Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Taking a Fresh Look at California Brandy


[Flickr: mattscoggin]

Cognac and, increasingly, Armagnac are the longtime regents of brandy. But as I wrote in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, a handful of bartenders in the Bay Area and around the country are exploring the flavor potential of a once-stigmatized part of the liquor world: California brandy.

Brandy is simply distilled wine, usually aged in oak barrels, and it's no surprise that California—home to the nation's largest wine industry—has also been a longtime base for brandy distilling. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many distillers used traditional pot stills and production methods similar to those used in France, brandy's ancestral home.

Decimated by Prohibition, California distilleries slowly rebounded following repeal, but many were using column stills (which produce a lighter, "cleaner" spirit than traditional pot stills) and the resulting brandy was lighter in flavor (and, some would say, had less character and personality) than traditionally made brandies. Large-scale California brandies such as those from Korbel and E&J have pockets of enthusiasm around the country (Wisconsin, I'm looking at you) but for much of the past century, brandy from California has been an afterthought (at best) for many cognac connoisseurs.

This began to change on a large scale during the 1990s, when Ukiah-based Germain-Robin began capturing critical and commercial accolades with its spirits, which combined traditional methods of production with a New World approach to grapes. Unlike French cognacs, which are made from a relatively mild Ugni Blanc grapes, today's artisan-made California brandies draw from a wider swath of the grape spectrum, such as Pinot Noir and Columbard for Germain-Robin to Palomino and the table-variety Thompson seedless, for the brandy from Fresno-based Marian Farms.

While craft-distilled California brandies still aren't cheap, some bottlings are price competitive with entry-level cognacs, and have a richer, more robust character that's appealing to a growing number of drinkers. In the article, I mention bar owners such as Thad Vogler at Bar Agricole in San Francisco and Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon, who have chosen to feature California brandies as their default pour, because of the prominent role these spirits play in cocktails as compared to the sometimes softer, sweeter cognacs that can be found at the same price.

And the embrace of California brandy isn't only a West Coast phenomenon; at Elements in Princeton, New Jersey., bar manager Mattias Hagglund uses Germain-Robin's brandy in an egg-rich Brandy Flip, among other drinks.

Craft-distilled California brandy makes up a tiny percentage of the overall brandy market, but there are some surprisingly good spirits being made. Do you have any favorites?