Nose: Caramel, parsley, leather, English lavender.
Palate: Mild. Sage, French oak, pecans, toffee.
Finish: Caramel apple, eucalyptus.
Parting words: Pays d’Auge is the most prestigious apellation in Calvados. Its brandies are required to be distilled twice in pot stills (unlike the column stills used elsewhere), and the fruit (mostly apples) that goes into it must all come from the region of the same name in east-central Calvados (duh). Pears are allowed into the mix, but unlike the neighboring AOC Domfrontais, there is no minimum percetage that must be used. My understanding is that very few pears are used in Pays d’Auge anymore.
At any rate, Busnel is one of the leasing producers of Calvados, or at least one of the most commonly seen brands in the US. They’ve been distilling since the early 19th century, although brandy has been made in Calvados since at least the 17th, and probably earlier than that. They produce a full line of all the age categories, although VSOP is the only expression available in Michigan.
From my tasting notes, it may seem like this brandy is a bit cattywampus, but it really is integrated into a seemless whole. Busnel VSOP is the perfect example of a spirit that is elegant without being dull. It’s worth all $50 I paid for it, and maybe even a little more. Busnel VSOP is highly recommended.
Maker: Père Magloire, Pont L’Eveque, Calvados, Normandy, France.
Region: Calvados AOC, France.
Age category: Fine/VS (at least 2 y/o)
Michigan State Minimum: $35
Appearance: Bright copper.
Nose: Varnish, apples.
Palate: Medium bodied. Celery, some dry apple flavor.
Finish: Dry and clean. A pinch of celery leaf.
Parting words: I’ve been exploring French apple brandies for a year or two and I figured it was about time I got around to trying something from Père Magloire, France’s (and the world’s?) best selling Calvados. I was not impressed.
This is an inoffensive but dull brandy. Light apple and celery (typical of young French or French-style apple brandies) are the only flavors detectable. Not a trace of wood, caramel, vanilla or anything else. It mixes well enough, but at $35 a bottle, you’re better off getting Laird’s Applejack or 7 1/2 y/o apple brandy if you’re looking for a light apple flavor for mixing. If you’re looking for a sipper, upgrade to the VSOP (if you can find it, it’s no longer on the Michigan list).
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.
Palate: White chocolate apple, vanilla custard, burn.
Finish: Butterscotch hard candy, ginger, kiss of oak.
Parting words: Roger Groult is a family-owned Calvados producer in the Pays d’Auge, in the eastern half of the Calvados AOC. Groult produces a full line of apple brandies that often show up on the shelves of large liquor stores in the US.
I haven’t tried any of the other Groult brandies so I can’t comment on how this one compares to the others, but I did enjoy it. There’s nothing too distictive but there’s also nothing unpleasant. At 8 years I did expect a bit more oak, but I’m not big on oaky apple brandies, so that was fine with me. I just wish that there was a little more depth. $60 isn’t terrible for an age-stated Calvados so Roger Groult 8 year old Calvados 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!
Maker: Domaine Dupont, Victot-Pontfol, Normandy, France
Style: Calvados-barrel-aged cider.
Apples: 67% bittersweet, 33% acidic
Place of origin: (Pays d’Auge) Normandy, France.
Vintage: 2016 (bottled 2017)
Notes: Unpasteurized, wild yeast fermented. Aged in Calvados barrels for six months.
Purchased for $25/750 ml (Vine & Table, Carmel, Indiana)
Parting words: Domaine Dupont is one of the big cheeses of Calvados and like many other Calvados houses, they make cider and pommeau as well. The domaine has been owned by the Dupont family since 1917. Current patriarch Éitienne Dupont modernized the estate when he took over from his father Jules in the 1980s. He handed the business over to his son Jérôme and daughter Ann-Pamy in 2002. Sadly, Jérôme was killed in an accident in August of 2018. Éitienne has come out of retirement to help Ann-Pamy and the management team to lead the company.
Dupont’s line of ciders consists of the entry-level Cidre Bouche (reviewed in 2014), an organic cider, Triple (triple fermented from 100% bittersweets), Cuvée Colette (champagne method), and this one, the Calvados-barrel aged Reserve. I didn’t care for the Cidre Bouche when I tried it (too dry and funky) but I really enjoy this cider. The barrel aging adds a wonderful creamy sweetness that balances out the chalky funk. The result is a well-rounded, complex but easy-drinking cider that anyone can enjoy.
That doesn’t come cheap, but Dupont Reserve is easily worth the price. Dupont Reserve is highly recommended.
Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Sweet sherry, old oak, toffee.
Finish: Rubber, oak, alcohol
Parting words: Copper & Kings is one of the few microdistillers that is taking brandy seriously. In fact, they do more than take it seriously, it’s the heart of their business. They have six brandies on Michigan shelves, including an unaged apple brandy and the aged Floodwall.
Floodwall has a lot of things going for it. It’s 100 proof, a rarity for brandy (although Laird’s does make a bonded apple brandy), is under $50 (a rarity for aged craft spirits), mixes well and tastes a little like an old Calvados.
That last item is also its greatest weakness, though. My favorite apple brandies are ones that are mature but still retain some apple character to balance out the cask characteristics. Old Calvados is usually all cask and Floodwall is too. In Floodwall’s case, the cause is not age, but heavy handed use of sherry cask. There are some interesting things in the nose and on the front end of the palate but it all quickly turns one dimensional. If you like big sherry finishes, you’ll probably like Floodwall, but I wasn’t very keen on it. Floodwall is not recommended.
Maker: Christian Drouin, Gonneville-le-Theil, Manche, Normandy, France (Drouin family).
Place of origin: Pays d’Auge AOC, Calvados, Normandy, France.
VSOP: at least four years old
XO: at least six years old
VSOP: $67(Party source)
XO: $80? (From memory. Not listed on the websites of Binny’s, TPS or anywhere else I looked.)
Thanks to Amy & Pete for picking the XO up for me!
VSOP: Bright orange.
XO: A little darker, burnt orange.
VSOP: Cut apple, alcohol, leather.
XO: Oak, sweet apple cider.
VSOP: Full-bodied. Caramel apple (no nuts)
XO: Full-bodied. White chocolate-covered apple.
VSOP: Fruity and chewy. Pinch of celery leaf.
XO: Bitter oak, a little caramel.
Parting words: Christian Drouin (not to be confused with Joseph Drouhin, the Burgundian négociant) has not been in business very long for the producer of a spirit that’s been around for five hundred years or more. It was founded in 1960 when Rouen industrialist Christian Drouin (the elder) purchased a farm in Gonneville, Manche, near Cherbourg. Since then, the brand has expanded rapidly and is one of the most widely distributed lines of Calvados in the world. It is currently run by Christian Drouin the younger with the elder’s grandchildren also working at the family business. Drouin currently produces (in ascending order of age) an unaged apple/pear eau de vie (Blanche de Normandie), Sélection (reviewed back in April), Réserve, VSOP, XO, Hors d’Age, 25 y/o, and a range of vintage Calvados.
I purchased the VSOP in Indianapolis and when FotBs Pete and Amy stopped off at The Party Source last spring, I asked them to pick up a bottle of the Réserve. The Réserve was not in stock but the XO was, so they picked that one up instead. I was surprised but not disappointed.
Both of these brandies are delicious. If I had to pick one over the other, I would pick the VSOP. It retains more apple aroma and flavor than the XO does and makes a refreshing, but still somplex summertime sip. The XO does retain some spple character but it takes a back seat to the rich, dessert flavors that come with age and use of different types of cooperage, a point of emphasis for Drouin. It is said that as Calvados ages it slowly loses its apple character and moves closer the flavor of aged grape brandies like Cognac. The XO seems to exemplify that phenomenon.
Christian Drouin VSOP and XO are both recommended.
Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery, St. John’s, Michigan, USA
Distiller: Red Cedar, East Lansing, Michigan, USA (From Uncle John’s own cider)
Age: NAS (2-6 y/o)
Price: Don’t remember/375 ml. Only available at the winery. Complimentary bottle.
Appearance: Bright copper.
Nose: Apple cider, cola, caramel, leather.
Palate: Sweet and medium bodied. Salted caramel, candy apple, alcohol.
Finish: Lavender, raisins, toasted oak. Long.
Mixed: I tried this brandy in two cocktails, both of which put the brandy front and center. The first was the classic Jack Rose (with lime juice and grenadine). It was good. The second was the Marconi Wireless (basically an apple brandy Manhattan). It was just OK. The pungent sweet vermouth I used overwhelmed the brandy.
Parting words: From my “A Visit to Uncle John’s“: “We then moved on to the really good stuff, apple brandy. They have twelve barrels aging at the Cider Mill. They have two different types of barrels to age their brandy. Some is aged in toasted French oak (in barrels intended for Calvados) and some in Michigan oak barrels, also toasted. The Michigan oak barrels were sourced by St. Julien’s to be distributed to wineries across the state. Mike prefers the French oak barrels but again credits St. Julien’s with doing a good thing for wineries in the state by facilitating the use of home grown wood in wine and spirits production. It’s a cool thing for a Michigan producer to be able to say that [its] product has been aged in Michigan oak.”
Uncle John’s Apple Brandy was fine mixed, but it’s really a back porch neat sipping brandy. I don’t remember the price but I don’t remember it being unreasonable for a half sized bottle. It’s made in very limited quantities (currently sold out) so get some if you’re ever in the Lansing area. Uncle John’s Apple Brandy is recommended.