Compared to every other major spirits segment, American brandy is significantly behind in 9-liter case depletions and has continued to see those depletions chip away each year since a high of 7.5 million cases in 2015, according to Impact Databank. Despite most brands experiencing slight but steady losses over the last several years, the top players have held onto their market share. Paul Masson was the only brand in the top five to post gains in 2022, up 7.3% to 2.15 million cases. Category leader E. & J. slipped 3.8% to 2.5 million cases, while No. 3 Christian Brothers was down 3% to 1.2 million cases, and No. 4 Korbel fell 4.7% to 260,000 cases.
For Christian Brothers owner Heaven Hill, the current strategy is along the lines of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” according to senior brand manager MaryCrae Brotzge. “We’re currently focused on maintaining the brand’s positioning in both on-premise and off-premise locations, with an eye toward reaching our core customer base through similar marketing strategies that have proven successful in years past,” she says. “Brand familiarity helps greatly in a competitive market—consumers are drawn to the brands on shelves they’ve known for decades.”
The strategy is similar for Korbel brandy, where president and owner Gary Heck says the brand has intentionally continued its core campaign and product lineup over the last year, pointing out that consumers are looking for products they know and trust. Further, Korbel focuses its marketing efforts on the states that most enjoy the brand, most notably Wisconsin, which accounts for half of Korbel’s brandy sales because of the popularity of the Brandy Old Fashioned cocktail. “With that in mind, we recently launched a new campaign for Korbel brandy, ‘What Up North Tastes Like,’ and we’re now the official brandy of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned,” he says. “This Northern-focused campaign helps solidify our position in the marketplace and focuses our efforts where consumers are most engaged with our brand.”
At Pascale’s Liquor Square in Syracuse, New York, Korbel is the best-selling American brandy ($16 a 1-liter), followed by Christian Brothers ($12), Paul Masson ($23 a l.75-liter), and E. & J. ($23). The store carries ten different brands that in total account for 10% of store sales. “We find American brandy sales are about the same as in the past, though flavored brandies like E. & J. Apple and Paul Masson Peach never recovered after Covid-19,” says store manager Scott Berlew. “We see our customers returning back to basics, hence shying away from the fruit flavors that were big pre-pandemic, and now with inflation, customers are sticking with what they know.”
Meanwhile, E. & J. ($7 a 375-ml.; $12 a 750-ml.), Christian Brothers ($22 a 1.75-liter), and Paul Masson ($19) are also the top three selling American brandies at Joe’s Beverage Warehouse, which has two stores in the Chicago suburbs. “In my 17 years of experience in the beverage alcohol business, I’ve always seen the brandy customer as a value shopper,” says co-owner Ammar Sheikah. “We have a robust selection of brandy, with well over 50 different brands, but we only carry about 15 American brandies at any given time. They make up a third of total brandy sales, but aren’t even in the same hemisphere as our top categories, like Tequila and whiskey. We sell, no exaggeration, 50 times more Tequila than American brandy, and it’s the same for whiskey.”
Sheikah adds that he carries craft American brandies like Kentucky-based Copper & Kings and California-based St. George, but they’re being severely outpaced by the value brands. “That’s to be expected—craft brandy hasn’t really arrived yet,” he says. “Most people are still discovering small American whiskey and Tequila producers and the quality they bring to the table.”
Even so, small craft and artisan brandies—and even some larger players—are betting big on the category getting the same premiumization push that other spirits categories have been experiencing for years.
“I’m interested to see if Constellation Brands can turn top shelf American brandy into a real thing with Copper & Kings, and I’m also interested to see if Sazerac will shake things up now that they own Paul Masson—big corporations like them will have the resources to experiment,” Sheikah says. “We might one day see words like single barrel, barrel proof, and uncut regularly used to describe American brandy. I see no reason why that can’t happen.”
Vying For Space
Spirit of Gallo is another larger player invested in American brandy’s super-premium future with its Germain-Robin and Argonaut brands, having opened its stand-alone brandy tasting room the California Brandy House in November 2020 to focus on growing these brands. So far, it seems to be paying off.
Argonaut is marketed for cocktails, with bartenders serving as key ambassadors, and while the brand took a hit during the pandemic along with the on-premise, 2022 brought with it a rebalance, notes Britt West, vice president and general manager of Gallo’s spirits division. “Argonaut depletions were up 110% in the on-premise at the start of the third quarter of 2022, indicating to us increased cocktail utilization throughout the year,” she says. “On-premise advocacy is very important to us with Argonaut, but as a local brand we do have to get creative with our marketing tactics and areas of focus.” A few years ago, Gallo introduced a collective called “The Argonauts,” a group of top California bartenders who the company educates on the grapes-to-glass process and history of brandy in cocktails, equipping them to advocate to their guests with this knowledge.
“Germain-Robin fills a different consumption occasion, most frequently poured neat,” West adds. “Introducing three Single Barrel expressions in California, Illinois, and New York has been exciting for brandy lovers and collectors, and we’ll continue to introduce new selections as our distillers find barrels that merit being released as a single cask.” These expressions included the Single Barrel Pinot Noir Aged 19 Years, Single Barrel Viognier, and Single Barrel Riesling (each $250 a 750-ml.). After doubling growth in 2021, Germain-Robin posted modest growth through August 2022, according to West, but at press time was poised to finish 2022 strong.
“Innovation is extremely important to us, as it’s our opportunity to show off these brands and hopefully widen our audience of brandy drinkers by offering something that appeals to more consumers—which is why we’re excited to have a lot in the pipeline for both brands in the coming years,” West says. “For Argonaut, we plan to introduce our third edition of The Claim ($200 a 750-ml.) as well as our Saloon Strength expression, beloved by bartenders for its versatility in cocktails, into retail in 2023. We think the Saloon Strength, at 45.5% abv, appeals to American whiskey drinkers, and can welcome cocktail curious retail consumers into the California brandy category at a $38 price point.”
Constellation is making a bold move to claim the cocktail space in Wisconsin, where Korbel currently reigns supreme. In November the brand announced its three-year deal with the Green Bay Packers, including activation on-site at Lambeau Field, where the brandy will be available in concession and bar locations throughout the stadium, including in cocktails for $11.50. Additionally, the brand will offer brandy samples and small bites from the Copper & Kings Rooftop Bar and Restaurant. “We’re excited about this partnership and the opportunity to engage with brandy drinkers in the top U.S. brandy market, Wisconsin,” says head distiller Brandon O’Daniel. “We also hope to expand the partnership to the on- and off-premise that take it beyond the state and into other Copper & Kings markets.”
Reaching cocktail makers and fans is a key strategy for many craft American brandies. “Cocktail culture has been a key contributor to our growth—bartenders really gravitate towards the authentic, true-to-fruit flavor from our Pear brandy as it brightens their creations without adding sugar,” says Scott Schiller, CEO at St. George Spirits, which has Pear ($40 a 750-ml.), Raspberry ($40), and California Reserve Apple ($55) brandies, plus the Aqua Perfecta Basil eau de vie ($40). “While the brandies represent a relatively small base in our portfolio, we experienced an excellent 30% growth in 2022, which we expect to grow another 10% in 2023.”
David Ballew, president and CEO of Oregon-based Hood River Distillers, producer of the Clear Creek brandies line (which averages $50 a 750-ml.), has been pleased with Clear Creek’s resiliency despite being impacted by the pandemic shutdown. “Over the past two years, performance has been solid with 30% growth over that time, and stronger retail performance paired with the on-premise’s rebound have built a strong foundation for future growth,” he says. “Clear Creek was one of the first craft distilleries established in the U.S. and has produced world class fruit brandies since 1985, and it’s time for us to re-claim our birthright. We’ve used 2022 to invest in and build the foundation for that reclamation, which will hit in 2023, including a refined and refreshed package, single barrels of Old Delicious, a 12-year-old apple brandy, and the possible release of a new eau de vie. It will be a big year for Clear Creek.”
Ballew adds that while the numbers are small overall, he’s definitely seeing positive trends in super-premium American brandies. “Consumers are learning that there’s a big world of brandies outside of those value brands,” he says. “There’s interest in unique releases, diverse product offerings, and regional sourcing of raw materials. As the public becomes more curious, educated, and experienced, the potential of super-premium brandies will continue to grow and become an even more viable category.”
Ballew says that Clear Creek is increasing its marketing and sales initiatives as it launches the new packaging, and this winter they’re crushing the greatest volume of pears in the distillery’s history. “We’re placing a bet on the future of super-premium American brandy, and in particular, fruit brandy’s place in that,” he says. “We’re very bullish on the growth of Clear Creek in 2023 and beyond—we’re excited about the future.”
Julious Grant, chairman and CEO of The Brand House Group, certainly believes in super-premium brandy’s future. He’s the creator of the new American brandy label Omage, which debuted on the market in October 2021. “Omage is the result of my passion for Cognac and mission to perfect a super-premium U.S. brandy produced using the Cognac method,” he says. “I’m paying homage to French tradition, but with a California grape-forward style.”
Grant says that Omage is the first American brandy produced using the Cognac method, but with some key distinctions to produce a taste profile that differs from other American brandies on the market. Omage, which is available in VS ($26 a 750-ml.), VSOP ($36), and XO ($90), uses a blend of four grape varietals, all but one differing from the higher acidity grape varietals used in Cognac; it’s distilled using both pot and column stills, where Cognac only uses pot distillation; and it’s aged in both charred and toasted American Bourbon and French oak barrels compared to Cognac’s French oak aging, which Grant says reduces the sweetness often found in other American brandies.
“Our marketing strategy is primarily grassroots-driven, working closely with key retailers both off- and on-premise in each market,” Grant adds. “We’re focused on visibility and sampling at point of purchase and have found tremendous success when the consumer gets a chance to taste Omage.” He notes that the brand is seeing exceptional growth in markets like Tennessee, Florida, and South Carolina. “Our year-over-year growth projection for 2022-2023 is around 75%, driven by our expansion rate as we secure more retail locations every month.”
Gallo’s West notes a similarly grassroots tactic for Argonaut and Germain-Robin. “The American brandy category is very niche and with California brandy specifically, we’re working to build the category from the ground up with our colleagues,” he says. “We firmly believe that other great entrants into the market will help build this category. Whether it’s classic offerings like Osocalis and Germain-Robin, or newer entrants like BrandyLab, Omage, or our own Argonaut, we benefit from consumers discovering the spirit of the Golden State.”
Jacob Johnson, corporate beverage manager for Orlando, Florida-based Tavistock Restaurant Collection, sees potential for growth. “As a professional, brandy for me has always represented a care for a craft, so experienced bartenders love a good brandy,” he says. “Someone smart has seen the potential in what realistically represents an untapped market in American brandy. We’re seeing new companies come into the foreground in brands like Bertoux that have a heavy influence on local New York and San Francisco bartenders. As these newer marketing heavyweight American brandy companies start to increase the consumption of American brandy across the U.S. and hopefully into international territory, so too will rise the prestige of the artistic, organic, non-GMO, start-to-finish distillers of the industry, like Germain-Robin, Osocalis, and Clear Creek, and this will likely trickle down to smaller local distilleries as well.”
Johnson adds that if this ‘trickle-down effect’ sees sustained success, he believes that more distilleries, cider houses, and fruit producers will begin to produce brandy in America, or expand their brandy lines to appeal to a wider range of potential consumers. “The world of distillates is booming, and bar craftspeople around the globe are sure to love seeing American brandy hop on board,” he says.