Not a lot of people these days are familiar with, eager to drink, or eager to sell brandy. Across the U.S., it seems to have two conflicting reputations, one as a low end product which might bring a cheap clientele into your bar, and one as something your grandfather would drink. Neither one encourages brandy or brandy cocktails to make a prime time appearance on bar menus.
So it might seem like a strange assertion that brandy could be, or even should be, the next hot thing in the cocktail world. But I’m going to make that assertion anyway.
The first point is that much like rye whiskey, bourbon and gin, brandy has a long history and a deep connection to the history of cocktails. In fact, what most people don’t know is that the Sazerac, often associated with rye, was actually originally a brandy cocktail. When phylloxera hit, New Orleans bars started using rye because what little wine and brandy was being made in France was being kept for the French themselves.
This historical use, as well as the countless interesting stories behind brandy and brandy cocktails, give the spirit the same credibility and mystique that made rye so popular among the “hipsters.”
Additionally, there are so many brandies, some made in large quantities, some in small, that there is potential for a small production, high quality brandy to take on the cult appeal that some whiskeys have recently obtained.
The main thing brandy has going for it is versatility. First of all, in the product itself.
From a price standpoint, you can find brandies for absurdly cheap, or brandies which range into the thousands of dollars per bottle range. This gives it a certain flexibility and range that other aged spirits and wine have, but that vodka, gin, and even rum really can’t approach. It is possible to have a “well” or “mixing” brandy and also to have a top shelf brand, among the highest priced items on your back bar.
In terms of categories within brandy, you have many to choose from. There are Cognacs, Armagnacs, and non-French brandies. There are different age statements within each category. There are different sub-regions within each major area. There are winemakers in California using traditional techniques with wine grapes rather than the traditional brandy grapes of Cognac and Armagnac.
That is only scratching the surface, and only counting aged, grape-based brandies. There are Calvados, there are eau de vie and aged brandies made from other fruits. There are almost as many traditional varieties of brandy as there are cultures in the world. Just ask anyone who was raised in a very ethnic home, and brandy was almost certainly a home remedy for the common cold or a part of holiday traditions, if not both.
In addition to being varied in its styles, specifications, production, and origins, brandy’s uses are incredibly varied.
Alongside whiskey and tequila, brandy is one of the few spirits ideal for both cocktail usage and sipping.
In cocktails, brandy’s versatility is amazing. I would actually go so far as to say that with slight modifications, you could make almost any cocktail made with another spirit a brandy cocktail that was just as delicious. This is because It has a residual sweetness that makes it a decent substitute for rum. It has a spicy character that would allow it to step in for rye whiskey or gin. It also has the barrel notes (caramel, vanilla, oak) of whiskey. Some “cigar” cognacs, aged in humid cellars even have a certain smoky leathery character that could be used to replace a mild scotch.
In short, brandy has a lot to offer the cocktail and bar world. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise if brandy is the next hot category on cocktail and spirit menus.