancher named Ansley J. Coale to open what is today America’s oldest craft brandy distillery. Mr. Germain-Robin eventually left the company, and in 2017 it was acquired by Gallo. Its flagship expression is a classic Cognac-style brandy, with fruit, wood and caramel on the nose, and baked apple, banana and spice on the palate.

  • Price: $55
  • From: Ukiah, California
  • ABV: 40 percent

Osocalis Rare Alambic, Osocalis Distillery

Dan Farber has been making European-inflected brandy at his distillery near Santa Cruz since the early 1990s. His Rare Alambic, which relies heavily on colombard, pinot noir and sémillon grapes, has a mineral, slightly briny nose, with a palate of dried mango, vanilla and a briny, savory note just this side of seaweed.

  • Price: $45
  • From: Soquel, California
  • ABV: 40 percent

Starlight Private Reserve Brandy, Starlight Distillery

Though the Huber family, which owns Starlight, has been making wine and spirits since the 19th century, its spirits are mostly sold locally. That’s too bad, because its brandy is intriguing, with a strong Cognac influence. The nose is fruit-forward, while the palate shows more wood influence.

  • Price: $50
  • From: Starlight, Indiana
  • ABV: 40 percent

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, where he writes about whiskey and the spirits industry. He is the author of Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland and American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit.