When you hear the word “brandy,” the image that comes to mind is probably a bit musty. Old men in smoking jackets, perhaps, or snifters atop stacks of decaying leather-bound books. While rye and gin have become darlings of the American craft-cocktail world, that bottle of brandy has long remained at the back of the cabinet. Now, thanks to new distillers and enthusiastic bartenders, brandy is starting to get some serious love.
“If you’re a bartender, you can’t help but be interested in it,” explains Michael R. Anderson, bar manager at Butcher and the Rye. “Brandy represents something that is made in an artisan way.” The category, which is defined only as a spirit distilled from fruit, includes everything from traditional French cognac to South American pisco. Though brandy is central in many countries’ drinking cultures, it’s long been overshadowed in America by another brown spirit.
Anderson runs a decidedly whiskey-oriented bar program but talks enthusiastically about brandy’s rich mouthfeel and its “maritime fog” qualities. One new distiller, Copper & Kings, has him particularly excited. The Louisville, Ky.-based distillery crafts grape and apple brandies that are making their way into the Pittsburgh market. Though Copper & Kings distills its brandy in classic copper-pot stills, its other methods (like blasting rock music in the barrel room to vibrate the wood and aid the aging process) are anything but traditional.
Local distillers are getting into the brandy game as well. Maggie’s Farm made a small batch of pear eau de vie last year and might experiment with others. Wigle Whiskey is currently aging a peach brandy and a Calvados-style apple brandy (both distilled from local fruit) that will be released in the next two years.
“Brandy is much more finesse-driven than whiskey,” says Anderson. That finesse extends to the glass, where the spirit makes for elegant spins on classic cocktails, like Butcher’s Applejack Sazerac. And on a cool fall evening, a brandy old-fashioned is just right.