Bourbon might be America’s native spirit, but fruit brandy is right up there with rum as the pioneering distillate of the land. At first, brandy was a purely coastal production. It started in the east with some of the first European settlers, who, in the traditions of their homeland, began making pot-still brandy from local fruits – grapes, pears, apples, peaches, berries, etc. On the west coast, grape brandy was distilled at Catholic missions where it was made for sacramental purposes, but of course, other uses were found. Colonial era fruit brandy tended to be kept in earthen jugs since consumption was fairly immediate, though for longer term storage, oak barrels were put into use. As drink historians, such as Renae Price and Michael Veach will tell you, the inspiration to age American whiskey in barrels came from brandy.
One of the earliest American brandy success stories is Laird’s, whose applejack has been marketed commercially since 1780 and continues to be a bartender go-to for cocktails. Brandy became a valued commodity, along with whiskey, for trade. However, brandy was part of the 1791 Whiskey Act, which imposed heavy taxes on all distilled products in an effort to regain funds lost in the American Revolution (it’s amazing no one besides Aaron Burr shot treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton any sooner). This didn’t sit too well with farmers, who were using their distilled spirits as currency, many of whom had already been through the whole taxation without representation scenario before. The most dangerous job in America in the 1790s? Excise collector. Militias were called in. Political parties were formed. With so much violence in its wake, the tax was finally put to rest by Hamilton opponent, Thomas Jefferson, in 1802. One might say he is also responsible for the Pacific Northwest fruit brandy industry, lead by settlers there as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
Fruit brandy is now produced all over the U.S., with much variety and expression. Informed and inspired by generations of European brandy producers, American brandy distillers are releasing spirits using regional fruits, and in some cases, some very funky barrel aging techniques.
Some to look out for:
Copper & Kings– This maverick Louisville operation is planted boldly in the midst of bourbon land, but instead of competing with the local spirit, founder Joe Heron went the brandy route. The operation is very rock and roll, and a music mix that changes daily is played to the barrels. They produce both grape and apple brandies and have tinkered with a variety of cask aging techniques. They primarily use bourbon barrels, for obvious reasons, but they have also played with beer finishes in collaboration with local breweries. One of the latest ventures is 3 Marlenas, an apple brandy finished in ex-tequila barrels. The remnants of the agave spirit draw out the apple-ness of the brandy beautifully, with a creamy, slightly smoky finish.
Osocalis – This Santa Cruz brand was founded by brandy distiller extraordinaire Daniel Farber and winemaker Jeff Emery, who set out to make American brandy in the classic Cognac tradition using a small, alambic Charentais still. The twist here is that in Cognac, only a couple of grape varietals can be used in production, but here they have the freedom to incorporate a mix of locally grown Cally grapes (colombard, pinot noir, riesling, grenache, semillon and others). The Rare Alambic showcases their old-world-meets-new techniques in a richly flavored, well-structured eau de vie, though for an extra special treat go for the nuanced XO.
Leopold Bros. – Todd and Erich Leopold are doing exciting things out in Denver. Dedicated to research and authenticity, brandy is really just a fraction of their impressive production, used as a base for their fruit liqueurs. They have a multitude of offerings, including gins, bitter liqueurs such as aperitivo and amaro, and make one of the only lines of fruit flavored whiskeys (made with real peaches, apples and berries) that one can proudly sip in public. Their Maraschino liqueur uses their own distillates from Marasca and tart Montmorency cherries artfully blended together with honey for sweetness. And the Montmorencies are the main attraction of their delectable Tart Cherry liqueur.
Clear Creek – Steve McCarthy founded this distillery just outside of Portland in the mid-80s when the concept of orchard-to-glass was not practiced much outside private home distilleries. They use local orchard fruits to make a variety of brandies, as well as a cool Douglas Fir liqueur, which finds its piney way into many cocktails around the country. Here they take cues from European counterparts very seriously. Their aged brandies, especially the 8 year old Reserve Apple Brandy made from Yakima Valley fruit could rival any Calvados. But the real show-stopper is the unaged Pear-In-The-Bottle eau de vie, a digestif (pictured below) that starts in their own Bartlett pear orchard, where the pears grow right in the bottles on the tree branches, as they do in the old country.
St. George Spirits – Coming up around the same time as Clear Creek, this distillery was founded by Jörg Rupf, who saw parallels between the natural crops of the Bay Area and those of the Black Forest in his native Germany. Using a Holstein pot still, he began making eau de vie from these fruits, as well as becoming one of the first to produce a craft American single malt whiskey, an array of gins, absinthe and now even a version of rhum agricole. While St. George does a terrific job with its apple and pear brandy, the unaged Raspberry Brandy is a unique spirit that really smells and tastes of ripe summer berries with just the right spark of dry heat in the finish you won’t find in a sweeter liqueur.
Tree Spirits – It all started with wine. Bruce Olson began making wines in the mid 1990s from two of Maine’s biggest commodities – apples and maple syrup – and found a thirsty audience. From there he set his dial to eau de vie. Since 2012, he has worked with partner Karen Heck on honing their brandy craft. Their lightly aged Applejack is a crisp spirit that won silver in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.