Copper & Kings, American Craft Brandy

Copper and Kings Brandy

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had brandy. Cognac? Great. Armagnac? That too.

Now how about in the past year? Yes?

Now keep your hand raised if you’ve had American brandy in the last year? Laird’s Apple Brandy? Excellent.

OK, now keep your hand up if you’ve had an American brandy in the last year that was made from grapes, not apples. Still with me? Paul Masson? E&J Gallo? Korbel? OK, I’m not judging!

Now lastly, who’s had an American craft brandy made from grapes? Germain-Robin? Awesome! And congratulations – you are among a select few drinkers out there, willing to forego the popular in search of something different.

American grape-based brandy seems an afterthought in today’s craft spirits world. French brands like Pierre Ferrand get all the attention behind fancy cocktail bars, and even Laird’s Apple Brandy, an American institution (since 1780!), has gotten a well-deserved warm embrace from cocktail enthusiasts. But American brandy pales in comparison to its foreign cousins and grain-based brethren (like bourbon!) in terms of popularity. Which is kinda sad. I asked one of my favorite liquor shops in Atlanta if they sold much American brandy. The response? “American brandy, other than Laird’s, is non-existent.”

But it mustn’t be that way. Just ask the folks in Cognac – brandy can be among the most amazing spirits you will ever taste, and Cognac still sells quite well, especially at the high end. Over here in America, high end producer Germain-Robin may be without peer in the brandy game, but it’s nice to see some up and coming brandy brands trying to make a splash and bring brandy back into bars. Which brings us to Copper & Kings.

Copper and Kings BrandyHere’s the way they describe themselves: “Founded by beverage entrepreneurs Lesley and Joe Heron, Copper & Kings produces non-chill filtered, unadulterated copper pot-distilled American brandy aged in bourbon barrels with no added boise, sugar or caramel coloring… The forward-thinking spirits distillery began producing modern brandy in a state-of-the-art facility earlier this year and celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in October.”

Copper & Kings operates out of the Butchertown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. I was intrigued from the get go, and when I read on and learned a bit more about brandy’s history in the heart of bourbon country, my interest was piqued even more. From the company’s website, “distillation of brandy is as old as the Commonwealth Of Kentucky. Historical records show brandy being produced and regulated in Kentucky as early as 1781… (before) the Commonwealth of Kentucky was founded in 1792.” Turns out, even today, much of the mass-produced American brandy is aged and bottled in Kentucky. I did not know that.

Copper & Kings’ head distiller, Brandon O’Daniel, is described as “a Kentucky distilling thoroughbred with a bloodline that goes back four generations.” His family has roots in bootlegging and winemaking, and O’Daniel himself has spent years as a vintner, which certainly helps with understanding the potential for grape-based spirits.

While Copper & Kings is a young company, they are already offering two takes on brandy – an un-aged “immature” brandy, and an aged “craft” brandy, which is older than the company itself. Of course, this means they have found some stock to purchase and age and bottle that fit a certain profile they were looking for. I checked in with owner, Joe Heron (who also founded Crispin Cider), to get the scoop on their craft brandy:

We have brandy aged from 4 to 13 years in the bottle. We’ve found our sweet spot is around 7 or 8 years. We purchased aged pot-distilled brandy from many distilleries … (and) this was blended into our “DNA base” in Louisville. The DNA base is bottled, or aged further in bourbon barrels, or blended into our “new make” distilled in Butchertown – so three different uses. We will start to see our own distillate (as part of a blend with DNA base) reach the market in 3 to 4 years, and expect to be 100% distilled at the Butchertown distillery in around 6 years.

As for the immature brandy, Heron noted:

We are focused on classic brandy varietals – Muscat, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc. These are all Californian. We are fortunate in the USA to be able to distill and blend wonderful assertive aromatic grape varietals, giving us our own distinctive style. Muscat is the specific grape varietal used for both the immature brandy and absinthe (which Copper & Kings also produces and sells). Brandy distillate is always about varietal nuance. Restraint within the distilling process is incredibly important to maintain the nuance, to highlight the unique aromatics that are specific to individual varietals.

I asked him what he hoped to achieve for American brandy, and Heron wasn’t shy with his ambitions:

We aspire to add to Kentucky’s distilling heritage. Our ambition is to make American brandy as respected and admired as American whiskey / bourbon. We aim to make American brandy as highly regarded as Cognac and Armagnac.

Currently available in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (or online at places like Ezra’s), these are fascinating sips for anyone interested in learning about brandy. The craft brandy, in particular, will make many a bourbon fan happy, and hopefully lead a few Kentuckians to consider other spirits bottled on their home soil. On to the tasting notes…

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Craft Distilled Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $35 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

OK, bourbon lovers – this looks like your favorite sip. It smells a good bit like your favorite sip – vanilla and light caramel from that time in the barrel, a good dose of crisp apple and pear, floral notes emerging if you sniff it over ice, even a bit of cotton candy sweetness. And you get a sense right away that this is going to be smoooooth.

I would not be surprised if many a drinker mistakes this for a fruit-forward bourbon. The entry is, as noted, smooooth, then some cinnamon spice and heat kick in – a brief moment of harshness there in the middle – then on into a long but pleasantly lingering burn. A cube of ice brings out a more lush feel, a touch more caramel, and some chewy grape gummy fruit. This is a pleasant sipper, especially on the rocks, but I wouldn’t call it overly complex.

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Immature Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $30 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Fair – Good Stuff*

Now this will not be confused with bourbon. Or moonshine. Or whatever you like to call white whiskey. Clear as day, this un-aged brandy is admittedly better as a base for cocktails than it is as a standalone sipper.

The nose is heavily floral, loads of tropical fruit, highly aromatic. There’s ripe peach and mango, passionfruit – ever have that POG juice that was popular in the 90’s? That’s what this smells like. There’s also a background petrol-like note that may remind some wine geeks of German Riesling. Let this sit with ice and the nose becomes practically explosive – but it’s also a bit out of balance. To misappropriate that song on the radio, it’s all about that treble, bout that treble, no bass.

Sipped neat or over ice, the immature brandy is full and crisp, a bit tart, plenty fruity. But  it screams out for some other ingredients to play with in a cocktail setting (I feel the same way about most un-aged whiskeys – and I totally get why a new distillery needs to churn out un-aged products to grow their business). As it chills with ice, a yeasty character comes out a bit, like berry jam on a yeasty roll. The finish stays crisp, and goes on surprisingly long. You can find a number of suggested cocktail recipes on the Copper & Kings website, and I’d recommend that as the best way to explore this particular new American brandy.

For more about brandy and American brandy, check out The Serious Eats Guide to Brandy

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Copper & Kings.
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Piehole Whiskey: Review of Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, & Pecan Pie Whiskey

Piehole Whiskey

Mmmmmmm, pie. Mmmmmmmm, whiskey. Umm, pie whiskey? Yes, pie whiskey.

floorpieWhen I first heard about Piehole Whiskey (in apple pie, pecan pie, and cherry pie flavors!), I couldn’t help but think about Homer Simpson. Humans like Homer are simply drawn to pie, in any flavor, shape, or level of quality. Remember the episode when Bart lays a trap for Homer by placing a piece of pie on the floor, and Homer emits a primordial, “Mmmmm, floor pie!” when he sees it? That is the human response to pie at its most basic. Whenever Homer’s in the mood for something stronger than Duff Beer, I have no doubt this would be his go-to drink.

Yes, people love pie. So why wouldn’t there be a pie that comes in the form of a whiskey bottle? I’m not saying that it would be my first choice of how to consume either pie or whiskey (nor my second choice, nor my third, nor my thirty two thousand five hundred seventy eighth), but I can see how lots of folks out there might think that pie whiskey is a good idea. After all, there’s plenty of whiskey flavored pie to be found.

piehole whiskeySo what is this Piehole stuff? It’s actually Canadian whiskey (aged between four and eight years) mixed with “pie-flavored liqueur.” 70 proof. All of $15 for a bottle. Thankfully, it requires that the buyer be of legal drinking age. And it comes to us from the innovation group at Diageo (owner of Crown Royal), where they are surely on the lookout for all sorts of intriguing ways to make Canadian whiskey as popular as bourbon is today. I have a feeling the Canadians will respect this export about as much as they do Justin Beiber. Just guessing.

The branding (PIEHOLE!) features retro pinup girls on each label, with names that match up with their respective pies – Sweet Cheri for Cherry Pie, Sweet Ashley for Apple Pie, you get the idea. They are all unapologetically sweet. Each of the pie ladies sits atop her very own slice of steaming, oozing pie. Subtle it is not. And neither are the aromas or flavors that each bottle emits. This is hit-you-over-the-head flavor, no mistaking what each one is supposed to be.

Instead of giving these whiskies formal reviews, I decided to text my (completely fabricated) 22 year old cousin, who might be more of the target market for such sexy pie-flavored products. What follows is our (also completely fabricated) exchange over a recent weekend:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.30.19 PM

So I dropped the bottles off on Saturday morning and checked in later that afternoon to make sure he had received them and cracked them open…

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.27.14 PM

So, it was 3pm, and my cousin and his friends had already finished all three bottles of pie-flavored whiskey. They clearly liked it, but I had to push him for more of an assessment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.06.22 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.09.16 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.12.11 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.12.42 PM

So there you have it. If you like pie, like whiskey, and can imaging marrying the two with a trip inside a Bath & Body Works, Piehole Whiskey may be just the thing for you.

Full Disclosure: Tasting samples provided by Diageo. Colin is recuperating just fine.

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Bottles I didn’t buy: Willett XCF Rye

Willett XCFI was in a liquor store today, and it happened to be at the same time that a distributor was bringing some things in. On the shelf, he had just placed a nice display of Willett XCF Rye, which I had heard of but never seen. The packaging is lovely – the stark white label and hand drawn illustrations are a nice change of pace amidst the typical text-heavy labels of other American whiskeys.

As for what’s inside – XCF stands for Exploratory Cask Finish, but it could just as well stand for “Extra Costs For (you).” Is that too harsh? I’m sorry. I just can’t see spending well north of $150+ on seven year old rye that was bought from MGP in Indiana and finished all of 90 days extra in a fancy used bourbon barrels that were also used in the making of Grand Marnier (or, as the label states, “finished in Curacao casks sourced from France”). The price at this store was actually quite a bit less than what I’ve read that others have paid – $130 vs. a more common $150-$200 elsewhere. Bargain? Not for me. I’ll happily pass on this and pick up 4 or 5 bottles of Rittenhouse Rye instead.

This particular Willett XCF is called out as version 1.0, meaning more are likely on the way. Is it delicious? I don’t doubt it. Orange (from the Grand Marnier casks) and rye go quite nicely together. (Read Sku’s review here.) Will it sell? Maybe so. The market has an apparently unquenchable thirst for anything rare and limited, so this fits the bill. Speaking of which… they had one bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean behind the counter. I didn’t even ask the price. I have better ways to spend my whiskey dollars than on gimmicks and hype.

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Dickel Hand Selected Single Barrel, 9 Year: Review and Tasting Notes

Dickel Barrel Select Whisky

So the folks at Dickel have been sending me stuff. First there was a video. Then came a box delivered via Fedex. And inside that cardboard box was a wooden box. And inside that wooden box was a glass bottle. And inside that bottle was whisky. “Hand selected,” single-barrel, 9 year old George Dickel Tennessee whisky. In fact, this bottle was selected by the chap in the aforementioned video, one Doug Kragel, Dickel brand ambassador

It’s important to point out that this Dickel is different than the “Barrel Select” version (which I’ve previously reviewed). Both come from the single Dickel mash bill. Both are charcoal and chill filtered. The differences are the proof, the age, and the fact that one is small-batch bottled and the other single-barrel bottled.

The Barrel Select comes in at 86 proof. The Hand Selected rocks a 103. Barrel Select is 10 to 12 years old, though no age statement. Hand Selected is stated 9 years old (there is also a 14 year old offering, which ups the proof to 106 to boot). Barrel Select is a small batch of approximately 10-12 barrels. Hand Selected is a true single barrel.  And, while Barrel Select can be found pretty widely, Hand Selected is only available at stores that choose to purchase a whole single barrel (bottled at 103 proof) for their customers.

Dickel started this program last year to a good bit of fanfare, and it seems they’re giving the hand selected barrel program another push now. It’s good to see parent company Diageo investing some time and effort in bringing Dickel back into the limelight, at least a little bit, since it’s been somewhat of a neglected brand amidst the whiskey boom. Anything else you need to know? Oh yeah, how does it taste?

Dickel Barrel Select WhiskyGeorge Dickel Hand Selected Barrel Sour Mash Whisky, Aged 9 Years
Barrel #137
103 Proof
Approx. $45 Retail
Tasting Dates: November 1-9, 2014

Lovely deep copper color. I’ve got to admit that I was turned off by the nose at first – neat, in a Glencairn glass (the little tulip shaped glasses that lots of whiskey drinkers prefer for sipping neat), I got a lot of toasty sawdust, and the alcohol seemed on the aggressive, petrol side. It came across as anything but Dickel’s trademark “mellow.” I switched to a rocks glass, still neat, and the extra air worked some wonders. Ahhh, there’s the brown sugar, there’s the caramel buttered popcorn , there’s the ripe fruit, there’s a roasted walnut note. The toasted oak is still there, but very much in the background now. So much better. And you thought the glass didn’t matter…. (or if you thought the glass mattered, you probably would have assumed that the Glencairn would be the better glass – I know I did).

Dickel GlencairnSipping neat, the 103 proof comes through well – plenty of vanilla and cinnamon (though not overly so), a firm backbone of dark wood with candied walnuts, and a long warm finish with a touch of astringency weaving in and out. I’m not wowed, especially with that blemish on the finish.

A bit of water though mellows out the nose, and mellows out the wood on the palate as well. I actually prefer this with the water, as the dilution delivers a bit more balance, more peachy fruit, more easy drinking in a good way (easy drinking is not often my preferred descriptor, but here it plays well).  Ditto with a cube of ice – which adds a more lush mouthful and brings out the butterscotch notes. I’m thinking ice is the way to go. Very nice.

Funny enough, I actually prefer the Barrel Select to this particular Hand Selected Barrel, despite the lower proof on the Barrel Select. Here, at the higher proof, I think it needs a bit of ice or water to fully coax out the flavors. Of course, with a single barrel offering, every barrel will differ somewhat. Talk to your local bottle shop and ask them what they were going for in their hand selected barrel. If it sounds good, take a shot – this is nice whisky at a nice price. My verdict? *Good Stuff.

With that, I’ll leave you with some pretty pictures of Dickel in (and next to) a box – handmade the hard way:

Dickel Barrel Select Whisky Dickel Barrel Select Whisky Dickel Barrel Select Whisky Dickel Barrel Select Whisky Dickel Barrel Select Whisky

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Dickel.
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The coffee stand at Star Provisions

Star Provisions Coffee

A cold and cloudy Saturday morning, 9:47AM, and I was looking for duck fat. The main shop at Star Provisions hadn’t yet opened, so I was left out in the cold. Luckily, the little coffee stand tucked off in the corner opens at 8, so I ducked in to grab a cortado. The guy behind the counter, in the vest and the apron and the jaunty cap (is that twill?) said good morning with some sort of foreign accent. Maybe Italy. Maybe not.*

No matter, he made me a perfect cortado, beans roasted by Jittery Joe’s from Athens. I couldn’t help but snap some photos with my iPhone – those Star Provisions folks know how to dress up a place, something like Southern Martha Stewart if Martha Stewart were a whole lot nicer. Bless her heart.

Did I mention it was a damn good cortado?

* UPDATE: It is confirmed. The barista is Enrico. And he is Italian. Grazie Star Provisions.

Star Provisions Atlanta CoffeeStar Provisions Atlanta CoffeeStar Provisions Atlanta CoffeeStar Provisions Atlanta Coffee Star Provisions Atlanta Coffee Star Provisions Atlanta Coffee Star Provisions Atlanta Coffee

Star Provisions Coffee
1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA
Hours: 8am – 6pm Monday – Thursday, 8am – 8pm Friday & Saturday

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