A cold evening calls for a luxurious warming libation. High-end bourbon, single malt Scotch and cognac are very satisfying, but they can be quite expensive.
Consider Spanish brandy, a potion that has been in production since the Moors inhabited the region in the 16th century. What is brandy? While bourbon is distilled from grain, and Scotch is distilled from smoky malted barley, brandy is distilled from fruit, usually white grapes, and is made all over the world. Cognac is brandy made only in the legally defined area of the same name in France.
Spanish brandy is worth considering for its quality and reasonable price. Most is made in the Jerez area near the southern coast framed by the towns of towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The area is justifiably famous for its production of the fortified wine sherry, which gets its name from historical mispronunciation of Jerez.
Ninety-five percent of Spanish brandy is labeled as Brandy de Jerez and is made using the fractional blending system known as solera. The primary grape for brandy production is airén, a white variety that grows prolifically in the La Mancha and Valdapeñas regions. I visited Valdapeñas some years ago and watched as farmers on tractors pulled large containers of freshly harvested airén grapes to the wine-producing cooperative. The winery used an automated proboscis-like device, which it plunged into the load of grapes to instantly measure the sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the more the farmers were paid.
Once the grapes are pressed into juice, it is fermented into a very tart wine. This wine is not really palatable on its own because of its profound sourness. The wine is then distilled either in a column still or an alembic still, which resembles a giant copper goose. This type of still was pioneered by the Moors. If you want to see an alembic still, Franklin County Distillery in Boone’s Mill has an impressive cognac still on display.
The solera system is used to produce sherry as well as brandy. Once the wine is distilled, the fiery distillate is placed into barrels that previously held sherry, which are stacked in an organized system. There are layers of barrels stacked on top of each other with the oldest on the bottom, some more than 60 years old. When blending time comes, liquor is extracted from the oldest barrels and then blended with less-old stock closer to the top of the stack. As brandy is extracted, it is topped up with stock from the next oldest layer of barrels and so forth. Based on that, a blend of brandy could have some drops of really old spirit mixed in. Not all Spanish brandy is made by the solera system.
Most brandy is made by sherry producers, with their own signature house process. Brandy is also used in the sherry production process, as it is added to fortify the wine and prevent the sugar from fermenting in the sweet versions. Distilling 3 liters of wine yields 1 liter of brandy at 60% to 70% alcohol. Age in the barrel allows some of the volatile alcohol to escape and mellows the flavors with the nutty taste of sherry-infused wood. In 2014, the production of Brandy de Jerez was 20 million bottles per year, with about 35% of that being exported. Production has decreased from previous years.
The venerable firm Pedro Domecq produces the reasonably priced Fundador, which means “founder.” Fundador was the first product to be marketed as Brandy de Jerez back in 1874. It weighs in at 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) and features a light amber color and notes of fruitcake spices and toasty oak. While not complex, it is reasonably priced at $22.
Located in the Penedes region is the colossal winemaker Torres, which produces a range of brandies including Torres 10 Imperial Reserve Brandy. Xarel-lo and ugni blanc grapes are harvested and fermented and distilled. Torres’ aging system uses French and American oak, where some brandy is aged in solera and some just in barrels for 10 years, hence the name. The brandy has a deep amber color and notes of vanilla and cinnamon. It is 80 proof and competitively priced at $22.
For something a little bit more luxurious, consider Gran Duque de Alba, produced by the famous Williams & Humbert firm, makers of Dry Sack Sherry. This brandy was first produced in 1945 and is named after the 16th century Duke Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, the third Duke of Alba. He was sent to the Netherlands where he became governor and oversaw successful military operations there. The brandy is made by the solera system and according to SherryNotes has aromas of roasted nuts, prunes and old leather and is thick and syrupy on the palate, with notes of vanilla and toffee. It weighs in at 80 proof and sells for $54 in Virginia.
The well-known Conde de Osborne firm offers Carlos I, named after the Spanish Emperor Carlos I. The brandy is composed of airén grapes, which are aged in a very old solera after distillation for at least five years. Some of the barrels in the solera are very old, so you could have molecules in your glass of Carlos I that are more than 100 years old. According to the Carlos I website, it displays a deep amber gold color and a nose of vanilla and cacao with a balanced and complex flavor. It weighs in at 38% ABV and sells for $57.
If your taste leans more toward something dark and opulent, consider Sanchez Romate Cardinal Mendoza. The brandy is aged for 15 years in a solera using barrels that previously contained oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry. Oloroso is nutty and Pedro Ximenez is made from super-ripe grapes and is a syrupy drink that tastes like raisin liqueur. This is translated into the Cardinal Mendoza and comes through with a dark amber color and notes of raisins, prunes, coffee, caramel and cinnamon spice.
Spain does produce some ultra-premium bottlings such as Torres Jaime I Reserva De La Famila. The brandy is named after Jaime Torres Vendrell, who founded the Torres house in Barcelona in 1870. The brandy is very rich and opulent and it comes in a super cool swirled crystal bottle that is patterned after the twisted stone spires featured at the top of exotic architect Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Milà. This luxury item is 80 proof and sells for $125. Brandy from bargain to luxury can be found in Spain.