CB: More middle-aged Calvados. Chocolate-covered candy apple, vanilla, honey.
GB: Sweet apples, alcohol, a bit of oak.
CB: Richer and leatherier. Dark chocolate, cider, burn.
Thanks to John Creek and Bhavik Patel for getting Comrade Brandy together.
Parting words: Laird’s is the bourbon-lovers’ apple brandy and I, a bourbon lover, love Laird’s. I was excited when it was announced that Laird’s was going to be releasing a high-proof single barrel edition, so as soon as it hit the stores and went out and bought a barrel. A few weeks later, I found myself in a Facebook group for a private barrel pick of that very same product. So I took the opportunity to write up another one of my beloved head to head tasting reviews.
I enjoyed both of these but Comrade Brandy had more Calvados-like depth and complexity than the off-the-shelf model. I’m very glad I decided to buy two bottles but I kind of wish I had purchased more. I was sent two I didn’t order accidentally, but I can’t just keep them, right? Right? Laird’s Single Cask selection is recommended.
Note: The tour of Copper & Kings was complimentary for my party and me.
On my last few trips to Kentucky, my crew and I have not done much in the way of activities. When you’ve been going for ten years or so, you’ve done all the tours and seen pretty much all the sites so my inclination is to just kick around town or the hotel and not do a bunch of driving here and there. In other words, we fell into a rut.
This April I decided to do more. I scheduled two day trips for us. The first was to Frankfort (more on that later), and the second was to Louisville. In the latter, I scheduled a tour of the Old Forester Distilling Company (Brown-Forman’s excellent answer to the Evan Williams Experience), a lunch with award-winning bourbon journalist Maggie Kimberl, and then a tour of Copper & Kings distillery.
For the second year in a row I had forgotten that the Louisville Marathon is that Saturday morning and as a result many of the streets downtown are closed off to vehicular traffic. Despite this we managed to sucessfully navigate through the streets of downtown Louisville by car and then by foot to make our way to Old Forester Distilling Co ahead of schedule.
Lunch was a different story. I had neglected to call ahead to our chosen lunch meeting
place and when we met Maggie there, the wait was forty-five minutes. That wouldn’t work, so Maggie told us to all jump into her minivan and she took us to a popular restaurant near Copper & Kings called Butchertown Grocery. Their wait was even longer but they told us to go down the street to a newer, smaller place called Naive. They had seats and good food, drinks, and service.
After that, we bid farewell to Maggie and walked to Copper & Kings. A winding path through repurposed shipping containers (containing a gift shop and restrooms) runs from the front of the property into a courtyard that occupies the space in front of the main building. The space is set up for outdoor events and includes a bar, a firepit and a large tent (in case of rain, I assume). Just about everything is orange.
Our tour group assembled in the large tent (it was raining) and we got a brief opening talk from our tour guide Margaret. She gave us the basics about what brandy is and told us a little about the According to Margaret, before prohibition there were 400 or so brandy distilleries in the US. Very few survived and many of those that did, make sweet, dessert brandies. That is not what Copper & Kings makes. They aim to make brandy for bourbon-drinkers. The distillery began operations in 2009 and opened to the public in 2014.
Margaret then led us through the courtyard into the first floor of the main building by the stills. They had three steam-heated alembic stills at the time, with one on the way, all manufactured by Vendome. The smallest is Sara (50 gallons), followed by Magdalena (750 gal), and Isis (1,000 gal). Their newest still, Rosemary (2,000 gal), had not yet been delivered when we were there. In case you were wondering, all the stills are named after women whose names appear in Bob Dylan songs, mostly in songs from his 1976 album Desire. Rosemary appears on the prior album Blood on the Tracks. I would have gone with Patty Valentine, but what do I know? According to Margaret, the stills are currently run around the clock but vary according to the phase of the moon. Distillation takes shortest during a full moon, longest during a new moon. I know that sounds like baloney, but it’s based on data compiled over the years by former C & K employee Alan Bishop. The difference is not great but it does exist, especially during a “super moon”. Alan is currently master distiller at Spirits of French Lick in French Lick, Indiana.*
No fermentation takes place at the distillery. All the wine, cider or whatever that is destined for the stills is feremnted elsewhere and taken to the distillery. The grapes (Columbard, Muscat Alexander, and Chenin Blanc) are sourced from California and the apples from Michigan. Yeast strains are chosen on a year to year basis.
After looking the stills over, Margaret took us down to the cellar in which brandies were
aging in a bewildering variety of cooperage. The brandy destined for C & K’s core line are aged in ex-bourbon casks originally from Heaven Hill, makers of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and many more. The rest were aging in ex-sherry, ex-Cognac, mead, beer, wine, cider and many many more. There were even a few barrels of oddball spirits that C & K has acquired over the years, presumably for future releases. The barrels are obtained through Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville.
Copper & Kings practices something they call sonic aging. This has nothing to do with an elderly hedgehog. It’s the practice of placing speakers (20 total including five sub-woofers) in the cellar and cranking the volume up to get the spirit moving and increase the amount of contact between the spirit and the barrel. Appropriately enough, they were playing My Morning Jacket while we were there.
We then moved upstairs to a large, lounge-like
space to sit down and do some sampling. I tried their 5th anniversary brandy, called A Song for You, a high-powered gin and a delicious barrel-finished absinthe. We all tasted each other’s samples as well, and the biggest standout of those was an unusual distillery-only pear brandy. I didn’t end up going home with that but I kind of wish I had.
After the sampling, we all headed to the rooftop bar for a cocktail and a good view of Louisville and the solar panels on the roof. Sustainability is a big concern for Copper & Kings. In addition to the solar panels, they have planted a monarch butterfly garden that doubles as run-off mitigation and offer anyone who rides a bicycle to the distillery 50% off the price of a tour.
The rooftop bar.
Solar panels and the skyline.
That was the end. Our guide Margaret was wonderful, and if I have any complaint, it was that everything was a little too orange. Don’t get me wrong, as a graduate of Broad Ripple High School and Anderson University I have great affection for the color, but it got to be too much. Anyhow, a tour of Copper & Kings is recommended.
I also recommend stopping at Butchertown Market after your tour for some light souvenir and candy shopping. We did and got some good stuff. Check it out!
*Big thanks to Alan for answering my question via FB messenger and to Maggie Kimberl and Steve Beam for connecting me with him!
Parting words: The Charbay Distillery is one of the oldest micro-distilleries in the US. It’s best known product is its distinctive line of whiskeys distilled from drinkable ( as opposed to distiller’s) beer sourced from local brewers with hops also usually added after distillation. As one might expect, they’re pretty weird. They are also very expensive, even by micro-distiller standards. The flagship expressions are the 6 y/o Charbay Releases I-V (brewed from a pilsner with hops also added after distillation). Release III sells for $375 per 750 ml bottle at K&L Wine Merchants in Southern California, with IV listed at $500 and V for $650 (the latter two are listed as out of stock). There is also the R5 made from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA (1 y/o, $75) and Whiskey S made from Bear Republic’s Big Bear Stout (2 y/o, $90). They also produce a line of infused vodkas.
I’ve had a couple of the Releases and I didn’t care for them. Long time readers will know that I’m not a fan of funky hops or young, expensive whiskey, so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. On November 9, 2018 I saw some folks on Twitter talking about Charbay whiskey and I rattled off a snarky tweet in response: “Charbay is gross, there I said it.” It got a little interaction but I didn’t really think about it much afterwards.
Then on January 13, 2019 I got a response from the distillery asking if I was interested in trying any of their other products since I obviously didn’t like the whiskey. After some back and forth on the tl and in the dms, Jenni of Charbay kindly sent me samples of their two brandies, the Nos. 83 and 89.
No. 83, coincidentally distilled in 1983, was the first thing to ever come out of Charbay’s still. It was distilled twice and aged in Limousin oak for 27 years. It seems to fall into the quirky house style, but I’ll admit that I haven’t had enough 27 y/o brandies to truly make a fair comparison. It’s the most Cognac-like of the two, which should come as no surprise since it’s made from Folle Blanche grapes, one of the historic grape varieties of Cognac. Wood is prominent, but there’s enough herbs and spices to keep No. 83 from being one-dimensional.
No. 89 is a different animal altogether. It was distilled in 1989 from two popular wine grapes, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir brandies are rare but not completely unknown, with fellow Ukiah distiller Germain-Robin producing a celebrated one. Sauvignon Blanc is more rare, but is still not completely unheard of as a source material for brandy. There’s slightly more fruit in 83 than in 89, but there’s still not a lot. What is there is a citric acidity that cuts through the oak to make for an enjoyable special occasion sipper.
I’m not going to do the thing I typically do in the final paragraph of a review and evaluate these on price. These are both special, one of a kind brandies and their prices reflect that. Both are outside of my price-range for any spirits, although I could see myself paying $240 for something exceptional if my wife got a big bonus or promotion or when we become empty-nesters. Nos. 83 and 89 are important pieces of micro-distilling history. If you get a chance to taste them, jump on it! You’ll never taste anything like them again.
One pairing suggestion: If you do pay full price for these bottles or over $50 for a pour in a bar, maybe make a matching donation to your favorite charity or local DSA chapter.
Maker: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)
Grape: Vidal Blanc.
Age: 8 y/o
Price: I forgot.
Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.
Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.
At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.
Maker: Starlight Distillery, Borden, Indiana, USA (Huber’s Orchard & Winery)
Price: $60 (website)
Note: My wife and I received a complimentary tasting and tour and a 10% discount at time of purchase.
Appearance: Medium copper with thick, sticky legs.
Nose: Alcohol, oak, golden raisins, toffee, pinch of clove.
Palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Dried figs, alcohol, vanilla, salted caramel, custard.
Finish: Back to raisins and oak. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not at all. Fades a little too quickly though.
Parting words: Starlight Distillery has been making brandy since 2001 and selling it since 2004. They sell two (grape) brandies, actually. There is the Private Reserve, and the cheaper Starlight Distillery Brandy which they didn’t let me taste.
Master distiller Lisa Wicker: “You don’t want that one, it’s only distilled once.”
Me: “That’s OK. Armagnac is too, right?”
Lisa: [laughs and pours me the reserve]
Having been in the business for so long (by micro distiller standards) means they have the reserves to make a consistently good product and that they do. I emailed Lisa about what sort of cooperage and grapes they use for this product, but I have had no reply as of press time. That’s OK, though. Lisa & Tim are two of the good guys and both very busy individuals.
I hosted a bourbon writer in my house recently and he picked this bottle out of my liquor cabinet as we were sitting down to an after dinner chat and sip. He was very impressed. Since we were on the topic of brandy, I asked him about a brandy micro-distillery that near him in Kentucky that had been getting a lot of press lately. “Their stuff is good,” he said, “but not as good as this.”
So there you have it. This is a very good American brandy at a decent price, one that more than holds its own with brandies big and small. Huber Starlight Distillery Private Reserve Brandy is recommended.
Appearance: Burnt orange with a long, persistent necklace.
Nose: Alcohol, raisins, prunes, mincemeat, black tea.
Palate: Full-bodied and rich. Prune juice, star anise, passito wine, oak.
Finish: Dry and spicy. Fruitcake or mincemeat spices, raisins.
Parting words: Co-founded by a man from a distilling family in Cognac, Germain-Robin is probably the U.S.’s finest producer of brandy. They’ve been in business since 1982 (an eternity in micro-distiller years) and were favorites of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, among others.
This is very much in the style of Cognac but better than most in its price range. As a whiskey drinker primarily, it makes a very pleasant change of pace. I haven’t tried V & T’s other batch, 2012E but I have heard excellent things about it too. Something this tasty at this price is not something I would mix. It’s an excellent value from an excellent maker and an excellent retailer. Germain-Robin Alembic Brandy Reserve Vine & Table batch 2012F is highly recommended.