American Brandy Producers Get Creative
Once a year, Baltimore Spirits takes an attention-grabbing approach to dispatching an abundance of Maryland apples into apple brandy. Inspired by the harvest celebration of Mexico’s pechuga mezcal, raw apples are swept with smoke, then distilled with foraged pawpaw, persimmon and black walnut. For the final distillation, a 30-pound Maryland country ham is suspended in the still above the pot, for a distinct “prosciutto-y” salinity, explains cofounder Max Lents.
“It’s a completely insane thing to do— hanging hams in your still,” Lents acknowledges, “but the spirit wouldn’t be the same without it.”
Insane? Maybe. But it’s memorable—and that’s important.
Creative distilleries are shaking up the once-sleepy world of American brandy. Many are borrowing inspiration from ingredients and distilling cultures from around the world; others are finding ways to spotlight uber-local ingredients, preserving peak seasonal flavors in liquid form.
American brandy has a long lineage, dating back to the first colonists who adapted Europe’s distillation methods to turn apples, pears and other fruit into booze. More recently, modern craft brandy pioneers such as Germain-Robin, Osocalis, Laird’s and St. George, among others, brought high-quality American brandies to the mainstream. Now, a new generation is finding ways to draw attention to brandy—many with flavors we just can’t forget.
When the distillery opened in 2015, the plan was to focus on heritage spirits such as a Maryland rye and a traditional apple brandy.
Yet, an obsession with Mexico’s often-smoky mezcal led Baltimore Spirits to emulate Mexico’s agave distillation methods—using apples, which they smoked and then pot-distilled. They describe the end result, Fumus Pumila, as a “mezcal-style apple brandy,” with a distinctly smoky tone. While the founders aren’t of Mexican descent, they say, “We were inspired by mezcal to make this spirit.”
They have since experimented with a smoked pommeau (a French style that mixes apple juice and apple brandy), as well as their annual “pechuga” variation featuring local autumn fruit and nuts— and that country ham.
What is it about brandy that keeps the experiments coming? “It’s overlooked and underappreciated,” Lents says. He points to the “ebb and flow” of enthusiasm for various spirits: vodka in the ’80s and ’90s, bourbon in the aughts. Brandy hasn’t held the spotlight lately, he adds, “But I think brandy will have its moment again.”
Bottles to Try
Fumus Pumila (Smoked Apple Brandy) 50% abv; $32.99
Asimina Pumila (“Pechuga”-Style Apple Brandy) 53.4% abv; $59.99
“There’s something unique about brandy, and how distillation presents the finest essence of that fruit or vegetable,” says cofounder Ann Marshall. While the Charleston distillery is best known for its Jimmy Red Corn Bourbon, “We dabble in brandy,” Marshall says—notably, innovative versions inspired by their Southern heritage.
First came a golden peach brandy— South Carolina is the largest peach producer in the South. Prohibition had pretty much wiped out peach brandy-making traditions, so Marshall and husband Scott Blackwell reached out to drinks historian Dave Wondrich for an assist. Wondrich’s feedback: The early version likely was intended to produce “an American version of Cognac,” so their fragrant version, made using flesh, pits and peach skin, aged for two years in French oak barrels.
Other brandy test-runs have included a limited-edition watermelon brandy using local Charleston Gray watermelons (“it had a squash-y, rind-y, old-school heirloom melon characteristic”). Looking ahead, Marshall is dreaming about loquats, a kumquat-like fruit that grows in urban Charleston: “I could see us rallying to do something like that. It’s a whole other tier of things to experiment with and learn about.”
Bottles to Try
Peach Brandy (2 years old) 44% abv, $79.99
Peach Brandy 2022 release, bottled in bond (4 years old) 50% abv, $99
Watermelon Brandy 40% abv, $79.99
Many of Rhine Hall’s brandies—plum, pear, cherry, etc.—are inspired by European traditions. After all, cofounder Charlie Solberg first developed an interest in brandy while in Austria, where he played professional hockey in the 1970s.
Today, daughter and co-founder Jennifer Solberg Katzman has expanded into what she terms “exotic” fruit brandies, made with fruit imported from Mexico and Central America, just right for mixing into tropical cocktails. They started with mango brandy about five years ago, followed by banana— “it tastes like banana bread, but with no sugar added,” Katzman says—and pineapple, the latter made in both a clear eau-de-vie and lush barrel-aged “reserve” style, with the barrel adding nuanced spice.
“The catalyst was, what can we do that’s innovative, but not trendy?” Katzman recalls. “I don’t think people get that excited about traditional Midwest fruit they can see at the farmer’s market. But if you throw something exotic into the mix, it catches someone’s ear.”
Bottles to Try
Mango Brandy 40% abv; $59
Pineapple Brandy 40% abv; $56
Pear Brandy 40% abv; $65
Tamworth makes a wide range of spirits—whiskeys, seasonal gins and liqueurs, a VSOP apple brandy, pommeau and “plummeau” made with Damson plums. But a daring experiment distilling durian—a spiky tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia, noted for its custardy flesh and pungent aroma—caught significant attention when it launched in 2020. Nicknamed “Corpse Flower,” after a night-blooming flower with a similarly funky fragrance, the finished distillate included distinct floral notes.
Owner Steven Grasse had spent time in Southeast Asia and suggested distilling the fruit. The biggest challenge, recalls distiller Jamie Oakes, was sourcing fresh durian, which they could only find readily available dried or in paste format. “Being a polarizing fruit, I wanted it to be the best possible version the fruit has to offer,” Oakes says. He eventually procured fresh fruit packed in dry ice. While the original limited run sold out, Oakes anticipates “bringing it back at some point.”
Durian brandy was a daring gamble—likely one of many boundary-breaking brandies to come, Oakes predicts. “We think there’s a limit—and then we push through.”
Bottles to Try
“Corpse Flower” Durian Brandy 43% abv; $65 for 200 ml
Hood River, OR
Inspired by an Alsatian distillate made with pine buds, this bracing version is a neutral grape brandy steeped with Oregon’s Douglas Fir, yielding a naturally pale-green hue and bracing, forest-like scent. In addition to the Douglas Fir, Clear Creek is well-known for its wide array of fruit brandies, including a pear-inthe-bottle pear brandy, in the style of France’s “Poire Prisonniere.”
But each spring, the distillery team heads into Mount Hood to pluck fir buds from a lumber farm, working with the local forest service. “Those buds are only viable for us to pick for about five days; then they turn orange and brown and become too sappy,” explains head distiller Caitlin Bartlemay. “We have to pick 100-plus pounds in five days. We go up, we pick buds like mad, it’s like picking popcorn off a Christmas tree.”
Made just once each year, “It’s our love letter to the Pacific Northwest,” Bartlemay says.
Bottles to Try
Douglas Fir Brandy 47.7% abv; $50 for 375 ml
Will it Brandy?
Creative distillers are always thinking about ways to push boundaries even further. While it might be surprising what has worked, not everything does. Plenty of trial runs never make it to the bottling line (we asked). Apparently savory flavors can be challenging. Tomato has been tried (“just weird”) and onion (“potent”). There’s funk to come though: One distiller professed plans to try a mushroom brandy. Another is thinking about one made from fruit native to Asia—yes, yuzu brandy, here we come.
The producers profiled here are mostly small craft distilleries and make a limited supply of their most unusual brandies. Some skipped annual runs during the pandemic or delayed 2022 releases due to supply-chain issues. Purchasing direct from the distilleries—in person, if you can—is the best bet to scoop up limited-edition bottlings.
This article originally appeared in the Best of Year 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!