American Brandy: Bourbon's "More Sophisticated Older Sister"

(L-R) Price and Veach
(L-R) Price and Veach

Attention bourbon enthusiasts: American brandy not only came first, but inspired whiskey makers to barrel-age their distilled spirits.

So reported bourbon historian Michael Veach and research partner Renae Price at an exclusive presentation at Copper & Kings American Brandy Company in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday, Sept. 16. Based on research they conducted to begin extensively revealing the history of the once-universal fruit spirit, brandy started it all in America.

photo by Kevin Gibson
photo by Kevin Gibson

“American brandy is the original craft distilling,” Veach told a gathering of 75 to 100 distilling professionals and media that included traditional brandy cocktails as a backdrop. He added that brandy production gave whiskey distillers the idea to age bourbon in charred barrels to enhance flavor profiles.

“Brandy is the inspiration for bourbon,” he said.

The reason, he said, was that hundreds of years ago, a pair of French whiskey makers who settled in Louisville looking to increase trading with New Orleans began barrel aging their spirits to make them taste more like brandy, which was the predominant spirit in The Big Easy at the time.

Veach and Price presented an hour-long history of brandy with Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, talking about brandy’s history on the east coast, with Price handling the west coast portion. For her part, Price referred to brandy as “bourbon’s older, more sophisticated sister.”

Brandy distilling goes back to the 1600s, with the first production dating to 1640 on Staten Island (likely an apple brandy). This is eight years before the first rye whiskey was produced and more than a century before the first documented bourbon, according to the pair’s research.

By the time of the American Revolution, brandy had replaced rum as the favorite colonial spirit. And by the time Lewis and Clark began westward exploration, brandy had established a stronghold.

“It is listed in their manifest that they were traveling with brandy,” Price noted, adding that Lewis particularly liked peach brandy.

Years later, the Civil War would interrupt brandy production in the south; meanwhile, bourbon was beginning to take hold. Nevertheless, many bourbon distillers still listed brandy in their distilling portfolios. By the late 19th Century, even in Kentucky’s bourbon country, some 300 distillers were still producing brandy. The number was the same in Georgia, which primarily produced peach brandy.

Brandy continued its popularity in the northeast as well, and grape brandy thrived in California as both a local spirit and an export.

courtesy Copper & Kings
courtesy Copper & Kings

By 1901, a Kentucky distiller named Thomas J. Batman had become known as “The King of Brandy,” as he was buying up small batch brandy from distilleries around the state and in southern Indiana, and reselling it. It wasn’t until Prohibition that brandy began to falter. Even then, six large distilleries – most in Kentucky, including Brown Forman – were licensed to produce brandy for medicinal purposes.

On the west coast, just prior to Prohibition, things were going just as well.

“It was a great time to be a brandy producer,” Price said. In fact, brandy distiller Leland Stanford founded what is now Stanford University in California around this time. But when Prohibition hit, the wine growers were devastated – vineyards wilted and died, killing the brandy (and wine) production on the west coast in the process.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the market had changed, as had alcohol laws. Product guidelines had changed so that a neutral spirit could be flavored with fruit and sold as brandy. Re-starting vineyards was costly. For decades, brandy fell behind production of beer and other spirits.

Fast forward 50 years, and craft distilling of brandy began. In fact, brandy was making its comeback before the now-dominant craft bourbon and beer began to gain momentum. There are now about 100 craft brandy distilleries in the U.S., including Copper & Kings, and both Price and Veach believe we are in the beginning of a resurgence of the spirit’s popularity. More research will be conducted to help American spirits lovers embrace brandy’s heritage.

“This is the beginning,” Price said of the growing appreciation of brandy and its history. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Veach added.

brandy rests at Copper & Kings, photo by Shirer Burkett
brandy rests at Copper & Kings, photo by Shirer Burkett

The purpose of sponsoring the presentation was to help American brandy become more recognized in a culture where legacy is so important, according to Copper & Kings owner Joe Heron.

“One of the challenges and opportunities that we’ve seen is that when you look at distilled spirits in the United States, there are a lot of historical credentials in the category,” Heron said. “There’s the provenance of a person in Evan Williams or the provenance of a place like Woodford Reserve. If you look at brandy, which in many ways is the original

craft spirit of America, very little has been written about it and very little has been written about it with authority. We thought it would be an opportunity for us to get Mike Veach to come in and start telling this story from an archival sense.”

Heron envisions brandy “standing on equal footing with Kentucky bourbon,” which is what inspired the research. As a producer, Heron has taken an interest in the spirit’s history. The presentation was packed with competitors as well as media, and was not open to the public. It was strictly an educational endeavor, he stressed.

“This is not a Copper & Kings research project,” he said. “This is an American brandy research project.”