I have heard many people ask Copper & Kings “Why Louisville? Why make Brandy in the heart of Bourbon Country?” The answer from Joe Heron , owner of Copper & Kings is usually “Why Not? It is the place to be in America if you want to distill spirits. This is where the expertise is when it comes to distillation.” He is correct in that answer but there is another reason that has almost been forgotten and that is that Louisville also has a very rich heritage of Brandy distillation and consumption.
When the earliest settlers came to Kentucky many brought stills with them to distill spirits. They very quickly became known for their fine Bourbon whiskey distillation and aging. Kentuckians were also well known for their fruit brandy production. Apples, peaches and pears were all grown in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley region on both sides of the river. Where there were orchards there was cider production and much of the cider was also distilled into brandy. The brandy was often sold as an un-aged spirit but it was also placed in barrels for aging. Because the most common barrel available in the region was the 48 gallon whiskey barrel, that was the most common barrel used to age the brandy as well. Traditionally the apple brandy in Europe is aged in 70 or 90 gallon barrels so the brandy from the Ohio River Valley had more wood characteristics coming through with aging.
Brandy distillation by nature is a small scale operation. You make brandy when the fruit is in season and the cider can be made. In the 19th century the distillery is very busy in these months but sitting idle for the rest of the year. Unlike whiskey where grain is dried and available all winter long to be fermented, the fruit is only available for a limited time. This made brandy production a very local product. The distiller may only make a few barrels a year and sell it only in his county. Even so Kentucky had a rich heritage of brandy production. In his book Bourbon In Kentucky: A History of Distilleries in Kentucky, Chester Zoeller states that the years between the Civil War and prohibition there were over 450 dedicated brandy distilleries in Kentucky with another 100 or so whiskey distilleries also making brandy. Apple and Peach brandies were so popular that Thomas Batman of Louisville focused his whole spirit business in buying barrels of these fruit brandies from the small distillers and warehousing them in Louisville before shipping them to market. By the first decade of the 20th century Batman became known as “The King of Brandy”.
Many of the well-known whiskey merchants such as W. L. Weller and Sons, Brown-Forman, Paul Jones and Bernheim Bros. all had fruit brandies in their portfolio of products. It was an important part of the business at the time. Brandy was also being bottled-in-bond and sold as 4yo, 100 proof spirit. It was thriving business that was killed in the region by prohibition. When prohibition was repealed it was not financially feasible to open a small distillery and make brandy. New regulations and the taxes on the spirit made such small scale production unprofitable and the large scale distillers concentrated on making whiskey. Brandy production disappeared from the Kentucky landscape until Copper & Kings opened their doors in 2013.
Copper & Kings is making brandy from grapes as their main line but they are also doing apple brandy. They are aging much of the apple brandy in used whiskey barrels but also have a few larger sherry butts for aging both grape and apple brandy. Joe Heron’s team is a very skilled one not only in distilling brandy but also in aging and marrying together the barrels to create a flavor profile for bottling. They are also very innovative in their brandy, experimenting with many different types of barrels for aging brandy. They have used bourbon and rye barrels, but they also have used beer barrels that were also used bourbon barrels. They have experimented with used Tequila barrels for aging brandy and juniper wood barrels for aging a brandy based gin. Copper & Kings is bringing back the tradition of brandy production in Kentucky and they are beginning to create their own traditions as well. To me it seems only natural that we have a brandy distillery in the heart of Bourbon Country.
– Michael Veach
Michael Veach was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s written and contributed to five books and is the foremost authority on bourbon history. In addition to this he is the former Filson Historical Society Bourbon Historian. Michael has provided bourbon history education in many different forms over the years. He owns his own bourbon consulting company, Bourbon Veach LLC. You can find his blog at bourbonveach.com or connect with him on Twitter @bourbonveach.