While the best bartenders know that brandy is a gift when it comes to cocktails — especially in this season’s greatest hits, from sidecars to nog — it’s still rare to spot a tasting flight of brandy on the list at a bar with a great spirits library. Cognac gets all the glory; spirit geeks talk up Armagnac. Brandy, on the other hand, is a little bit service-y, as it has a bit of an image problem. An American marketing company, Rabobank, even described the space between brandy and cognac as an “image gap” that spans from “boring to bling.”
But brandy’s fortunes may be starting to turn. While other categories have faced challenges in recent years, French brandy has experienced growth, with sales of the spirit expected to pick up in the next three years. Part of the reason for this may be that one major brand, St-Rémy, has redoubled its efforts to capture a younger audience by offering twists on the classic spirit, such as experimental cask-aged limited releases.
St-Rémy’s master blender, Cécile Roudaut, is leading these efforts with a series that has seen brandy aged in casks formerly used to age liquids such as port, rum, and, as of this year, Calvados. It’s something of a reprise for brandy, a spirit that began as a medicine eight centuries ago, but managed to reinvent itself with the advent of marine trade as a leisure drink with a global reach. For a couple of hundred years, it was the pinnacle of classy drinking until it was eclipsed by whisky and, of course, cognac — a regional variation of brandy heavily invested in terroir.
Interestingly, though, French brandy still outsells cognac (by a lot) at home. The “bling” is, primarily, an export only evident in Chinese and American markets. So, if you really want to drink like the French, brandy’s the ticket.
This fall, when St-Rémy launched its Calvados cask–finished expression — with all the usual dried fruit, vanilla, and caramel notes, but also a distinct hit of apple pie — Roudaut surprised many by announcing the end of the experimental aging series. It’s a high note to go out on, but one that begs the question: if so successful, why end it? There are, after all, plenty of spirits left to play with, including whisky, tequila, and even mezcal.
“I have other ideas and I want to explore other innovations,” explains Roudaut, hinting at future plans. “There are different types of distillation and many different eaux-de-vie from special regions that I can distill, age, and blend in ways that are innovative.”
But Roudaut knows that rebranding brandy, despite the fact that it has plenty of unique flavours to offer, will be an uphill battle. One reason for this is that the spirit is too loosely regulated and, while many products around the world are labelled as brandy, they’re made with distillates such as cane spirit that have never been within a mile of a grape. For the category to really blossom, says Roudaut, such practices have to end.
“We want to move in the direction of transparency,” says the master blender, “which is all about giving the consumer lots of information about the blend inside the bottle. We need regulation and rules about what you can put on the label. But this, I think, will come.”
Three Brandies To Try
St-Rémy Brandy Finished in Calvados Casks
The final release in St-Rémy’s experimental aging series is a marriage of two great French traditions — Calvados and brandy. It’s rich and fruity, with hints of nutmeg and almonds that make it an after-dinner hit. ($52)
JP. Chenet Brandy XO
Known for decades for its still and sparkling wines, JP. Chenet started making brandy relatively recently with grapes grown in Cognac and the South of France. This XO is ideal for a crowd–pleasing French 75. ($35)
Montenegro Vecchia Romagna Nera Black Label Brandy
Not all great brandy comes from France. With more than two centuries of history, this northern Italian producer may be best known for its distinctly shaped bottle, but should also be recognized for its use of the classic Trebbiano grape. ($35)
Feature photo courtesy of St. Rémy.