There are many garish bottles on liquor store shelves, but none do more peacocking than Spanish brandies.
You’ve surely noticed the bottles I’m talking about — even if, like most Americans, you’ve never bought one. Most Spanish brandies wear crimson or canary yellow or glittery gold upon their labels. One dons a pretty ribbon, while a rival sports an intricate faux-gilded pattern. Some are affixed with regal wax seals, while others announce their presence in fancy Renaissance faire-style fonts. Then there are the courtly names themselves: Carlos I; Cardenal Mendoza; Gran Duque d’Alba.
Since I, perhaps sadly, am not a courtier of Philip IV in a ruffled collar, for years I pretty much ignored the advances of these brandy grandees.
As part of my personal campaign to spread the joy of brandy to American drinkers, I decided to pop open a few of those gaudy bottles. My only disappointment is that I’d waited so long to do so. The Spanish brandies were deep, rich, lush, and immediately likable; a fascinating diversion from French brandies, such as cognac and Armagnac and Calvados.
Just like those famed bottles, Brandy de Jerez (as its properly called) can only be made in a designated region around the Andalucían city of Jerez, the same place sherry is made.
“People think Brandy de Jerez is just a cheap cognac, but it’s not. It’s just a different brandy altogether,” said Claire Henderson, who toured me around the cellars at Gonzalez Byass distillery in Jerez.
In fact, the brandy is aged just like sherry, using the same solera system, a carefully orchestrated process involving successive barrels in which younger brandies are added to older ones as they age. The younger brandy takes on characteristics of the more mature spirit, and the older brandy retains a freshness and vitality.
Most Brandy de Jerez is made with the neutral Airen grape, which grows in La Mancha, and is said to be the most-planted wine grape in the world. Sometimes a little bit of Pedro Ximenez grape is added, which lends sweetness and intensity.
I tasted about eight reserva and gran reserva bottlings on the market. While I enjoyed them immensely, I have to agree with spirits critic F. Paul Pacult: “Subtlety isn’t the middle name of Jerez’s brandy men,” he writes in his guide Kindred Spirits 2. These are full-flavored brandies that are best after a big meal.
I was also surprised at how expensive the gran reservas were, with most over $40. Still, I really liked Cardenal Mendoza ($43) with its dark, concentrated flavors of raisin and burnt caramel. And the Gran Duque d’Alba ($45) was beautiful, a huge brandy with creamy notes of ripe fruit and molasses and a hint of sherry cask.
But my favorite of the tasting was Lepanto ($50), which was also the most expensive. Instead of Airen, Lepanto uses the same Palomino grape from which sherry is made. The result was a brighter, nuttier, and more complex brandy. I also liked one of the cheaper bottlings, Fundador ($18), particularly as a substitute in classic cognac cocktails such as the sidecar.
Though it’s never caught fire in the United States, Brandy de Jerez sells more bottles worldwide than Armagnac. The former Spanish colony of the Philippines is a huge market, and in Mexico, Spanish brandy is so popular it often outsells tequila.
In the U.S., brandy, by law, must be 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof. This means the Brandy de Jerez we get here is actually slightly higher proof than that produced in Spain, where it’s about 36 to 38 percent alcohol (72 to 76 proof), as compared to 40 percent (or 80 proof). It seems a small margin, but in spirits that’s significantly stronger. One of the brandies in my tasting was a 76 proof bottling: El Cano, which I’d brought home from Gutierrez Colosia, the sherry producer. It was well-balanced with lots of chocolate and raisin notes, leading me to wonder if our 80-proof export versions are the best expression. For now, we Americans will have to go big, as we always do anyway.
In the end, Brandy de Jerez is sort of like that buddy of yours who tries just a bit too hard — the one with the flashy watch or the giant belt buckle or the ridiculous gold chain or too much cologne. Yet somehow — god knows how — he pulls it off. Everyone loves him.
This is based on a Manhattan variation called a Little Italy. Instead of rye whiskey, it calls for Spanish brandy de Jerez, such as Lepanto, Fundador, Cardenal Mendoza, or Gran Duque d’Alba. Cynar is an artichoke-based Italian amaro.
1½ ounces Spanish brandy (see headnote)
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
½ ounce Cynar
Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add the brandy, vermouth and Cynar. Stir vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.
Brandy de Jerez Cocktail
The original mid-19th-century “cocktail” was usually just a mix of a base spirit, a few dashes of bitters and simple syrup, and “curaçoa,” a catch-all name for orange liqueurs. This version of the Brandy Cocktail uses Spanish brandy, does away with the simple syrup, and increases the amount of orange liqueur.
I recommend seeking out the new Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, which is based on a 19th-century recipe. But this works with Grand Marnier and, to a lesser extent, Cointreau or Combier. I prefer Peychaud’s bitters, but Angostura works fine as well.
2 ounces brandy de Jerez
½ ounce orange liqueur, preferably Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao (see headnote)
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters (may substitute Angostura bitters)
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add the brandy, orange liqueur, and bitters. Stir vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with the lemon peel twist.
One hallmark of PDT mixologist Jim Meehan’s cocktails is his unusual use of fruit brandies and eaux-de-vie as featured spirits. Here, the Spanish brandy de Jerez takes center stage, along with the clear cherry brandy Kirschwasser (hence the George Washington-inspired title).
1 ounce brandy de Jerez
1 ounce kirschwasser
¾ ounce freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
½ ounce Pedro Jimenez sherry
½ ounce Cherry Heering liqueur
3 preserved cherries (or real maraschino cherries, for garnish)
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the kirschwasser, brandy, grapefruit juice, sherry and Cherry Heering; shake well, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.
Garnish with the cherries on a pick.
Adapted from Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book (Sterling Epicure, 2011)
Calling for brandy de Jerez instead of cognac or Armagnac, this is a Spanish-inflected take on the classic Japanese cocktail.
The key ingredient here is orgeat, an almond-flavored syrup. You can make orgeat yourself; seek out a craft-made orgeat, such as the one from Small Hand Foods (highly recommended); or use one of the widely available brands, such as Fee Brothers or Torani.
For the Spanish brandy, look for brands such as Cardenal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba or Lepanto.
1 teaspoon homemade or store-bought orgeat syrup (see related recipe)
1 or 2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces brandy de Jerez
2 or 3 ice cubes
Twist of orange peel, for garnish
Combine the orgeat syrup, bitters (to taste) and brandy in an old-fashioned or rocks glass. Add the ice cubes and stir. Garnish with the twist of orange peel.
This almond-flavored syrup is a key ingredient in many tiki drinks, such as the Mai Tai and Navy Grog, as well as the Coctel Japones drink above. Premade brands such as Fee Brothers, Torani, and Trader Vic’s are available, but this version is much better.
3 ounces blanched almonds, coursely chopped
1 ounce almond meal of almond flour
2¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups water
3 drops rose water
4 drops orange flower water
¼ teaspoon almond extract
In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the almonds, almond meal, ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and the water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Cover, cool to room temperature, and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer into a separate large saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 ¼ cups of sugar, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a slow, rolling boil, then decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat; let cool to room temperature, then stir in the rose water, orange flower water, and almond extract. Use a funnel to transfer the syrup to a bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for up to 1 month.
Makes 2½ cups.
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski