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.
Joe 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.”
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.