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Brandy, put simply, is a spirit distilled from fruit. And, like most major categories of spirits, there are a variety of different styles to choose from. From unaged eaux-de-vie to the long-aged Armagnacs and cognacs, “the production methods, flavor profiles, provenances and base materials are so varied,” says Certified Cognac Expert Ms. Franky Marshall. “I’d say it’s the most diverse category out there."
For general parameters, think seasonally: “In winter, you might want to cozy up to a brandy with some age and a fuller body; whereas the summer months might call for something youthful, lively and more floral,” says Marshall. With bottles from artisan producers to world-renowned brands, here are the best brandies to drink.
Best Overall: Philbert Rare Cask Sherry Finish
“I prefer cognacs that have no additives, or at least used judiciously, to let the true artistry of the cellar master and the integrity of the distillate shine,” says Marshall. This is one such bottle whose flavor profile impresses her. Philbert's rare cask finish cognac is the handiwork of brothers Xavier and Pierre-Olivier Précigout, who Marshall describes as “grower-producers striving to innovate by making eaux-de-vie their own way.” They were the first in the Cognac region to age their eaux-de-vie in sherry casks, and the Oloroso barrels add nutty, cherry-rich roundness to their excellent, terroir-driven brandy. “They also have a Sauternes-cask finish that’s worth seeking out as well,” says Marshall.
Best Overall: Hennessy X.O.
Created in 1870 by Maurice Hennessy, this brandy is the world’s most popular XO, or very old, cognac. It is a blend of over 100 eaux-de-vie, aged for up to 30 years in young barrels, which impart their oak character to the spirit. Candied orange, cherry and dark chocolate notes mingle with the vanilla and peppery spice of the casks, which are present in the long, warm finish. Though Hennessy suggests trying the brandy over ice, it’s also lovely in a snifter with just a few drops of water to open up the aromas.
Best for Sipping: Camus XO Borderies
Perhaps the greatest cru, or vineyard area, for growing the grapes that are distilled for French brandy is Borderies, an area of the Cognac region. “Camus has always specialized in Borderies cru," says Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s The Brandy Library. "And this brand flagship is the benchmark for the cru.” Bright, floral aromas come through in this brandy, but the palate is far more wintery, fruity, round and mellow. Notes of fig and walnuts balance out the zest. Desoblin, who also describes the texture as “quite velvety," says it's “ideal for sipping without breaking the bank.”
Best Cognac: HINE Homage
This multi-vintage tribute to Hine's founder, Thomas Hine, reflects the days when barrels were shipped from sunny France to chilly, wet England, where slower aging brought depth to the spirit. To create it, the master blender combined a very old, or XO, cognac aged in France with other vintage cognacs pulled from “early landed” barrels that had been resting in England. The result? “A sipper for relaxation time,” says Desoblin. Intensely floral and delicate with notes of cedar and coconut, “it’s very refined, for contemplative moments that most of us don’t have enough of," he says.
Best for Summer: Augier L’Océanique
You’d be hard-pressed to find a kinship between this brisk, seaside bottle and the rich, walnut-hued brandies further within France’s Cognac region. Still, this one comes from four-centuries-old distillery Augier in the Cognac area, which ranges out into the Atlantic Ocean, encompassing the island of Oléron. Blonde in color and snappy, spicy and salty in flavor, it will even appeal to tequila fans and is perfect for summer sipping.
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Best Spanish: Gran Duque d’Alba Brandy
Gran Duque d’Alba epitomizes the beauty of brandy from southwestern Spain. It’s made from young, fruity wine aged in former Oloroso casks using Jerez’s solera method: with the casks stacked in tiers from oldest to youngest, the brandy is extracted from the oldest barrels, which are topped up with brandy from the next oldest. Brandy is also extracted from the next oldest barrels, which are topped up from even younger casks, and so on, with all the age expressions blended together to create a consistent spirit. With flavors of dark, preserved fruits (raisins, dates and prunes) and a color that's just as deep, this one is “super well-balanced,” says Desoblin. “It’s very fruity but not cloying, with a silky mouthfeel.” Drink it in a snifter or balloon glass.
Best Under $50: Bertoux Brandy
Made by bartenders for bartenders, this copper pot-distilled brandy is excellent for sipping and mixing. Jeff Bell of New York's PDT and Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at Nomad, blended this California elixir from distillate aged up to seven years in French and American barrels. Gliding over the palate with a burnt-sugar charisma that resolves in an apricot-bright finish, it recalls the early days of classic cocktails when brandy was the complex base spirit. Try it mixed into a Sidecar or, better yet, a Vieux Carré where this brandy melds very nicely with the rye whiskey, Benedictine liqueur and sweet vermouth.
Best Budget: Deau VS
"[Deau VS Cognac] is straight to the point," says Desoblin. That’s what you want from a VS (“very special") cognac, whose youngest brandy in the blend is two years old. This cognac is clean and smooth, like orange sherbet, with a bit of spice and bracing heat at the end. Need a suggestion on how to use it? “A great way to drink brandy right now is in a highball,” says Marshall. “With a VS cognac, I love a bit of fizz: a quality tonic, ginger ale, sparkling wine or sparkling water. Add a bar spoon of a fruit-based syrup if you’d like, then garnish it with a slice of your favorite citrus, and maybe add some herbs if you're feeling fancy.”
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Best Apple Brandy: Osocalis Apple Brandy
Some apple brandies can be cloying, while some too tart. But this bottle from distiller Dan Farber is the perfect balance between the two. An American brandy pioneer, Farber studied in Cognac and other regions back in the 1980s before he founded Osocalis Distillery in Santa Cruz, Calif. Desoblin describes this bottle as having a “very, very calvados-like” nature. “In a blind tasting, you would think this is a 20-year-old brandy from Normandy,” he says. He likes its blending of richness with “vibrant, fruity, crushed-apple aromas,” and the “many-layered complexity” that comes in waves of apple expression.
Best South American: Singani 63
“In South American brandy, there’s a battle between Peruvian and Chilean pisco,” says Desoblin. But for something “unique,” he prefers singani, a spirit from Bolivia. Produced by a family that has been distilling since 1530, the brandy’s base is the aromatic Muscat of Alexandria grape, grown high up in the Andes and naturally fermented for a wildly perfumed nose. It’s twice-distilled in copper pots, as in Cognac, then rested in stainless steel for eight months where it mellows. This line of singani in particular was created by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. “Fruity and exuberant with a nose of white flowers, it makes great cocktails,” says Desoblin. Swap it in for the pisco in a pisco sour.
Best for Sangria: Cognac Park VSOP
VSOP, or “very superior old pale,” refers to cognac in which the youngest brandy in the blend is at least four years old. This one from fourth-generation master blenders Lilian and Jérôme Tessendier has the orangey flavor that meshes with citrus and other fruit in a classic Spanish punch. It’s not too creamy or cumbersome. Instead, it’s lithe and zingy, which is just the flavor profile you want when you're making a pitcher of Sangria. Plus, the cognac is flavorful enough that a little goes a long way.
Best for Old Fashioned: Lepanto Brandy Solera Gran Reserva
To be called a Brandy de Jerez, a spirit must be made in the Jerez area of Andalusia’s famed “Sherry Triangle," aged in American oak that previously held sherry, and matured via a solera system. This bottle is made using wine from estate-grown Palomino Fino grapes distilled in centuries-old copper alembic pots, then aged for a minimum of 12 years. Dan Nicolaescu, beverage manager at New York's Copper and Oak, describes it as “concentrated and alluring with a rich mahogany color with golden sparkles, intoxicating flavors of nuts, dried fruit and cocoa, and a long, fulfilling finish.” He says the Lepanto brandy works well in stirred drinks like an Old Fashioned, where it plays beautifully with the Angostura bitters.
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