We don’t make wannabe Bourbon, we make American Brandy in Kentucky.
We are proud to be located in Butchertown, Louisville, Kentucky. We are unabashed that our primary maturation tool is a Kentucky Bourbon barrel.
We do sometimes get a certain type of person who accuses us of trying to make brandy that tastes like Bourbon. Like we are somehow trying to con them or something like that. If we wanted to make Bourbon it would have been far easier to just make Bourbon. Seriously, far far easier. And we are quite happy if you want to drink Bourbon or whatever else you enjoy. That’s ok with us.
But it got me thinking that I may need to explain.
It really boils down to what is the difference between Whiskey (Bourbon) and (American) Brandy?
The distillation concept is common to all distilled spirits. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature to water, which the distiller then captures through condensation as distillate, retaining the alcohol proof desired (less water, higher proof). That’s very, very simplistic. But you get the picture.
The paths diverge in terms of the distillation process, and somewhat philosophically.
Whiskey is distilled “beer”, brandy is distilled “wine”.
The process of whiskey distillation is at its essence a process of extraction and purification to palatability. Raw grain spirit needs to be distilled to higher proof levels to enhance palatability.
The process of brandy distillation is one of retention and concentration. It is a philosophy that focuses on retaining the direct fruit essence and the best qualities of the base wine. The better the wine, the better the brandy. It’s about nuance. It’s about aromatic intensity and crisp, bright flavors. It’s about keeping it all in, not taking it all out.
Proof level in brandy distillation is very important, we don’t get that high within a batch, and it’s a high touch process involving continual proof measurement, temperature measurement, and of course tasting. And tasting some more.
Distillate straight off the still is delicious, even at relatively high proof levels – quite soft, fruity and smooth. There is a reason that un-aged brandy (Eaux de Vie) has been drunk for centuries – it tastes good. Both brandy and whiskey benefit from maturation in oak barrels, whiskey is more dependent on that enhancement process.
There are also distinct differences in maturation technique. Brandy is quite a promiscuous spirit. Quite delicate. She takes on flavor very quickly and you have to manage the barrel cycles very carefully.
Whiskey can handle a fresh charred New American Oak barrel from the outset and then sit for 4 to 9 years or more and extract the optimum flavors through the ongoing oxidization process.
A once used Bourbon barrel is a fantastic vehicle for brandy maturation. Some of the original power of the fresh char and new oak as been absorbed within the whiskey beforehand, so it is “gentler” on the brandy distillate, whilst still allowing the development of the bouquet and complexity we look for.
Lignin helps add the vanilla tones, lactones add a buttery, coconut, butterscotch profile. This physical profile is more dominant in American oak – and we appreciate that tonality for our American Brandy. European oak has a higher tannic profile – a little dryer, more nutty.
Our predilection is for spice and bite in the mid-palate similar to that we enjoy in Bourbon, but which we personally find sometimes absent in European style brandy.
During our process we typically add our distillate to the barrel at a higher proof than what is allowed for Bourbon – +/-135 Proof (vs a max of 125 Proof for Bourbon). Our intention is to maximize extraction from the used barrel, to facilitate raising the intensity level. To get the good stuff out.
It is also for this reason, an increase in intensity, that we also use a proportion of New American Oak barrels – this increases the richness, the vanilla a “New World” concentration that we enjoy.
We do not add water to the distillate as it ages in the barrel. We want the pure distillate and the barrels to do their work with minimal intervention. We pretty much follow the same protocol as American Whiskey. (And we do not chill-filter, or adulterate with boisé, sugar or caramel color).
I guess stylistically this puts us far closer to Bourbon than it does to Cognac, or other similarly styled brandy from around the world. Which is our intention. (Although we do appreciate the more robust flavor profile of Armagnac).
The cellar environment outside the barrel is critical. During changes of temperature between hot and cold seasons the liquid expands into and contracts out of the wood, accelerating the wood interactions described above. Kentucky’s boiling-hot-to-freezing cold summers to winters are ideal for the aging of Bourbon.
This is less optimal for our American Brandy. Temperature variation is always valuable, but you stroke brandy in to shape you don’t muscle it in to shape. She’s delicate. That our basement cellar is 75% underground with a concrete floor and a concrete ceiling (and a LOT of sub-woofers) helps narrow the temperature variation band and allows for a less aggressive maturation cycle.
Brandy has some distinct attributes and advantages – a unique start, and the “cheat” – unsurpassed length and finish for aged distillate. This is the heart of brandy. But we wanted some balls too, so we use our own cellar management techniques and blending art to get our American Brandy profile in our own distinctive style. The full band – guitars, bass, drums, and vocals – in harmony.
Finally, brandy supply chain is diabolical. I wished I had known, then again ….
Consider this. You can buy grain throughout the year. It is a robustly storeable product. It takes 5 tons of grapes to make one barrel of brandy, and grapes come once a year. Apples are far more conducive to cold storage – but at the end of the year there are noticeable changes in juice flavor profile. Try manage that….
So there you go. We make delicious, feisty, rambunctious American Brandy. Brandy influenced more by American Whiskey than other international brandy styles. A definitive brandy iteration with its own style, personality and character.
Brandy can never be Bourbon, and it shouldn’t try to be. But there’s no value in the dogma of “brandy should be this”. It should express itself however the fuck it wants.
Brandy rocks. Enjoy over ice, enjoy neat, enjoy in a cocktail. Its booze, its meant to be fun.
Let no one mistake this as a Brandy Vs Bourbon discussion. Its about the differences, not what is better. I drink Bourbon, Scotch, beer, wine. I am pretty agnostic about good booze. I don’t like bad booze. Just saying.