American brandy is in the midst of a renaissance, led by a growing interest in craft expressions. While big names like E&J, Paul Masson, Christian Brothers, and Korbel still lead the category, craft brands from across the country have been the main catalyst for the shift. “America’s oldest spirit is new again,” says Joe Heron, co-founder and co-owner of Louisville, Kentucky-based Copper & Kings Distillery. “American brandy has become its own category, with a capital A and a capital B.” Heron notes that when Copper & Kings launched in 2014, people never talked about American brandy. “Now it’s no longer seen as inferior, but rather as a high-quality spirit that’s crafted with care and attention.”
With so much interest surrounding the production of distilled spirits these days, American brandy has much to offer, including aspects like fruit selection and cask finishing in particular. In addition, the popularity of whiskies is inspiring consumers to explore other categories. “Consumers are exploring brown spirits, so it’s natural that they’re sliding from Bourbon to brandy,” says MaryCrae Guild, brand manager for Christian Brothers. One of the oldest U.S. brandy distilleries, Christian Brothers depleted an estimated 1.17 million cases in 2018, according to Impact Databank. “Consumer interest in wine also helps, when you take into account the similarities,” Guild explains. “Brandy is almost a blending of the wine and spirits world.”
The Big Players
Leading American brandy labels see most of their success in the off-premise. E&J, Paul Masson, Christian Brothers, and Korbel accounted for an estimated total of 89% of American brandy sales last year, according to Impact Databank. Other brands finding success at retail include Leroux, Hiram Walker, and Laird’s.
“The most popular American brandies at our store continue to be led by longstanding producers like E&J, Paul Masson, and Christian Brothers,” says David Jabour, president of Austin, Texas-based Twin Liquors. At Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, Colorado, managing partner Mat Dinsmore says much of the category’s success is still price-led. The suggested retail price for E&J’s flagship VS is $12 a 750-ml., while Christian Brothers VS is $13, Korbel California Brandy is $13, and Paul Masson VS is $23.
E&J is the best-known name in American brandy, accounting for an estimated 47% of the category’s share of the U.S. market in 2019. The core E&J lineup features VS ($12), VSOP Grand Blue ($13 a 750-ml.), and XO ($15), and its flavor range—which includes Peach, Apple, and Vanilla entrants (all $12 a 750-ml.)—has been driving growth recently. Christian Brothers also taps into flavors, with a lineup that includes Apple, Honey, and Peach expressions (all $11).
Paul Ahvenainen, director of winemaking and master distiller for Korbel—whose depletions were down 3% to 260,000 cases last year, according to Impact Databank—agrees that the category is being revitalized by the interest in craft offerings, even if major growth is still a long-range prospect. “We’re seeing a shift in demographics and an interest in craft,” he says. “This will eventually energize the overall American brandy category.”
The Craft Scene
Copper & Kings is one craft producer that has gained widespread recognition since launching in 2014. “Our American brandy isn’t staid and traditional,” Heron says. “It’s modern and well-designed, and has a personality.” The distillery, which selects its grapes from California and its apples from Michigan, prides itself on partnering with companies like Kentucky Peerless Distillery and Chicago’s F.E.W. Spirits for novel barrel finishes. Copper & Kings’ most recent releases are its Northern Soul Michigan Apple brandy, aged in hard cider casks from Michigan cidery Vander Mill, and its Way Up West American brandy, aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels followed by American single malt whiskey barrels (both $65 a 750-ml.). The portfolio also includes American Apple brandy ($35), American Craft brandy ($35), American Butchertown brandy ($60), and Floodwall Apple brandy ($45), and Heron notes that pear and peach brandies are in development.
In recent years, E. & J. Gallo has made some interesting moves in the American craft brandy segment through its Argonaut and Germain-Robin labels. Argonaut’s offerings include Speculator ($38 a 750-ml.), Saloon Strength ($38, on-premise only), Fat Thumb ($50), and limited-release The Claim ($200), and Germain-Robin’s portfolio comprises the namesake flagship ($75) and the XO ($125). Argonaut distributes in California, with future expansion in the Northeast anticipated, while Germain-Robin distributes in 17 states and Washington, D.C. Both Argonaut and Germain-Robin remain at small volumes of under 5,000 cases, but Gallo’s involvement at the upscale end of the category is an investment in future growth. Customers have already proven their willingness to trade up with brandy, as with high-end California craft label Charbay, whose bottles can fetch hundreds of dollars. “We’ve seen an uptick in people talking about our brandy,” says Charbay co-owner and director of operations Jenni Karakasevic. Among its offerings, Charbay produces a 1989 brandy ($240) and a 1983 brandy ($475).
At Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York, the focus is on brandies made from fruit grown in the region, with offerings including Grape brandy ($43 a 750-ml.), Apple brandy ($28 a 375-ml.), Pear brandy ($33), and a Maplejack liqueur ($23) made with apple brandy. Brian McKenzie, president of the distillery, experiments by making grape brandies with native varietals that don’t necessarily have a major role in winemaking. “We try to experiment, and when we blend, we’re bringing components from the different varietals into something that’s well-balanced,” McKenzie says. He adds that his experience in making grappa—his Riesling grappa retails for $28 a 375-ml.—has aided him in grape brandy production.
In Alameda, California, St. George Spirits concentrates on unaged pear brandy. “With our American pear brandies we’re taking a snapshot of the way a perfect piece of fruit smells and tastes, right when it’s at the peak of its ripeness,” says master distiller Lance Winters. St. George’s flagship Pear brandy retails at $40 a 750-ml., as does its Raspberry brandy, while its higher-end California Reserve Apple brandy is $60. “Right now, our distillery smells like 40,000 pounds of ripe Barlett pears, and that’s what we want every glass of our pear brandy to smell like,” Winters says. Neversink Spirits Distillery in Port Chester, New York has a similar approach, but with a hyper-focus on apples sourced exclusively from New York. Yoni Rabino, who co-founded the distillery with partner Noah Braunstein in 2015, calls Neversink Apple brandy ($55) “an encapsulation of our values and a reflection of New York state’s apples.”
Clark County, Indiana’s Starlight Distillery launched in 2014 and is helmed by co-owner and master distiller Ted Huber—who is also head winemaker at Huber Winery, established in 1843—with a team that includes his son Christian, also a winemaker and distiller. The Hubers farm their own fruit, and their winemaking experience helps guide brandy production. “Our brandy style is uniquely us,” says Ted. “We’re not trying to copy anybody—we’re trying to show the place, the soil, and the terroir. The farm-to-table aspect is something that defines us.” Starlight Pear brandy retails for $100 a 750-ml., and the distillery’s other brandy offerings include the Private Reserve ($60), Apple brandy ($60), Peach brandy ($60), AppleJack brandy ($30), and Bottled-in-Bond Apple brandy ($50).
Distilleries are seeking to differentiate themselves as competition grows in the craft spirits sphere. “There’s no question that it’s becoming more competitive, but we have some unique advantages in that we have a lot of direct business, with around 35,000 people visiting every year and purchasing bottles,” says McKenzie of Finger Lakes. Other craft distilleries also cite a solid portion of sales coming from tourism.
Most producers welcome the uptick in new players, seeing it as an indication that the category is prospering. “It’s important for distilleries to stand out from one another, but it’s also important for us all to appreciate the ecosystem of what we’re doing, and get the word out about American brandy,” says Rabino of Neversink. “Overall, we’re really working together to get customers interested in better spirits.” Heron of Copper & King adds that “there’s enough activity to start floating the boats—the waters are rising and everybody’s floating alongside each other, and it’s actually quite fraternal.”
Success At The Bar
For a category that’s been an almost entirely off-premise play for decades, American brandy’s revival is surprisingly strong at the bar, with craft labels especially seeing success. “American brandy presents a rare opportunity to have more fruit-driven cocktails with complexity and depth,” says Starlight’s Christian Huber. “And the educational responsibility of that lies with the bar staff, who are playing with brandy and figuring out how to use it.”
Bartenders certainly seem to be the instructive force behind the spirit. “They’re our biggest allies,” Neversink’s Rabino says. “They play a big role in explaining to the public what brandy is.” Brandon Guidry, general manager of recently opened steakhouse Bull & Butterfly in Los Angeles, concurs. “Producers and distributors form relationships with beverage directors and bar managers and turn them on to the craftsmanship of the product,” he says. “And then when they believe in it, that’s when they’re going to take the opportunity to hand-sell it to guests.”
But brandy does have a deep history in the mixology community, used as the base in classic cocktails like the Sidecar and the Metropolitan. Ezra Star, mixologist at Drink in Boston, says she’s seen an increase in those types of drinks lately. “Then guests will ask for innovations based on them—taking those rounded flavors and moving them forward with more modern ingredients,” Star says. Her Tour de Luce cocktail ($14) features Laird’s Bonded apple brandy mixed with Palo Cortado Sherry, housemade kumquat liqueur, and housemade chestnut bitters. Star adds that American brandy can frequently replace other base spirits in cocktail recipes. “With grain-based alcohol like vodka and whiskey, the amount of flavor you’re able to get is so small, because grain isn’t so complex,” she says. “But with brandy, you’re dealing with layers of fruit flavors.”
Guidry agrees. “You can take any kind of classic cocktail and swap out the base spirit with brandy, and then balance and complement those flavors by adding other ingredients that end up making a really good cocktail,” he says. His Sugar Plum Sloe Dance ($14) features a base of Christian Brothers Sacred Bond brandy mixed with Pür Spirits Blackthorn sloe gin, Giffard Cassis Noir de Bourgogne, house-made ginger syrup, lime juice, club soda, and Bittermens Buckspice Ginger bitters.
While craft brandies are seeing more success on-premise, they do have some representation in beverage alcohol stores. Alicia Viliard, spirits specialist at Jewett’s Liquor in Cañon City, Colorado, notes that craft brandies may not “fly off the shelf,” but customers are increasingly seeking out offerings such as Chapman Apple brandy ($50 a 750-ml.), Santa Fe Apple brandy ($46), and Spirits of the Rockies Cantaloupe brandy ($37). “People are looking for something different, and that’s when we’ll hand-sell craft brandies, educating them and giving them different options,” she says, adding that she often recommends Copper & Kings’ products to customers.
At most beverage alcohol retailers, other craft spirits tend to perform better than brandies. Chris Zaborowski, owner of Westport Whiskey & Wine in Louisville, Kentucky, says that American brandy is becoming more of a category, but is still small compared to his whiskey business. However, local options can be enticing; because of its Louisville location, Westport sees customer interest in brandies from regional entities like Copper & Kings and Starlight. The situation is similar at Wilbur’s, where Dinsmore says customers occasionally seek out brandies from Colorado distilleries like Big Fat Pastor Spirits.
Runway For Growth
American brandy has clearly grown as a category—it depleted an estimated 8.1 million 9-liter cases in 2019, up 1% from the previous year, according to Impact Databank—but it’s still finding its place in the market. “People are learning how to appreciate its complexity, so the category will have its day at some point,” says Finger Lakes’ McKenzie.
With interest in craft spirits continuing to rise, new American brandy has runway for growth. “I think we’re going to see more exciting, experimental, and edgy brandies coming out and finding success,” says Wilbur’s Dinsmore. “This is the most adventurous food and beverage era in American history,” adds Heron. “Everybody wants to feel like they’re an individual rather than part of the herd, and American brandy gives them that opportunity.”