basic starter brandy for the novice
I noticed recently that the one particular hole in our well-stocked bar is brandy. Allstonian and I are doing our annual foodie trip across New Hampshire and Vermont this weekend, and one of the traditional stops is at one of the famed NH state liquor stores, so I thought I might pick something up there.
Thing is, neither of us knows much about grape brandy, although Allstonian's deep-seated fondness for all things eastern European means we have several fruit brandies of the style one of her exes memorably dubbed "fruit-based lighter fluid." But when it comes of grape brandy, we're coming into this fairly blind.
So I'm open to your suggestions. Style and region are unimportant at this point. Could be American, could be cognac, could be armagnac (which a teensy part of me has a slight silly preference for because one of my favorite songs is the Kinks' "Autumn Almanac," which works armagnac into a series of increasingly tortured rhymes for the title phrase), could be something else entirely.
Basically, what I'm looking for is something that I wouldn't mind having a little nip of either neat or in a cup of tea after coming in on a frigid New England winter night, but I also wouldn't consider a waste to use as flambee starter for a dessert. And ideally, I'm looking for something I can buy in a smallish bottle, since I may well be picking up a few possibilities over the next few months and my natural inclination is to buy the smallest available bottle of any liquor since Allstonian and I both tend to drink like girl scouts. Suggestions?
>>> Style and region are unimportant at this point. Could be American, could be cognac, could be armagnac . . . <<<
Well, here I disagree. There is a wide range of styles and characteristics, and just as you wouldn't (would you?) start with a $200 bottle and go DOWN from there, neither would I -- if I were you -- start with Armagnac.
How do you want to drink it? Straight? In egg nog? In a cocktail of some kind? All of this matters in terms of what I would recommend to you.
It's easy enough to go into a bar (or a NH Liquor store) and buy one shot (or a 50ml, or 187ml bottle) of something like Christian Bros. or Korbel Brandy just to taste. Both of these are good, solid, California grape brandies, but nothing special. Of the two, Korbel will be fuller, richer; XBros lighter and more delicate.
A truly excellent California brandy -- produced in the "Cognac style" (whatever that means) -- is Germain-Robin. This is certainly worth the purchase of a bottle.
If you're seeking to start out with a French brandy, I'd start with Cognac, and save Armangac for later. I'd skip Courvoisier which is a bit more harsh than it should be (despite its popularity; remember, Napoleon had nothing to do with the brand whatsoever!). Easy to get/easy to find are the mainstream Cognac brands like Martell, Rémy Martin, Hennessey. I'd also skip the "V.S." level and go straight to the "V.S.O.P." (or its equivalent). Of these three, Rémy will be the lightest and driest, then Hennessey, and Martell the fullest.
IF you decide you like Cognac, then you can start exploring the better (harder-to-find and often [though not always] more expensive) labels such as Hine, Delamain, Maison Serrenne, Logis de la Mothe, Léopold Gourmel, and others.
Cheap Armagnac sucks, but great Armagnac is truly sublime. Of the major brands, Sempé can be very good; so, too, Janneau. But the very best comes from Darroze, Laberdolive, Chateau de Labaude, Marcel Trépout, and other small producers. But these can be anywhere from $100 to $750+ per bottle, depending upon age.
As I said, most of it will be drunk either neat or as a fortifying shot in some other beverage (I'm liking your egg nog idea, but I was thinking more like a nice cup of tea) rather than as an ingredient in a cocktail. But I'm also assuming I'll be using it in dessert sauces and the like on occasion as well.
For the record, I do know that I care not for Courvoisier, which was the tipple of choice of my college girlfriend. That's about the extent of my brandy experience.
Don't forget about Spain. Pedro de Domecq, Fundadores (sp) come to mind.
'Course, if you want to be cooler than your friends, go the Inca Pisco route. Pisco is a Peruvian brandy unlike any made elsewhere in the world.
" I'm looking for something I can buy in a smallish bottle, since I may well be picking up a few possibilities over the next few months and my natural inclination is to buy the smallest available bottle of any liquor "
Why don't you do that then? Pick up some small bottles and tey some different brandy styles; then, instead of asking strangers what you might like, you can tell strangers what you do like.
"I'm open to your suggestions"
Suggestions of what? No one has to suggest to you what they might like, they know, it can be stated flat out. Aren't you asking for suggestions of brandies for you to try, in other words, suggestions of brandies you might like?
"Basically, what I'm looking for is something that I wouldn't mind having a little nip"
Doesn't this mean you are looking for something that you might like to drink?
If what you want is for people to tell you their favorites, my favorite is Pisco. It's like a miracle.
At any rate, what about my suggestion that you buy a few small bottles of what ever you see in small bottles? The small bottles preference limits your selection, but it really is the best way to find something you might like among what's available and it might indicate a style preference.
You will likely only find the big national (international) brands in smaller than pint bottles, but I have seen some places with huge selections of single drink ("airplane") bottles.
Big question, no easy answers. Perhaps more than any other liquor, brandy comes in many styles from many places at many price points. I'd suggest that you establish your budget first, then go from there. You have myriad options below $10, over $100, and at every point in between.
You've identified three uses: sipping, mixing, and cooking. IMHO you need at least two brandies to cover those bases. For cooking you need some brandy flavor but no smoothness. For mixing you need good flavor and hopefully a little smoothness. And for sipping you want very good to great flavor and complexity and considerable smoothness. Unless you're the type who lights cigars with currency, you probably don't want to deglaze a pan with a super-premium spirit. And unless you have a cast-iron palate, you probably don't want to sip stuff made from inexpensive wines and bottled straight from the still.
For a sipping brandy, it's hard to beat Germain-Robin. They make wonderful brandies, and the prices, while substantial, are good values: you're paying for great base wines, not full-page ads on the back of national magazines. The regular ($40) stuff is very good; the XO ($100) is sublime. But don't mix this stuff into egg nog; that would be akin to grinding up a beautiful ribeye steak to make a burger.
For cooking, any of the cheap brandies from California (eg Korbel, Christian Bros., E&J), France (eg Raynal, Dupre, Vendome), or even Mexico (Presidente is remarkably good for the price) will do.
For mixing, you can use a low-end sipping brandy, but I'd be inclined to go for the "premium" version of one of the inexpensive brands. In my kitchen, E&J XO pulls double duty for deglazing pans and spiking egg nog.
BTW, be aware that designations such as VS, VSOP, XO, etc. are largely meaningless except to distinguish between brandies by a single producer (and, to a limited extent, across major producers of the same style of brandy). So your college girlfriend's Courvoisier VS will be younger and less smooth than Courvoisier XO, and will likely be similar in age and smoothness to Remy Martin or Hennessy VS. But if you expect E&J's XO to compare to Prunier's, you will be sorely disappointed.
As a starter brandy, you'd be well off with a Cognac from one of the big 4 -- Martell, Le Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Hennessy. Some of these are quite good, others better as a rather expensive base for mixed drinks. The trouble is (depending on your tastes), the lesser ones may not give you any idea why Cognac is so highly regarded.
Me, I go for the smaller producers, if only because the big 4 already have 70 percent of the market. As a medium priced Cognac, as prices go, I especially like Kelt Admiral. IMO, better than many twice its price.
With a good Cognac, I suggest drinking it straight, or with a water chaser, or perhaps a small ice cube
To give you an idea of what people look for in Cognac, you might want to glance at :
And beware, says me, of some brandy “traditions.” In the Cognac region, they generally don’t use those jumbo 19th century “snifters..” A simple tulip glass will do you you fine. And don’t heat up brandy over a candle or in a hot glass – this just drives up the alcohol in the evaporatives and ruins the aroma.
zin1953 says "... Christian Bros. or Korbel Brandy ... Both of these are good, solid, California grape brandies, but nothing special." I agree, those are the two standard California brandies, found in many US supermarkets I've seen.
Above-average value in widely distributed Cognacs, in my experience, is the Rémy Martin VSOP (frosted green bottle, around $30 at California warehouse stores in 2004 though I think it's up a bit now). A "house" Cognac in some good restaurants; I use it mostly in cooking fine dishes at home (seasoning a mushroom sauté or good onion soup) and it's also a delicate after-dinner digestif, a "pousse-café" in the European (not the multilayered) sense. The subtlety and fruitiness of good Cognacs are evident in the Rémy, without three-digit dollar prices.
I disagree with zin1953's classing of Armagnacs and Cognacs so differently. Both are regional French brandies, classic competitors, Armagnacs having a different, usually drier, style. Aged or luxury versions, and relative scarcity of Armagnacs, distract from their fundamental parallel role as artisanal brandies of two distinct regions. Just as Calvados (from Normandy, based on apples) and single-malt whiskys (from Scotland, and sprouted barley) are ancient standard spirits in their own localities; all can be found now in impressively expensive versions, but don't let that distract you from getting to know them -- all are distinct spirits of generally high standards and subtle flavors.
Let me explain the "classification." Both Cognac and Armagnac are classic brandies of France. (So, too, is Calvados, but -- made from apples -- is clearly a different type of brandy.) Each has its own appellation d'origine contrôlée, or AOC. (So does Calvados, by the way.)
Cognac is, however, produced in chalky soils, while Armagnac is from sandy soils. Cognac is made from Saint-Émilion, though a little Folle Blanche and Colombard may still be found within the region. Armagnac is produced from Folle Blanche, Saint-Émilion (aka Ugni Blanc), and/or Baco 22A (one of the few French-American hybrids to be an authorized variety within an AOC).
Cognac is double-distilled in pot stills, to approximately 70 percent (140 proof); the "heads" and "tails" are thrown away. Armagnac is single-distilled in a form of continuous pot still unique to Armagnac, and -- by law -- the final distillate cannot exceed 63 percent in alcohol (126 proof), and is often distilled to an even lower level -- around 55 percent or so. traditionally, Cognac is aged in Limousin barrels; Armagnac aged in oak native to Gascony. And so on and so on . . .
For me, the differences are more akin to the differences between a Scotch whisky and an Irish one, or even a Bourbon -- both are whiskies distilled from grain, but there are significant differences between them.
Both Armagnac and Cognac are classic French brandies, but there are significant differences between them. For me, sometimes I want the elegance and refinement of an exquisite Cognac; other times, I want the richness and depth of an old Armagnac. Or a Calvados, or a Brandy de Jerez, or . . .
(I just looked and I have way too much of this stuff! Four difference Cognacs, four different Armagnacs, two bottles of Calvados, one Brandy de Jerez, one California alambic brandy, three fruit eaux-de-vie, two grappa, and one bottle of inexpensive French brandy for cooking. Yikes!)
Both are excellent, but I have often found that people new to brandy often prefer Cognacs to Armagnacs. But clearly it depends on the individual.
Good points. (Alluded above to a comment I didn't understand: "I'd start with Cognac, and save Armangac for later.")
Re US "alembic" brandies, I have also the Germain-Robin which is the best known; also various ages of Jepson, a smaller production in Mendocino County that is part of a winery. (Trade you any four Pastis -- mentioned elsewhere this forum -- for a good Calvados. :-)