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Jan 21, 2008 04:01 PM

Cheap Brandy

Cheap Brandy Taste Test – California vs. France

I have always thought that when it comes to the budget-minded, California brandies give you more bang for the buck than their French counterparts. I now have one bottle of each, and finally got to put this opinion to the test.

I got a $10 bottle of Christian Brothers from Andronico’s and a $20 bottle of Duc de Loussac (VSOP, Bas-Armagnac, Ledsa S.A. Nogaro) from Trader Joe’s. The CB had that fire-water, burning feeling in the front or back of your mouth, depending on when you breath; the DL did not, and was smoother and gentler. However, the DL, when it had flavor at all, was mildly soapy. The CB had a nice, fruity, deconstructed flavor that you would expect.

In the end, both had their strengths and weaknesses. Neither was clearly better than the other. So, if you take into account that the California entry cost half the French one, California was the winner.

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  1. Try the Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy some time. It sells for $9.99 at BevMo and is very drinkable.

    1. I'm not sure what you were trying to accomplish. Christian Brothers Brandy is far from the worst brandy produced in California -- far from the best, but it IS one of the better column still efforts -- and although Bas-Armagnac is one of the best brandy appellations in France, low-end Armagnac is (generally) much worse that low-end Cognac, and wouldn't a much more fair "comparison" be a non-appellation d'origine contrôllée French column still brandy (rather than a Cognac or Armagnac) tasted side-by-side with a generic, column still California brandy?

      I'm not trying to be argumentative. Indeed, I'm not at all surprised the XBros "won" the tasting. But it does seem to me a bit apples-and-oranges to me, or in this case, Red Delicious apples compared to bitter Seville oranges.

      If I might suggest, try the Christian Bros. ($8.99 at BevMo) next to a French brandy like Raynal ($10.99), for instance. Or better yet, substitute A.R. Morrow ($6.99 at BevMo) for XBros.

      One of the more interesting judgings at the California State Fair was always the brandy competition -- Korbel, Christian Bros., and Paul Masson. Korbel was always the heaviest, fullest brandy; Christian Bros. was always the lightest; Paul Masson was always in between the other two, in terms of weight and seeming "sweetness" on the palate.

      FWIW, I usually use Raynal or something similar for cooking, but it's worth it to me to spend around $35 or so (and more!) on truly good bottles of California Alambic or Cognac. To find a really good Armagnac or Brandy de Jerez, however, has always required me to spend more money than that.


      8 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        In my home kitchen, Masson, CB, and Korbel are stock items; I prefer Korbel, and better, all are about ten bucks for a bottle. I am sometimes quizzed by visitors why I do not use something better. Answer: California brandies are unjustly dismissed out-of-hand by too many people who have never compared, and going by reputation only.

        The comparison I made was quite apropos, since they both aim at the same audience: medium quality at lower prices. Personally, comparing CB and LD head-to-head was quite educational.

        Raynal and Morrow join El Presidente and E&J in the DPIM category (don't put in mouth). CB and LD both passed as acceptable to me. Better, CB is cheap enough to use in cooking and good enough to drink when you really need something good to sip.

        Ahem: now, if you are talking about high quality, how about Jepson (about $35 last time I bought it) or Germain-Robin XO (about a c-note). It would be interesting to compare these to the finest France has to offer, but I cannot afford the prestigious French products.

        1. re: jerry i h

          My main point was that you are comparing apples and oranges. Clearly millions of people around the world drink Presidente, for instance, and Raynal and the like. I don't dispute your notion that they rate a DNPIM* ranking for you , and that's fine. I would, however, think you would want to compare column still to column still; pot still to pot still. But, perhaps, that's just me.

          Right now in my Berkeley residence, I have the following bottles of various brandy:

          -- Germain-Robin California Alambic Brandy (FWIW, I honestly prefer this to their "XO");
          -- Maison Surrenne ncienne Distillerie 100% Petite Champagne Cognac;
          -- Maison Surrenne 1972 Vintage XO 100 % Grande Champagne Cognac;
          -- Hine Fine Champagne VSOP Cognac;
          -- Francis Darroze 1973 Domaine Dupont Bas-Armagnac;
          -- Francis Darroze 1964 Domaine de Petit Bidouze Bas-Armagnac;
          -- Sanchez Romate "Cardenal Mendoza" Brandy de Jerez;
          -- Familal Louis Dupont Calvados Pays d'Auge Hors d'age;
          -- Familal Louis Dupont Calvados Pays d'Auge plus 15 ans;
          -- Familal Louis Dupont Calvados Pays d'Auge plus 24 ans;
          -- Morrand Willamine (poire eau-de-vie)

          and for cooking, Piere Duchene French Brandy ($8.99 @ TJ's)

          * Noted wine writer and judge Bob Thompson was the first to use the DNPIM acronym. He would bring a rubber stamp ("DNPIM") and stamp pad with him to professional wine competitions and in order to prevent (or at least delay) palate fatigue -- if a wine's bouquet did not appeal to him, and therefore knowing he would not vote to give the wine a medal -- he would stamp "DNPIM" on his tasting notes. It stood for "Did Not Put In Mouth." I believe, in all modesty, that I was one of the earliest practitioners of converting the verb tense and making it a warning to others: "DO Not Put In Mouth." (This was back in the mid-1980s, IIRC.)

          1. re: zin1953

            DNPIM? Sorry, I got the acronym wrong. I was recalling this from a wine judging I participated in a number of years ago. I hope people with stereotyped thoughts of brandy or who take their opinions solely from various periodicals take the time to try some of the brands mentioned in the above posts. They are all very good, many are quite affordable, even for those on a budget.

            a votre sante,
            Jerry (also from Berkeley)

        2. re: zin1953

          What is going to be the best for tiki drinks < 20 bucks a bottle and will use it for cooking / baking / tiki drinks, so it should be overall versatile - will not use it to sip ever


          1. re: Dapuma

            That depends upon your palate -- you will still taste it, even when cooking or baking. I'd look to something like Christian Brothers (lighter bodied), Korbel (fuller bodied), or Paul Masson (in between) as they are pretty easy to find, as well as being consistent. Any of these will be fine for cooking and/or baking . . . but the Christian Bros. is probably too light for
            tiki drinks."

            1. re: zin1953

              Will the Paul Masson work ok in a red sangria as well or do I need the Korbel for a full bodied taste

              1. re: Dapuma

                Either way . . . it's so little brandy, I honestly don't think it matters . . . .

                1. re: zin1953

                  ok appreciate it, i dont know anything about brandy so wanted to make sure from someone who has some expertise

                  thanks again

        3. I must agree w/ two cognacs(an american brandy 'cognac' and true cognac from cognac france). Armagnac is different than cognac even though the regions in france of Cognac and Armagnac are near each other. The comparison would need to be two cognacs unless you are trying to compare cognac to armagnac

          1. Since we're comparing dissimilar growing regions and styles, I'll chime in that there are some great bargains in the world of Spanish brandies. One of my favorites for mixing is Pedro Domecq Fundador Solera Reserva which weighs in at $17 and there are pricier ones for sipping (you could easily sip the one I mentioned but it is not as remarkable).


            1 Reply
            1. re: yarm

              that is a good point and I want to add - for whatever it's worth to 'jerry i h' - that the difference in the regions of cognac and armagnac do not stop there. the main difference is that they are produced in a different manner and via different methods which almost always changes their smoothness, flavor, aftertaste, etc. That is what I meant by agreeing with Zin's 'apples and oranges' take. googling each can explain this further. I have heard very good things about spanish brandies to get back on track!