Warming Up to Brandy-Based Cocktails, Even After the Holidays

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.



With the holidays behind us, many people have packed up any plans for drinking brandy until next December's festivities roll around.

With a few notable exceptions (including a battery of yuletide drinks), brandy isn't high in the rotation for many cocktail drinkers, a casualty of its relatively high price (for better brands—as with any spirit, there's a bottom shelf that for most purposes is best avoided) and a robust flavor that can be a challenge for those who don't usually venture far beyond a simple vodka martini.

It wasn't always so.

The earliest guides to cocktails and mixed drinks are filled with recipes ranging from the simple Brandy Cocktail to more elaborate mixtures such as the Brandy Daisy, the Japanese Cocktail and the Brandy Crusta, and 20th century brandy cocktails including the Sidecar, the dessert-ish Brandy Alexander and the Champs Elysees. Also lending weight to brandy's street cred as a cocktail base is its role as the original spirit in the Sazerac and, possibly, the Mint Julep, drinks more commonly made with whiskey today but still quite excellent when made in this earlier form.

Cognac—the brandy made in the eponymous French region—enjoyed a bounce in popularity in the late 1990s and around the turn of the century, but recent economic woes slowed the growth of pretty much all premium spirits, cognac included.

But while the price and limited familiarity with cognac and other brandies may have blunted its popularity on cocktail menus, brandy still has a dedicated base among craft bartenders. Cognacs such as Pierre Ferrand and Hine have ardent fans at craft cocktail bars such as Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and PDT in New York.

Among Bay Area bartenders, a recent Sidecar-oriented set of experimentation revealed the earthy character of Armagnac as ideal in a mixing brandy, and other bartenders are seeking out the complexity of California brandies for their cocktail needs.

With much of the nation currently in the grip of a deep January chill, a brandy-based drink seems like a very good idea right now. I come around to brandy cocktails every winter, it seems, and this year may be no different. While partial to Brandy Crustas and Japanese Cocktails, I'm on the lookout for different drinks that showcase the spirit's inimitable flavor. Do you have any favorite brandy cocktails? And what are your favorite brands?