An Impromptu International Aquavit Summit at Marvel Bar

I recently had the pleasure of joining Joe Spiegel, the Wyoming-based importer of Iceland’s Brennivin, and Mike McCarron, the owner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin brand Gamle Ode for drinks at Marvel Bar in Minneapolis.

Bartender Tyler Kleinow started us off with a round of drinks that showcased all three of Gamle Ode’s aquavits: the Tomas Collins, a Dill aquavit version of a classic Tom Collins; an Aquavit Gimlet with Gamle Ode’s Holiday (the favorite of the table); and the Alkaline Trio, a truly weird but delicious cocktail that mixes Gamle Ode’s Celebration aquavit with sodium bicarbonate (yes, baking soda), Aperol, and Ramazotti amaro.

The table at Marvel Bar

Spiegel, who started importing Brennivin to the U.S. in early 2014, brought a bottle of the Icelandic aquavit brand’s annual Christmas release along with the flagship aquavit for comparison. Like the 2014 Christmas Spirit, this year’s was aged in sherry and bourbon casks. And as Spiegel hinted in February, the 2015 has a higher proportion of Brennivin aged in sherry casks than bourbon barrels (last year’s was equal parts sherry and bourbon). The spirit spent six months in the barrels. The flavor was much lighter and more delicate than last year’s; the sherry notes really dominate.

Brennivin six months Icelandic

Unfortunately, Brennivin is not yet available in Minnesota, and the Christmas Spirit won’t make it to the U.S. until early next year. However, Astor Wines & Spirits, Drink Up NY, and K&L Wines, among many others, all sell it online.

McCarron happened to have a bottle of Gamle Ode’s soon-to-be-released Holiday on Rye Aquavit for us to sample. Holiday on Rye is the Holiday Aquavit aged in barrels that previously held 45th Parallel Distilling’s New Richmond Rye Whiskey. The aquavit is bottled at around 100 proof and limited to just 438 bottles, and because of that, it will probably not make it outside Minnesota and Wisconsin. Like the legendary first batch of Holiday Aquavit, this is made for sipping. (Full disclosure: I am working with McCarron on material for the Gamle Ode website.)

Holiday on Rye and Brennivin Christmas

The conversation at the table ranged from the fate of the Swedish and Danish aquavit brands (all have pulled out of the U.S. in the last ten years) and the wildly variable price of Norway’s Linie Aquavit (as little as $19 in Minnesota and as much as $59 in one California store) to the bizarre complexities of the three-tier system and the mysteries of government labelling rules (unlike whiskey and many other spirits, aquavit bottles distributed in the U.S. may not have age statements on the label).

But most of all, we talked about this current golden age of aquavit in America: not only do we have an explosion of domestic brands that are pushing the boundaries of the category (at least three in Minnesota alone!) and the importation of Brennevin for the first time ever, we have a wealth of new cocktails that are elevating aquavit beyond its Scandinavian roots as a folksy food pairing or retired person’s tipple.

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A Visit to Tattersall Distilling

Tattersall Distillery exterior

Just a few years ago, Minnesota was behind on the craft distilling boom. The license fee for new distilleries in Wisconsin was around $1,000. In Iowa it was $350. But in Minnesota, the House of Representatives voted to double it to $30,000 in 2005, just as the craft spirits movement was starting to grow nationally.

Minnesota finally lowered the fee to $1,100 in 2011, and in that time, big things have happened. Among the more than a dozen new distilleries are Norseman Distillery and Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis, Vikre Distillery in Duluth, and Far North Spirits in Hallock, near the Canadian border.

And then there’s Tattersall. Its opening earlier this year was exciting on multiple levels: it’s run by bartender and Easy & Oskey Bitters co-founder Dan Oskey, it’s in a beautifully renovated industrial space complete with a large cocktail room, and it’s rolling out a broad roster of spirits that will eventually include some innovative liqueurs and vermouths.

Tattersall Cocktail Room

Tattersall, in Northeast Minneapolis tucked behind Central Avenue near the artists’ studios of the Northrup King Building and the Bauhaus and 612 breweries, has quickly become a destination despite the limits and legal restrictions inherent in a Minnesota distillery. Legally, its cocktail room can only serve the spirits it produces. This means it cannot legally serve a proper martini until starts making its own vermouth (it still needs to be licensed as a winery to do so). But with two kinds of gin, aquavit, vodka, absinthe, an unaged corn whiskey, a sourced Kentucky bourbon, and an Italian-style amaro, Tattersall has the ability to serve drinks that any craft cocktail bar would envy.

Tattersall Cocktail Menu

Thanks to another change in Minnesota laws, Tattersall and other distilleries are now allowed to sell spirits in small, 375ml bottles (not full-size 750ml bottles) direct to the public.

I visited Tattersall for a private event hosted by Architecture MN magazine and attended by a few dozen of its writers, photographers, designers, and readers. Architect Aaron Wittkamper and interior designer Amy Reiff were there to talk about the space they designed for the distillery and cocktail room.

Tattersall sits in a back part of the sprawling Thorp Building, a large complex of old factory warehouses on Central Avenue. Thorp was originally a manufacturer of fireproof industrial doors. During WWII, the building was home to a division of General Mills that made the Norden Bomb Sight, a gadget that enabled planes to drop bombs more accurately, and an early flight data recorder invented by a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor named James J. “Crash” Ryan. It now houses dozens of businesses, from photographer’s studios and gyms to bike companies and furniture makers.


Inside Tattersall, the distillery and the cocktail room are separated by a glass wall. All of the stills, vats, and barrels are visible from the seating area and the bar. The cocktail room isn’t a mere tasting room; it’s big. There’s a horseshoe-shaped bar at one end and huge couches and club chairs at the other. On the other side of the front door from the bar is a section of tall tables and a small stage.

Bartender at Tattersall

Distillery cocktail rooms are a new kind of space — distinct from microbreweries — and Tattersall’s designers opted for a mix of industrial and elegant to reflect that. Reiff, the interior designer, used the distillery’s name, Tattersall (a simple grid-style plaid pattern) as a design cue without being too obvious or becoming too masculine. That manifested itself in things like menswear-upholstered club chairs, a big chandelier, and a salvaged mantle behind the bar.

Interior Tattersall

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Brennivin’s Christmas Spirit Aquavit

When I interviewed Joe Spiegel, the U.S. importer of Iceland’s Brennivin aquavit last May, he mentioned that the distillery made a limited edition Christmas aquavit each year, and that he was hoping to bring it into our market. I was thrilled. Seasonal beers are common, but too few American distilleries make seasonal spirits.

Unfortunately, Brennivin only produced enough Christmas Spirit for the Icelandic market (or maybe not quite enough): 1,000 700ml bottles. A few bottles found their way into the States though. Spiegel and I met at Skál, the Icelandic restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, and sampled a bottle with some of the staff.

Brennivin and Christmas Spirit

Brennivin Christmas Spirit takes the traditional aquavit and ages it two ways: in used bourbon barrels and used sherry barrels (both American white oak). It’s a fifty/fifty blend of the two, each aged six months.

“Each year the Christmas release is a little different,” Spiegel told me. “The 2014 is by far my favorite, with 2012 (hints of tart cider) coming in second. Typically the differences lie in the finishing, as opposed to changing the mashbill or flavoring of the spirit itself.”

Brennivin Christmas SpiritThe 2012 Christmas Spirit he mentioned was finished in apple cider barrels. 2014’s bourbon and sherry barrels was a first for Brennivin.

I asked Spiegel if the Christmas Spirit would make it into our market next year, and if he could give us a hint about what it would be like. “The 2014 was so well received that we’ll be doing something similar for 2015 and increasing production so that more folks in the U.S. can get a taste at the very least, if not their very own bottles,” he said. “Production capacity is very limited, as we need space, barrels, and time. As for hints, we are thinking about tinkering just a bit, changing the ratio to a higher proportion of sherry- to bourbon-finished Brennivin in the 2015 Christmas release.”

So what does it taste like? As I learned in my oak-infusion experiment last year, Brennivin takes oak very well. This Christmas Spirit has the slightly increased sweetness and extra viscosity of the Brennivin I infused with oak, but with much, much more going on: hints of both the bourbon and the sherry are in there, blending really seamlessly with the spice of the caraway. It’s delicious.

Odals Brennivin labelSpiegel says the distillery is bringing back two aged aquavits that haven’t been sold since the 1990s in honor of Brennivin’s 80th anniversary: Odals Brennivin, aged three months (that’s the old label at left), and Gamalt Brennivin, aged one year. One of them will probably make it to our market.

Brennivin’s U.S. distribution started in Wyoming in early 2014, and then New York. Spiegel has since added Los Angeles and some of San Francisco (through K&L Wines and others), Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania (special order), Montana, and parts of Canada (also special order).

“The goal for 2015 is to establish distribution in Oregon, Minnesota, and Colorado, so we are a third of the way there already,” Spiegel said. “Wisconsin and Illinois would be next on the list. Folks can expect to see Brennivin involved with the ‘Taste of Iceland’ and ‘Reykjavik Calling’ events that are held in various cities around the country. The first for this year will be held in Boston in mid-March. These are really great events, a lot of fun, the next best thing to taking a trip to Iceland. And I am really excited to be working on an event called “Iceland Erupts” to be held in California in early April.”

Information on Brennivin’s distribution schedule is updated frequently at

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A Few Words About Jersey Lightning

When I met with cocktail journalist Robert Simonson recently to talk about his new book, The Old-Fashioned, I asked him about how he did his research. One tool that I didn’t realize was so readily available was the archives of the old newspaper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was published from 1841 to 1955 and its entire run is searchable online through the Brooklyn Public Library.

Brooklyn Eagle Nov 1 1901For fun, I started searching for some terms. “Applejack” gave me more than 600 results over the paper’s run. On November 3, 1901, the Eagle ran a short piece that seems to have been reprinted from a Newark paper about applejack, or apple brandy. I’m not sure how many distillers Monmouth County, N.J. had in 1901, but today — and since 1698 — there’s one: Laird’s. The article describes the “old days” when “every farmer who was anybody would have five or ten barrels in his cellar maturing, these being the product of his own apples, distilled for him at the nearest stillhouse.” And of course back then, there was “little or no drunkenness—surely not so much as now, anyhow.”

The piece describes two ways of drinking applejack:

“While its consumption out of the state seems not to have increased much, its quality has not been debased, as anyone can testify who drinks the old Monmouth liquor in company with the usually poor substitute served by so many otherwise first class cafes in this city. The Monmouth man drinks it straight and uses it in place of rye in mixtures, such as cocktails, juleps, highballs, etc. He particularly delights in the Sunset or Jersey Sunset, which is applejack on chipped ice and water, in a long glass, with a swish of lemon peel and a dash of angostura, the latter being allowed to float on top for its sunset hue. The applejack mint julip [sic] is without doubt a delicious concoction. In drinking it the use of a straw is considered profanation. The spearmint, fresh from the garden, is stuck in liberally, so that one’s nose is buried in it by the act of drinking. Then it is that as the nectar gurgles in the throat, giving refreshment and content, one hears the rippling brooklet, the singing of the forest birds, smells the wild flowers and apple blossoms, and wishes for nothing but another.”

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Andy Tauer’s Cologne du Maghreb

As the weather in new York gets hot and humid, the fragrances that have been my mainstays for the cooler months—mostly Eau d’Italie’s Sienne l’Hiver and Bois d’Ombrie—don’t seem as appropriate. I’ve tried some of my lighter colognes, like D.R. Harris’s traditional citrus and neroli Arlington Cologne, but it’s sort of one-dimensional. I was looking for something different.

When Jeffrey Dame of the niche fragrance distributor Hypoluxe contacted me about Andy Tauer’s Cologne du Maghreb, I was excited. It promised the fleeting citrus lightness of an old school cologne with depth and spice.

Tauer Cologne du Maghreb BottleCologne du Maghreb ($85 for 50ml) is a combination of a light traditional European cologne, full of citrus and neroli, and a spicy Middle Eastern-style fragrance. It comes on bright and fresh with a hint of cedar that’s pleasantly cinnamony. Most of the citrus fades within an hour but the cedar lingers close to the skin. When I got my 1.5ml sample in the mail, I forgot this was a true cologne and I dabbed it nervously on my skin, hoping I’d like wearing it as much as I did smelling it on a tester strip. That’s not the way. Spray with abandon, directly and from close range. You’ll be rewarded with a refreshing and complex blast of citrus.

Zurich, Switzerland-based Andy Tauer, a self-taught perfumer, has a cult following among niche fragrance fans and bloggers. His business started in 2005 and has grown to the point where he does it full time. He’s got a PhD in molecular biology but he says it hasn’t actually been useful in his perfumery (“Except from time to time, when dealing with suppliers: Depending on the country and the context a ‘Dr. sc. nat.’ helps.”). One of his very first fragrances, l’Air du Désert Marocain, remains his best seller; it was given a five-star review by Tania Sanchez in Perfumes: The A to Z Guide. That glowing endorsement “helped kickstart my venture,” Tauer admits. I’m partial to his third fragrance, Lonestar Memories, a smoky, leathery scent packed with birchtar.

Tauer first released Cologne du Maghreb in 2011 as a limited edition for the holidays. He’s brought it back for this summer as the first of what he hopes will be an annual series of colognes. I asked him some questions about Cologne du Maghreb via e-mail.

In America, people tend to use the term cologne to mean a men’s fragrance, not a lower concentration (2-5%) of perfume oil. What does cologne mean to you, in the European sense?

From a (middle) European perspective, a cologne is a refreshing citrus-based scent that was invented some good 250 years ago, relying basically on a contrast between fresh citrus notes and a herbaceous contrapunto, invented to complement the heady rich animalic perfumes filling the corridors of palaces and manors back then. A cologne—for me—is always light, easy to wear, and the perfect example of an unisex scent.

How would you describe Cologne du Maghreb’s notes?

Well, that’s an interesting question: For one, the Cologne du Maghreb is a classical cologne, thus we are talking about LOTS of citrus notes, lemon and bergamot being central, grapefruit and litsea extending it, with orange blossom following in (the neroli steam distilled oil as well as orange blossom absolute). There are other floral touches, such as rose, and of course the herbaceous twist by lavender, rosemary and clary sage that add depth and an extra line of contrast. All these notes are complemented by the “oriental notes” of cistus, vetiver, cedar wood from the High Atlas (Morocco).

But that’s me looking at the formula. Let’s try an alternative approach here: The notes of the Cologne are the bright morning sun rising over lush green citrus groves, in fertile valleys, surrounded by verdant and spicy shrubs, running off the mountain ranges forming the High Atlas in Morocco, with its century-old cedar trees and the fresh air soaked with the perfume of warm balsamic woods.

Andy and Colgone du Maghreb

Tell me about the parts of Maghreb make it an Arabic or Middle Eastern scent. Is it the individual ingredients (and their origins) or more the style of scent?

Good question. In my nose, it is the woody, balsamic, sweet resinous and amber base notes that render the Cologne du Maghreb into this territory, that add an oriental screen to a classical Western fragrance. It is an allusion, and not comparable to a full blown oriental fragrance, in eau de parfum concentration maybe, like—just to pick one example—Guerlain’s Shalimar. But the amber note from cistus ladaniferus ranging from woody balsamic to a gentle incense-feel sure adds this oriental touch. By the way: The orange blossom absolute, contrary to the neroli steam distilled oil, also comes with some aspects of dry vibrant woods, supporting the base notes theme in the cologne.

I love the smell of neroli—it’s the quintessential starting point for summery colognes—but it can overpower things, and it’s expensive. How did you make it work here?

I think, neroli is important in a cologne, but first—for me—comes the lemon/bergamot couple that dominates the head notes. The neroli is actually a heart note, lasting longer than lemon oil or bergamot oil. Thus, it extends, with its intrinsic citrus brightness, the lemon-bergamot combo. It does so, by the way, together with petitgrain that comes with some similarities to neroli. When it comes to neroli, there are a couple of important issues: Quality, quality, quality.

You would not believe how large the difference between a well done neroli (done in the sense of: gentle extraction, at the perfect conditions, using the highest quality of botanical starting material…this is a craft by itself) and an average quality neroli can be. In its best quality, neroli is bright, soft, metallic but it won’t hurt your nose, as it remains gentle. Thus, like so often in perfumery, there is a simple answer to your question: Quality of the raw material is what makes the difference.

What notes am I smelling as the fragrance dries down, about two hours after I spray it on?

You are supposed to smell vetiver, cistus, cedar wood and remaining hints of the absolutes: Rose (hard to detect, really), orange blossom. And maybe you will still get a whiff from Litsea cubea (think: long-lasting lemon). But then, each nose is different, each skin is different, and maybe you pick out other notes, maybe you smell the fragrance of dry pine needles in the sun, incense resin drying in the sun? Who knows.

How much of a cologne is in the construction and how much is in the concentration of perfume oils? In other words, what would happen if you increased the perfume oil concentration in Cologne du Maghreb to an eau de toilette or eau de parfum level?

I feel a cologne, a real cologne, should always be both: A citrus-centric formula as mentioned before and a light scent that aims at pleasing and refreshing its wearer in the moment. Thus a cologne contains just a few percent of essential oils. The Cologne du Maghreb, for instance, contains 4% of essential oils. With this, and the added depth by some base notes such as vetiver or cistus ladaniferus oils, it is positioned at the longer lasting end of a classical cologne.

I haven’t tried to go up higher in concentration, but I bet that it would not help, really. The citrus notes, even if concentrated higher, are still not made to last by their volatile nature and overall, the scent would probably fall apart. You know: You cannot just increase a fragrance’s concentration in order to make it last longer. The longevity is built into it by how you constructed it.

How do you wear Cologne du Maghreb? Have you heard how others are wearing it?

I love to spray after a shower. It is wonderful on clean wet skin. A great way to start your day or to end it before going to bed. I know that some love to spritz all day long, like every hour reapplying, to get this freshness kick when they need it. Others, with a very fine and sensitive nose, find the cologne long enough lasting to enjoy for a couple of hours.

Maghreb’s ingredients are all natural—do you often work exclusively with natural ingredients? Why was it important for this fragrance?

Yes, I work a lot with naturals. It is there, in the all-natural world of resins, absolutes, essential oils, that I found my passion for scents and the creation of fragrances. The first two years or so I created only all natural fragrances and explored this natural preciousness. Still today, when composing, I start with the naturals in my formula and dress them with man-made molecules in the process. Why was it important to work all natural for this (and the other colognes that sit in my excel file of upcoming scents)? First, there was no need to work with synthetics there. It did not feel right. Whatever this means…when composing and daydreaming about new creations, I feel and follow my gut and my nose. My nose told me there is no need for synthetics. And then, it felt like going back to the roots, my roots of discovering naturals. It felt good and I am looking forward to composing more colognes. I think it is—as a perfumery theme—very rewarding.

You’re planning on releasing a cologne each summer now, right? Any thoughts for future your colognes?

This is correct—that’s the plan. If I learned one thing in my perfumery life, though, then it is: We have a plan, but things always work out in a different way. Therefore, yes, my plan is to present another cologne in 2015, towards summer, with the working title Vetiver Cologne. Vetiver is just wonderful together with rich citrus notes and it is a logical choice for me. I love vetiver! And for this cologne, I have a particular vetiver, a special quality that is soft, less earthy, more on the green citrus side (if this makes sense), a special distillation product. It is just wonderful, but as I have said: We have a plan…

And finally, I find that perfumers are often spirits and cocktail aficionados. Do you have any favorite drinks?

Yes. Give me a beer (in the evening) and you make me happy. [Editor’s note: Tauer was drinking Erdinger, a Bavarian “weizen” when we first e-mailed.]

A more refined answer: From time to time I love to drink a schnapps from a small producer, a farmer actually, who started his schnapps business a while ago, fermenting his fruits (apple, pear, cherry) and who produces a quality that is outstanding, in somewhat limited quantities. They won a couple of medals. A little glass of his kirsch makes me happy, too.

Tauer Perfumes Cologne Du Maghreb Cologne du Maghreb is available online via Tauer Perfumes, Lucky Scent, and Indie Scents.

It’s also at Scent Bar in L.A., MiN New York, Twisted Lily in Brooklyn, Tiger Lily in San Francisco, The Perfume House in Portland, The Perfume Shoppe in Scottsdale, Buon Naso in Fort Lauderdale, Indigo Perfumery in Cleveland, and The Perfume Shoppe in Vancouver.

Want to read more about Cologne du Maghreb? Tauer lists some of the other bloggers he’s talked to on his own blog.

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Oak Infusing Experiments: Brennivin

I’ve tried aging batches of cocktails in small, one-liter oak barrels — an apple brandy Old Fashioned and a Negroni — but it’s expensive. Those little barrels can cost more than $50 and they can only be used for so long. So I had a thought: what if I could just add the oak to a bottle?

Northern Brewer sells little oak cubes for between $2.50 and $4.00 for a 2 oz. bag. They come in American, French, and Hungarian oak with medium or heavy char. The cubes are around a quarter-inch, which is small enough to fit into the opening of a bottle. I bought three bags (partly just to justify the shipping cost, which rivaled the price of the oak cubes): an American medium, a Hungarian medium, and an American heavy char.

Brennivin and InfusedAfter some conversations with Joe Spiegel about aged Brennivin, the Icelandic aquavit that he’s started importing, I thought I’d found an excellent candidate for my first oak cube infusion experiments.

Northern Brewer’s description of the Hungarian medium char cubes sounded promising for the Brennivin: “Medium-plus toast Hungarian oak cubes impart a full mouthfeel with mild to moderate vanilla and background notes of leather, black pepper, and slight campfire/roast coffee.”

I poured about 12 ounces from my liter bottle into my infusion bottle and dropped in four oak cubes. I wasn’t sure how many I’d need for such a small test batch but Northern Brewer recommended 2.5-3 ounces of cubes for every five gallons of liquid. My entire bag of cubes was only 2 ounces and my test batch would be barely a tenth of a gallon. Four cubes was a guess.

By the end of the first day with the oak cubes the Brennivin, which started crystal clear, was tinted a pale amber. I shook the bottle about once a day when I remembered and tested it after a week. The flavor was odd. The oak seemed to suck up the natural sweetness of the Brennivin and leave the sort of bitter-sweet quality I associate with artificial sweeteners like aspartame. It also dulled the spice of the caraway a bit. Clearly, it needed more time. I wasn’t surprised — I had figured I’d need as many as six weeks — but with my rough guess about how much oak to use, I wasn’t sure.

Glass of Oak Infused Brennivin

By four weeks, all the sweetness and caraway flavor had returned, along with a hint of vanilla. By five weeks when I removed the oak cubes, it was even better, warmer. Brennivin’s natural coppery metallic edge was gone and I could almost imagine some orange and cardamom notes. It really took the oak well.

I tasted the oak-infused Brennivin next to Linie, the Norwegian aquavit that’s aged in barrels on ships that criss-cross the equator. Linie is lighter and slightly minty in comparison (it’s lighter in color, too; Linie has added caramel coloring, which is interesting given its aging). Side by side, I may actually prefer the aged Brennivin — at least for now.

Some conclusions: First, this is ridiculously easy and inexpensive to do. It cost me less than $20 for three bags of oak cubes and almost half of that was shipping. (Each bag has about 40 cubes in it, which is enough to do four bottles by my estimates.) If you have access to a good home-brewing supply shop, you can save the $8 shipping. Second, it was quite rewarding. I’ll be trying this with gin, tequila, and definitely mezcal. Why not just add 10 oak cubes to a whole bottle of something?

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An Introduction to the New American Brandy

Joe and Lesley Heron have a knack for launching the right products at the right time. Their first project was a vitamin soda they ended up selling to Pepsi. Next, they helped revitalize the alcoholic cider category with Crispin, which has since been sold to MillerCoors. Now the Herons have entered the spirits business, and they’ve chosen to tackle brandy. Yes, brandy. And they’re doing it in the middle of bourbon country: Louisville, Kentucky.

Craft DistilledJoe Heron’s rationale is that American brandy is the cider of the spirits business, an under-penetrated, under-appreciated category ripe for a renaissance. And he makes a good case: “Brandy is either traditional and inexpensive or traditional and expensive,” he says. “In our ideal world we would like the mainstream brandy drinker to trade up, the cognac drinker to trade down for similar quality, and most importantly for the bourbon/whiskey drinker to trade in.”

Copper & Kings American Brandy is poised to, as Heron says, “Drive a bus through the middle,” between the cheap California stuff and the more expensive Cognac and small artisan distillers in California with “a modern, sophisticated, super-premium American brandy.”

He’s starting to sell pot-distilled brandy that he’s sourced from around the country while his newly constructed distillery makes and ages brandy. His goal is a uniquely American-style brandy that would be mixed in cocktails and enjoyed in a rocks glass, not a snifter.

The Craft Distilled Brandy ($34.99 for 750ml) is aged in both bourbon barrels and medium-char new American oak barrels. It’s at least two years old and is unadulterated by boise (powdered or shaved oak), caramel coloring, sugar, or filtering. It’s considerably more robust than a Paul Masson or Korbel and not as sweet as a VS or VSOP cognac. It has a hint of spice—like a bourbon—but a smoother finish. Heron calls it a “slightly feisty, rambunctious style.”


The Immature Brandy ($29.99 for 750ml) is unaged. Like the Craft Distilled Brandy, the Immature is unfiltered and sugar-free. It’s bright and floral with some grape notes. It’s good enough to drink straight, but like most unaged spirits, it’s best for mixing. It does very well with sours. Heron suggests using it for Summer Old Fashioneds: two ounces of Immature Brandy, a half ounce of St. Germain, and two dashes of celery bitters.

The grapes used to make the spirits are mostly the traditional brandy varieties, and mostly from California: French Colombard, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. “We are also very interested in indigenous American varietals,” Heron says. “We have pilot distilled Concord and Norton so far, but the results were not satisfactory. We are also interested in Kentucky wine and have had some success so far with Vidal Blanc (a hybrid developed for brandy making using the Seyval and Ugni Blanc grapes). We also make apple brandy. Our wine has been sourced from California (grape) and the Pacific Northwest (apple). We are also having discussions with Michigan growers now for both apple and grape wine. The wine we distill is unfiltered and un-sulfited, typically early pick for relatively high acids and lowish brix (sugar).”

Why did Heron choose to locate his brandy distillery in Louisville? He likes to point out that his distillery is not the first to produce brandy in Kentucky. He says he’s found historical records that show brandy was being distilled there in 1781, 11 years before the Commonwealth was established.

Okay, but why not California, where all the wine is? “The logical answer is West Coast,” he says. “The smart answer is Louisville. Kentucky is the distilling capital of America. So we have access to resources continually: Vendome is three blocks away from us, cooperage is readily available, and access to the specificity of distillery engineering skills is immediate and constant without flying people around. Most importantly there is freight, which is the biggest margin/profit leaker of all time—dollars fall out the back of a truck—Louisville’s unique location enables access to 66% of America at a reasonable cost.”

Copper & Kings Stills

Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the 110-year-old custom still maker, created three alembic copper stills for Copper & Kings: one 1,000-gallon, one 750-gallon, and one 50-gallon for experimental batches. Working with Vendome shows the spirits industry that Copper & Kings is serious about building trust and credentials, Heron says. “It’s about demonstrating that you make stuff with care.”

That care continues with the barrels. “Maturation cannot be short circuited,” he insists. “I don’t buy into small barrels. And brandy is way more delicate than bourbon, by the way. You can’t do a heavy char, small barrel to a brandy. The goal is to retain all the varietal differences in the grapes.” The brandy is aged in a cellar, not a rickhouse like bourbon; the temperature can’t vary as much.


But in the meantime, Copper & Kings is blending its sourced brandy. “There is no ‘MGP’ in brandy,” Heron says, referring to the Indiana distillery that sells spirits to many small whiskey brands. “We have sourced from across the country, and have bought as small as 23 gallons of beautiful brandy. Collecting this brandy, aging it in a focused way, then blending it to our taste profile, is our brandy. It is our baby.”

Heron won’t reveal his sources for brandy. “We will protect the interests of those distillers kind enough to share their distillate. They have their own brands to build and they are protective of that.”

Copper & Kings is bottling some of it and putting some back into bourbon barrels and adding that to the new brandy they distill in-house try to maintain consistency over the years. In about six years, they expect to reach the point where all of it is distilled in-house.

As Copper & Kings gains momentum — the distillery finished construction this spring and began distilling in April — more products will be introduced. Heron sent me samples of both production brandies along with an immature brandy called Red Bird that was cask conditioned in port barrels, which ultimately will not make it into wider production. He has hinted at some fall limited releases that sound like they’ll only be available in the distillery. The next big release is likely to be the apple brandy.

The Copper & Kings brandies are available at bars and liquor stores in Kentucky right now, and distribution for surrounding states will follow soon: Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin—two states that have historically consumed a lot of California brandy. By next year, Heron hopes to branch out further East and West.

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