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Copper & Kings, American Craft Brandy

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.
2014 Parker’s Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

2014 Parker’s Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

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Heaven Hill’s annual Parker’s Heritage Collection limited release is like a box of boozy chocolate… you never know what you’re gonna get. Last year, it was just a lovely selection of ten year old bourbon with that prototypical Elijah Craig profile. Before that, you could find an 11 year old cask strength small batch, a 27 ! year old, a cognac-finished… you get the idea. Box of chocolates. This year, the eighth version of the collection, we get a thirteen year old wheat whiskey. Not a wheated whiskey (a la Pappy Van Winkle or Weller or Larceny, which use wheat in place of rye as a minor contributor behind the dominant corn in the mash bill), but a wheat whiskey (a la Bernheim, which is among the very few American whiskeys that use wheat as the primary ingredient).

In fact, this Parker’s Heritage Collection release is a whole lot like Bernheim – as it comes from the very first run of the wheat whiskey that would later be bottled as Bernheim (which was first sold in 2005). This limited edition, though, is almost twice as old as regular Bernheim (which just recently added a 7 year old age statement to the bottle), plus comes to us non chill-filtered and cask strength – which is an approach that has served Heaven Hill well with their barrel proof version of Elijah Craig. The mash bill is reportedly 51% soft winter wheat, and there are actually two different batches being sold as part of the release, one at 127 proof, the other TBD. And for you detail-obsessed whiskey geeks, it was aged on the top floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y in Bardstown. On to the notes.

Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey Parker’s Heritage Collection, 2014, Original Batch Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
127.4 Proof
Approx. $90 Retail ($5 goes to Heaven Hill’s efforts to support ALS research)
Tasting Dates: September 10 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: WOW*

The color? Deep amber, surely due to those years at the upper reaches of rickhouse Y (the higher up, the higher the temperature swings, and the more interaction the bourbon gets with the wood).

The nose? Toasty oak is quite prominent, in a very nice way. There’s a good jolt of Bit-O-Honey, with dark caramel and vanilla also coming on pretty strong. I also get a plum and dark berry fruitiness to it, that leads into hints of an oaky cabernet, even some Chateauneuf de Pape. Intriguing stuff. A touch of water softens the sweetness and amps up the warm oak, plus brings out  a background buzz of herbal spiciness that seems almost rye-like (crazy, I wouldn’t expect it from wheat, but there it is).
Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey Label
Neat… as expected… this is really strong, but in a pleasing way. Tingly and soft at once, with a long cinnamon spice finish. The high proof works, and you can slowly sip this without fear. But a bit of water brings out the sweet depths in this whiskey and accentuates the nice balance between the many elements at play, with enough dark caramel and honey to please any bourbon fan for sure. The time in the barrel has rendered this far richer than many may expect from a wheat whiskey (regular Bernheim is known for being on the lighter side).

Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey LabelEven better than adding a touch of water, a single ice cube works some magic here as it slowly cools and dissolves into the whiskey. The texture becomes thicker, lightly syrupy even, and the whiskey performs a tremendous tightrope walk of wood and spice and sweetness and grain and heat. I just want to chew and chew on it, and the long slow finish keeps you coming back for more. It gets more delicate, lightly floral, smoother and even chewier as the ice seeps into it, never reaching the point of being too watery. And as the ice settles in, it skirts into a more Scotch-like territory, with prominent grain notes coming forward  (as in a lighter, more floral and fruity Scotch, nothing smoky or peaty here). The cooled down finish carries mellow and warm grain plus tinges of cinnamon red hots at the end.

After enjoying the glass with an ice cube, I go back to a neat sip and that Bit-O-Honey pops out strong again. The range of expression here is crazy and fascinating. This is a drink well worthy of exploration.

There’s a good chance my love of this will be an outlier vs. others’ opinions. Is a thirteen year old barrel proof wheat whiskey going to be everyone’s cup of tea? No. Actually, I doubt anyone out there has ever tasted a thirteen year old barrel proof wheat whiskey. But this is remarkable and interesting stuff for any whiskey fan. And entirely unique. The extra age and the extra proof give this wheat whiskey an intriguing combination of wood and grain. Parker’s Heritage Collection has turned out a real winner here – something different, something stellar. Highly recommended if you can find a bottle, and the $90 recommended price is not bad at all for whiskey of this caliber.

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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 Heaven Hill.
Great Southern Distillery: Old Rip Van Winkle, AKA “Pappy”

Great Southern Distillery: Old Rip Van Winkle, AKA “Pappy”

Part two of Thirsty South’s “Great Southern X” series features one of the most revered names in bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle. Rare. Cherished. Distinctive. Amazing. Those are but a few of the descriptors for the bourbon that carries the “Pappy” name. Old Rip Van Winkle is a standout among the many great Kentucky bourbon brands, true to a long heritage of great whiskey in the South. Read the full story here.