Fall is here once again in Kentucky and my anticipation has been building for weeks. A busy summer on the road is coming to an end, and a crazy distillation season is ahead, but in between is one of my favorite rituals – our annual distillation of our 100% Kentucky thoroughbred Vidal Blanc single varietal brandy. We pick, press and ferment the wine ourselves, and then copper pot-distill at Copper & Kings. 2015 was a very challenging exercise – we only managed to produce 12.5 gallons of distillate – which we are aging in a sweet small Corsair whiskey barrel.
This year will be different.
It’s interesting to dwell on the fact that the first recorded distilled spirit in America was indeed brandy – in 1640. And that the current craft distilling movement owes much of its genesis to a band of small West Coast distillers in the mid-to-late 80’s – who focused on, what else, but making brandy. More crucially relative to this annual labor of love, not many know that in the late 1800’s there were almost 400 brandy distilleries in KENTUCKY. This does not include an additional 100 or so that made both whiskey and brandy. So in many ways I feel that I am returning American Brandy to Kentucky roots.
The rhythm of each harvest is a unique, cherished ritual in my life. This season has definitely been one of reflection for me. I’m now a distiller, but my first love was always wine-making (and I think this makes me a better distiller). Walking through a Kentucky vineyard (no that’s not an oxymoron) brings me back to my roots. These moments also urge me to consider where I’ve been and where I am going in this business. Even though I distill fruit from different parts of the country now, a Kentucky vineyard always feels like home. It may not be the perfect place to establish a vineyard, and make wine, but like all things Kentucky – it has heart, soul and character. It’s gutsy and proud, and deep down it knows it can run with the big horses. It just needs some crafting. And caring.
Like life, the season experienced ups and downs. The Spring started out beautifully, with no late frost. Sunshine filled days, and warm evenings. Spring flower set was small, but I remember noting the intensity of the aroma and thinking that the year had potential. As the season progressed, rains moved in and decided to stay, making it difficult for equipment to get in the vineyards for fungicide and pest sprays (a necessity in a Kentucky vineyard) and I started to doubt my earlier enthusiasm. But we finally dried out, ending with a one of the best Fall seasons Kentucky has seen (as far as grapes go) in some time. Warm days ensued, paired with low humidity and cool evenings, perfect for ripening. The clusters remained small, with a little more spacing than desired but they turned a beautiful translucent amber on the outside and a crisp green on the back side of the clusters. Still you could see some long term stress on the vines from the cold winters of the last two seasons.
Unlike grains that are annual crops and start fresh each year, the grapevine grows for years, and carries the scars of its past, evident this season by the gaps in the canopy, and smaller clusters – residual battle scars from the travails of the past seasons. While this may sound negative, it’s not all bad. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I love this plant. A stressed vine will always produce some of the best tasting fruit. The plants desire to make sure it’s genetics continue and survive, causing it to allocate all of its extra energy into fruit production.
It’s like the plant saves the best of what it has for the hard times. And this year’s wine is golden. High acids, medium sugars and a low pH kept the juice in perfect balance, and gave the wine bright notes of citrus, mango, tropical flowers and melon – this will only concentrate during distillation – and we will do everything we can to maintain this varietal nuance in the distillate. The harvest was still relatively light, we only harvested 4.5 tons which was disappointing, but an increase from last year and yielded 667 gallons of wine. Maturation was slightly varied from cluster to cluster but I felt like the greener fruit really came through nicely and hung throughout the entire harvest.
Coming off the still the spirit was no different. Tropical esters flowed over one at a time and mingled into a spirit so rich with flavor and oils that they cling onto the glass and the aromatics fill the air the entire time you sip from the glass. The phenolics this year were very forward causing the entire distillery to fill with the smell of tropical fruit and ripe melon long after the run was finished.
This year the stripping run was done on Magdalena our 750 gallon still. Designed for finesse, she is my favorite still to run and did not disappoint with the way she handled the juice. We yielded 135 gallons of low wine, which came in at 68 proof and was so oily you could see it swirling in the spirit safe. I also (a first for us) pulled a small heads cut off the stripping run. It’s a little different to how we normally do things, but we wanted to have an intense and cleaner finished spirit at the end. I think it turned out well, and may be something we do with our larger runs going forward.
Doubling was done on Sara our smallest, prettiest still, but in some ways the feistiest of our three Vendome sisters. The smaller pot which gives more copper contact with the spirit and requires a more watchful eye, produces a well-rounded, bright distillate, while capturing the most of the true to the fruit esters that are imperative to creating a truly great brandy.
The low-wine was so clean and aromatic that I left as much as I could in the hearts cut. I pulled very few heads, cutting it as soon as the acetone passed, and letting the hearts run a little further into the tails than usual do to the fact that the flavors kept intensifying as the proof dropped. This lowered the barrel entry proof to 125 (Vs a typical +/-135) but our selection of a New American Oak barrel from Kelvin Cooperage that has been toasted and only lightly charred should complement this style of distillate perfectly. We chose a 60 gallon wine cask size, the larger size will allow for more surface area and less wood contact – we hope for a softer spirit, and allow the fruit esters to move forward a bit more. The greater head space should increase oxygenation and help round out the spirit.
Our 2016 Kentucky vintage yielded 49 gallons of distillate, and I personally believe this batch will be one of the better barrels we put out in this on-going series and can’t wait to share a little bit of my home. We make gorgeous American Brandy in Kentucky, it’s something that I am enormously proud of and proud to represent to the world.