California Brandy on the Rise
By Paul Clarke
In the high church of classic mixology, where 19th century bar manuals are revered as scripture, no spirit has as venerated a reputation as brandy. Yet, despite being a reliable foundation for some of the cocktail's earliest incarnations, brandy is now scarce on bar menus, a casualty of cognac's sometimes exorbitant cost and the lackluster character of cheaper versions.
As a result, bartenders are discovering the allure of classic drinks made not with cognac but with a spirit once considered bibulous blasphemy: California brandy.
Cognacs a bit lean
"Cognacs tend to be stripped a bit more of their flavor; they're leaner, and especially the VS (grade cognacs) lack the same kind of complexity," says Scott Beattie, bar manager at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. While Beattie enjoys Cognac and Armagnac, he says some local spirits outpace their French kin in cocktails, including Germain-Robin Craft Method Brandy, made in Ukiah, which Spoonbar uses as its default, or "well" brandy. Beattie notes that Germain-Robin has floral notes and a savory component similar to those in the French options.
At places such as Spoonbar, Bar Agricole in San Francisco and Berkeley's Gather, a locavore ethic is also at play.
"We wanted to be a California pre-Prohibition-style bar. There's nothing more old school than brandy cocktails, and we live in a great brandy-producing region," says Bar Agricole owner Thad Vogler. "It made sense that we'd use the local stuff."
California had a robust brandy industry during the 19th century. Following Prohibition, some distillers began making brandy using column stills, which produced a lighter, cheaper spirit than Old World-style brandies made in pot stills. Lower-priced brands like Korbel or E&J can be found on shelves around the country.
The state's reputation for quality brandy got a big boost in the mid-1990s, when Germain-Robin's brandies won praise from critics and connoisseurs. Unlike Cognac, which is made from austere grapes like Ugni Blanc, Germain-Robin uses varietals including Pinot Noir, Colombard and Palomino, providing a greater range of options for flavor and complexity.
Spoonbar and Bourbon & Branch use Germain-Robin as their well brandy; at Bar Agricole and Gather, the default pour is a biodynamic aged brandy from Marian Farms in Fresno, made with Palomino and Thompson seedless grapes.
Other California brandies in cocktail use include Jepson Rare Alembic Brandy, made from Colombard grapes in Mendocino County; and Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, from Soquel.
More recent arrivals include the Napa-made Etude XO and Etude Alembic Pinot Noir brandies, which were released in September (though at $150 each, these are outside the range of cocktails). This fall will also probably see the release of a brandy from Old World Spirits in Belmont made from Zinfandel grapes.
Vogler says many of these brandies have flavors that make them particularly well-suited for old-school mixing. But good brandy is typically more expensive than gin or rum, resulting in a relative scarcity of brandy cocktails on bar menus.
Germain-Robin co-founder Ainsley Coale says the price of VS Cognac - the youngest and cheapest, around $30 a bottle - benefits producers such as Germain-Robin, which sells Craft Method to restaurants for around $32 a bottle.
Brandy cocktails peaked in popularity before Prohibition, and it's in drinks from this era that the spirit can really shine. Bar Agricole features a classic Bombay Cocktail, with vermouth, curacao and absinthe, while Spoonbar serves an East IndiaSidecar, a fusion of two classic drinks.
Bartenders at Gather prepare two drinks with Marian Farms brandy, a classic Sidecar and an East India (similarly named but differently styled than the Spoonbar cocktail), an adaptation of a 19th century drink made with pineapple gum syrup and fresh lime.
Beyond the Bay Area
California brandy cocktails have also migrated beyond the Bay Area. Elements, in Princeton, N.J., uses Germain-Robin for a Brandy Flip and a Vieux Carre; at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore., owner Daniel Shoemaker serves it in a Civil War-era Brandy Scaffa, flavored with green Chartreuse.
Shoemaker says the liqueur's ethereal flavormatches the rich flavor of California brandy. "It's much more robust, but still refined. It has more of an autumn note."
California brandies still account for a fraction of the spirit at top cocktail bars, but the quality is increasingly leaving an impact with drinkers.
"They're complex and they're interesting," Beattie says, "and they make for more interesting drinks."
EAST INDIA COCKTAIL
Makes 1 Drink
Sarah Bondick, bar manager at Gather in Berkeley, makes this variation of a classic cocktail using Marian Farms aged brandy and the rich flavor of pineapple gum syrup.
(We recommend you try this with Frísco)
Combine ingredients, except the garnishes, in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well until chilled; double-strain through a mesh strainer into a chilled coupe glass. Grate fresh nutmeg over the drink, and garnish with thin slice of orange zest.
- 1 1/2 oz. Frísco
- 1/2 oz. Pineapple gum syrup (see Note)
- 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
- 1/2 oz. Cointreau
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- Fresh nutmeg, for garnish
- Thin strip of orange zest, for garnish
Note: Pineapple gum syrup can be made or purchased.
Small Hand Foods is a local producer.