Why Bartenders—and Guests—Are Falling For Brandy

Editor’s note: As so many beverage trends begin on-premise, we occasionally cross-post content from our on-premise sister publication Cheers.

Brandy was once mostly relegated to being a sipping spirit, says Dallas bartender Christy Pope. “Now, with the cocktail renaissance, there has been a slow build to re-introduce brandy into the greater bar culture,” says Pope, who with partner Chad Solomon runs cocktail bar Midnight Rambler at the Joule in Dallas.

Pope stocks brandies from far and wide: French Cognacs and Armagnacs, California brandy and apple brandy from New Jersey, eau de vie from Oregon and Austria, and pisco and singani from South America. The best sellers at Midnight Rambler have been applejack and pisco, thanks to cocktails such as the Jack Rose and Pisco Sour. Pope is big on brandy: “Brandy is poised for its turn as the ‘new/old it’ spirit,” she says.

“Brandy will always have a place at the bar with cocktails; it is an original spirit,” says Gina Chersevani, founder and “mixtress” of Washington, D.C. bars Buffalo & Bergen and Suburbia, and the mobile drinks truck Wandering Oasis.

“Right now there is a refocus on the brandy category,” she says, “because of new brands like Christian Brothers Sacred Bond, which is doing a fantastic job of getting in front of bartenders and telling its story.” Chersevani also likes Macchu Pisco and Copper and King’s Unaged.

American Gothic

The American Gothic at Midnight Rambler in Dallas, with bonded apple brandy, bourbon, sorghum syrup, orange and Angostura bitters and orange zest.

“There are a lot of small-batch brands coming on the market,” says Juyoung Kang, a bartender at The Dorsey bar in The Venetian Las Vegas. “Apple brandy seems to be coming back and making its way into fall cocktails,” she notes.

“Today, brandy is living the American dream. Producers across the U.S. are creating outstanding new brandy varieties, uninhibited by Europe’s rigid restrictions,” says Eric Gabrynowicz, executive chef for the Asheville, NC-based Tupelo Honey chain, with 14 units in seven states.

The restaurants stock a variety of classic brandies, says the chef, but the favorite is craft producer Copper & Kings. “Thanks to local craft distillers and passionate bartenders, consumers are becoming more familiar with brandy in its current iteration,” Gabrynowicz says. “It is no longer the stuffy and traditional drink of former generations.”

While brandy is well respected among cocktail bartenders, “still it’s far from the most approachable spirit when it comes to guests,” says Harrison Peaks, a bartender at The Patterson House in Nashville.

Although the restaurant is based in bourbon country, it carries a number of brandies on the backbar, including Cognac Pierre Ferrand, Copper & Kings Immature Brandy, Laird’s Apple Brandy Bottled in Bond and two piscos—BarSol and Don Benedicto.

Devoted Focus

Just like whiskey libraries and Tequileria concepts, a few establishments have dedicated themselves to brandy, with extensive collections and innovative brandy cocktails.

At Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, “each restaurant on the property has an identity based on a spirit category,” says Craig Schoettler, MGM Resorts executive director of beverage and corporate mixologist.

For Carbone restaurant, it’s rum, at Sage it’s American whiskey, and the French restaurant, Bardot Brasserie, naturally focuses on French brandy. “At Aria, we have a lot of fun with brandy, and Bardot Brasserie is our center stage for that,” says Dan Marohnic, Aria’s property mixologist. “From soft and elegant to bold and spicy, there’s a style for everyone.”

Bardot Brasserie boasts more than 100 different brandies, including many rare bottles. A glass cabinet at the entrance displays higher-end brandies.

The list runs to more than 20 pages. Included are prestigious Cognacs like Hennessy Paradis and Hardy Perfection, says Schoettler, as well as single-vintage Armagnacs such as De Montal 1936, 1946, 1964, 1969 and 1974.

“We have a partnership with Hardy called The Thoroughbred, which is a blend of four different vintages going back to early the 1930s designed specifically for Aria,” Marohnic adds. These rare brandies can fetch up to $5,000 to $6,000 a glass.

“Brandy is very popular for us, and is built into everything we do at the bar,” says Jon Palmer, general manager and brandy program manager at The Bachelor Farmer & Marvel Bar in Minneapolis. The menu currently showcases brandy in seven different cocktails, as well as sippers for dessert pairings or as an after-dinner drink.

The brandy selection lists 25 to 30 brandies at any given time. “We offer everything from unaged fruit brandy to great Cognacs and Brandy de Jerez.”

Most of The Bachelor Farmer’s brandy selections are French, but the current list includes Laird’s straight apple brandy, Rujero singani and Minnesota craft brandies from Ralf Loeffelholz at Dampfwerk Distillery.

Compared to other spirits, brandy—especially Cognac—can be expensive, and therefore difficult to cost out on a drinks menu. “The good brandy is on the expensive rack, and the cheap stuff is, well, not so impressive,” notes Kang at The Dorsey. Good whiskies are more affordable.

“If you are not an avid Cognac drinker, you are probably not going to roll the dice on a $50 pour of Cognac when you can get a $15 bourbon,” points out Schoettler at MGM Resorts. Good Cognac is expensive, and lower-priced brands are often not of high enough quality for a cocktail.

“When you get the quality of brandy that you want to put into a drink and make the proper margin for a fiscally sound decision,” Schoettler says, “Cognac often tends to get crossed off the list because it’s too expensive.”

At The Bachelor Farmer, cocktail prices range from $11 to $13. Palmer manages cost concerns with two strategies: blending and smaller portions. The house blend uses a young, neutral French brandy as the base, which allows him to control the flavor profile by adding more distinct brandies.

“We’ve been doing it long enough that we’ve got it dialed in really well,” Palmer says. “The base of the blend is super cost-effective, so we can put high-quality brandies in that blend and still end up at a normal cocktail price.” For apple brandy, he blends Laird’s straight apple brandy, with Calvados and an apple eau-de-vie as a base for cocktails.

The Old Dram cocktail, which Palmer describes as an ultra-rich version of a Manhattan, uses vintage Armagnac as the base spirit, currently a 17-year-old, single-barrel, cask-strength brandy. “In order to bring it down to a regular cocktail price, we serve a smaller portion,” he says. “It’s so rich and flavorful that the whole thing really works for guests.”

Whiskey Crossover?

Are whiskey drinkers discovering brandy? Operators say yes, maybe.

“There is growth and appreciation for all brown spirits,” says Pope. “Whiskey may be a gateway to further exploring additional brown spirits like brandies.”

There’s definitely a crossover between whiskey and brandy, “just like with any barrel-aged, robust spirit,” says Nick Brown, head bartender at The Spaniard in New York. “For whiskey or rum drinkers, you can use brandy as an interesting substitute, and bring out cocktails that will really open people’s eyes.”

Although The Spaniard is a whiskey-focused bar, it stocks quite a few brandies. On the list are American brandy from Bertoux and Laird’s Applejack; Cognacs from Hine, Pierre Ferrand and Rémy Martin; and Lustau Brandy de Jerez from Spain.

“We see more opportunity for crossover from rum and Scotch drinkers than American whiskey fans,” says Marohnic at Aria.

Palmer believes that brandy has enough variation to satisfy any whiskey drinker. “For example, what does a guest like about bourbon—is it barrel char? Most brandy spends time in toasted barrels, and there are producers that use enough new oak to end up with something that’ll scratch that itch.”

If you have a Scotch drinker, Palmer continues, “part of Cognac is an island called Ile de Ré, and brandies from that island have a briny minerality that some Scotch drinkers love. Want something rich or something punchy? An Armagnac at the right age will check either box.”

Split Bases

Brandy Alex

The clarified Brandy Alex at The Spaniard in New York is a take the Brandy Alexander.

Perhaps key to greater acceptance among whiskey lovers is the use of split bases in cocktails.

“Brandy has usually played the role of a partner in the craft cocktail scene. It is more often used as a split-base ingredient alongside another spirit, such as rye, bourbon, and even gin,” notes Evan Hosaka, a bartender at the Electra Cocktail Club in The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. As examples, Hosaka cites classics like the Pink Lady and Vieux Carre, as well as modern takes like the Fall Back (rye and apple brandy) and Don’t Mind If I Do (bourbon and apple brandy).

A split-base drink stars in the whiskey section of the fall menu at The Patterson House. The Caretaker is made with Old Overholt rye, Lustau Brandy de Jerez, lemon juice, cascara (coffee cherry), Nux Alpina nocino and egg white. “It is a great gateway to get folks interested in brandy, using flavors they’re already familiar with (i.e. whiskey),” says Peaks.

Nick Brown at The Spaniard points out that the Sazerac was originally brandy based, now it’s often a split base with brandy and rye or even bourbon. The Spaniard’s menu currently offers the New York Old Fashioned, which is a twist on a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, made with a split base of Bertoux brandy and bourbon. “It’s a way to expose our patrons to a brandy cocktail, in a form they’re familiar with.”

Another popular drink is the American Trilogy, which split the base between rye whiskey and applejack. “With the current interest in cocktail history, I think that brandy’s move into a comeback is through the cocktail world,” says Brown.

Cocktail Comeback

Mixed drinks, classic and modern, are the way to lure customers into experiencing brandy, say bartenders.

“Cocktails are how we get traction in the brandy category. A stirred cocktail is the gateway to ordering a Cognac by itself,” says Schoettler at MGM Resorts.

A good example at Bardot is the Corpse Reviver #1, made with Cognac, Calvados and sweet vermouth. Other popular Cognac cocktails include the Champs Elyseés, a blend of Cognac, fresh lemon juice, Chartreuse, Angostura bitters and sugar, and the Lime In Da Abricot, made with Courvoisier V.S.O.P., Aperol, apricot puree, orgeat and mint. Cocktails range in price from $12 to $40.

Tupelo Honey interior

The 14 units of the Asheville, NC-based chain Tupelo Honey stock a variety of classic brandies.

Tupelo Honey serves a variation on brandy milk punch called the Butchertown Bias, which is shaken with cream, simple syrup, bitters, craft brandy and a touch of nutmeg, says chef Gabrynowicz. “On a slightly less-indulgent note, we use Copper & Kings Immature Brandy in our Smokey Mountain Sparkling Sangria. This clear distillation of grapes is blended with passion fruit, mint, and prosecco to produce an artfully spirited and refreshing cocktail.”

To have a well-rounded collection, Gabrynowicz suggests including an eau-de-vie made from your favorite fruit; apple, pear, grape and peach.

“A versatile American brandy aged in French or American oak can provide an intriguing alternative to whiskey or bourbon, as well as being sippable and mixable,” he notes. “A traditional French Cognac or Armagnac only needs a splash of water and some ice to allow the flavors to blossom and thereby is both mixable and shippable.”

In general, “brandy is a harder sell from the outset, especially in North Texas, where whiskey and agave spirits reign supreme,” notes Pope. But brandy cocktails do sell at the Midnight Rambler and are always on the menu; those using Applejack and pisco are the most popular. The American Gothic (shown atop) mixes bonded apple brandy, bourbon, sorghum syrup, orange and Angostura bitters and orange zest; the Chai Apple Flashback uses Applejack, oleo saccharum, chai tea and grated nutmeg; and Temple Of The Moon mixes Jasmine pisco, pineapple and lime juices, Texas mineral water and nutmeg.

The King cocktail (show atop) at The Patterson House is made with Catoctin Creek rye, peanut-infused Copper & Kings brandy, bacon-infused Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, Giffard Banane du Bresil, maple and Bittermen’s mole bitters.

What’s Next

“With brandy, most of the work to be done is introducing people to the potential of the category—not a ton of drinkers know much about it,” says Palmer at The Bachelor Farmer. “My work is to empower my staff with all the knowledge necessary to offer these special bottles to our guests.”

At The Spaniard, Brown is experimenting with cocktails using pear and other non-grape brandies. People think of brandy as just Cognac, after-dinner drinks and a few classic cocktails, he notes.

“Brandy really has a lot more to offer than what we think of: it’s not just Ulysses S. Grant-type guys sipping brandy in dark, smoke-filled rooms. It’s a much broader category than that.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable. Read his recent piece, Exploring Vodka’s Diversity in 2019.

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