Brandy Rocks Out
Microdistiller Copper & Kings blows the dust off an often-stodgy spirit, cranking up the volume loud enough for craft-distiller aficionados to hear.
Joe Heron strides through a sprawling basement barrel room at his Copper & Kings distillery in Louisville, Ky. He speaks louder than normal to be heard over Steve Earle's "I Love You Too Much," which blasts through the sound system. Loudly.
The system includes six subwoofers, which could put to shame many nightclubs. We're the only ones here today, a holiday, and he introduces me to some of the hundreds of barrels filled with brandy, aging, well, not so quietly or mustily.
"We play music 24/7," Heron says. "The concept of sonic aging is quite simple, actually. What you're trying to do is bang that bass pulse into the alcohol molecule," which he adds is lighter than the water with which it's mixed. These molecules then hit the oak wall of the barrel interior, colliding with it somewhat carelessly, and thus speeding the magical interactions of alcohol, wood, and oxygen. The result? A richer, more supple brandy, he says.
"There's limited research" on sonic aging, Heron admits, betraying a faint lilt of his native South Africa. You get the feeling, though, that he'd happily blast music all day even if there wasn't any research at all. Brandy at times is plagued by a stodgy, Old World image - dusty aristocrats sipping from fussy snifters in musty drawing rooms - but Heron, who launched Copper & Kings with his wife, Leslie, in 2014, aims to usher it out of the Brahms and Bach era and at least into that of Stevie Wonder and Steve Earle. They named the company Copper & Kings in part as a nod to their copper stills and a spirit that befits royalty - but more so because it sounded vaguely like a rock band.
Heron believes brandy should be comfortable in jeans and grunge plaid in a nightclub. "Our real aspiration is to distill American music and art," is how Heron once neatly summarized it. "To give that creativity and imagination physical form."
Brandy is both leader and follower in the booming craft spirits world. The number of craft distilleries in North America - which can range from a couple of college buddies making legal whiskey in a garage to major operations such as the Herons' - have soared from a few dozen a decade ago to more than 1,000 today. New distilleries come on line every week.
The first wave of these microdistillers, who surfaced in the 1980s, focused on brandy. All were on the West Coast: Daniel Farber, Hubert Germain-Robin, and Jörg Rupf in California, and Steve McCarthy in Oregon.
Germain-Robin - a young Frenchman from a cognac-producing family who's often cited as a pioneer - was hitchhiking around the United States in the early 1980s when he decided to settle down near northern California's vineyards. He and his business partner, Ansley Coale, imported a French cognac still and launched a series of experiments with grapes from around the state, including pinot noir. Today, they're credited with inventing the California alambic brandy style. (An alambic is a type of traditional still, which imparts a richer, denser flavor.)
It took a lot of work to launch. So when their first products were released in 1987, they priced them like a fine cognac - well above the brandy plonk then on the market and made by jug-wine makers such as Paul Masson and Christian Brothers, who used industrial-size column stills that stripped out much of the flavor.
"There was a lot of resistance at first," Germain-Robin recalls, but his brandy performed well in blind taste tests against traditional French spirits. It seemed connoisseurs were finally ready for a new, more aggressive style of brandy - "California ‘Cognac'," read a 1991 headline in the New York Times. "More Than Just a Curio? A Rival With French Roots."
And then ... nothing.
"The market was slow; really slow," says Farber, who moved from brewing beer to distilling California brandy in the late 1980s, when he founded Osocalis in Soquel, Calif. That first wave of pioneer craft distillers continued to produce brandies, but in small amounts for a relatively small community of aficionados. They found the national spotlight elusive.
Starting in the early 2000s, craft distilling began to attract a little attention - although the focus was on spirits other than brandy, particularly gin and vodka. Domestic tastes not only preferred these, but distillers could bottle white spirits basically right from the still without having to underwrite a years-long aging period. By the close of that decade, craft whiskey makers crowded the market, chasing after the global bourbon boom. Still, brandy remained in the shadows. "It hasn't lifted our boat because brandy is really a hard sell," admits Farber, who thought the new consumer interest in craft distilling would bring a fresh generation of fans to a spirit with an unfamiliar taste.
Brandy's eclipse didn't deter Heron - instead, he realized it could be used to his advantage. That the category was essentially a blank slate in the consumer's mind meant he had latitude to experiment without confounding expectations.
This was the sort of opportunity he had seized upon twice before. A serial entrepreneur, Heron has shown a knack for finding a narrow gap in an underappreciated beverage market and then running clear through it and beyond. As such, he's not so much a disrupter of the old ways as someone with a documented skill in finding an unexpected, profitable route between old and new.
His first big success came in launching a sugar-free, nutrient-rich soft drink called Nutrisoda, which PepsiAmericas acquired in 2006, just three years after its launch. Heron then turned to hard cider, a beverage category relatively common in Europe at the time but all but invisible domestically. He and his wife launched Crispin Cider in 2008, marketing their cider not as a drink for those who don't like beer, but to those who do. Again he proved to have the golden touch - the market loved it, and MillerCoors swiftly acquired the brand in 2012.
Scouting for their next beverage adventure, the Herons looked into the spirits market and found that brandy had a history that had been largely overlooked. "This is what's great about American brandy," he says. "There's no dogma associated with it. You can do whatever you want. It's the lack of dogma that results in innovation."
Heron set about innovating. He believed the taste of traditional brandy, even the newer-style California brandy, lacked the boldness for which the American market clamored. "Intensity is in vogue now," he says.
So, like Germain-Robin two decades earlier, Heron played around with grape varietals - wines for his still are shipped east from California and are made from French colombard, muscat, and chenin blanc grapes. He took a more aggressive approach than most brandy producers with his barrel aging, barreling his brandy at a higher proof than usual, an act that extracts wood flavor more quickly. He also experimented with the barrels themselves, using both bourbon barrels (which he likes for their spiciness) and new oak barrels (which add vanilla and honey notes) to create a robust blend.
"The midpalate is where we feel like brandy needed some personality and character," Heron says. He believed that most brandy tended to both start and finish strong and was insipid in between. He set about correcting that. "With us, you'll get that start and finish, but then get the drums and the bass and the guitars in the middle."
The Herons chose to launch, somewhat impishly, in Louisville, the heart of bourbon country. Copper & Kings acquired a vastly underused, three-story brick industrial building in the Butchertown neighborhood, a rough-edge area now undergoing a restaurant and boutiques revival. They began fixing it up in 2014, adding an art gallery, glass-walled offices, and a rooftop area that local businesses and patrons could rent out for meetings and events. Throughout the building, bright, international-orange design accents - the bottoms of the tasting glasses, barrel heads, a supporting beam here or there, and vintage iMacs - make the sprawling, dramatic space seem more intimate and quirky.
Setting up in the epicenter of bourbon country was sly, smart, and practical. "Guys like me don't build distilleries," Heron says. "Engineers build distilleries, and they're all in this state." His stills are also manufactured nearby - by Vendome, a longtime family-owned business just a few blocks away. He has managed to sidestep the barrel shortage plaguing other craft distillers (demand for casks by new craft distillers has outstripped supply) by making the right connections in a city and industry that runs largely on those personal connections. "It helps to be in Louisville, where we know everyone," he says.
Heron constantly experiments and has begun producing other spirits as well - apple brandy, three absinthes (including one with a distinct lavender note), and a pine-resinous gin. Last spring, the company launched the limited Cr&ftwerk brandy line, aged in twice-used barrels - first to age bourbon and then for aging craft beer from select breweries, such as Dark Lord Imperial Stout, a hard-to-obtain cult beer from 3 Floyds Brewing Co. in Indiana.
It's another way to bring more depth and a bit of rock 'n' roll to a staid spirit category. "We're the new kids on the block," he says. "We want to be defined as an American brandy - not as a European-style brandy and not as a California brandy. We want to be something that's definitive, not derivative."
Osocalis' Farber says he's again optimistic about brandy's future, and thinks Americans may at least be willing to break their routines and try some new brandies. "I think Joe's project is the first one that can maybe crack that," he says. "I'm super excited now. The one thing brandy producers are long on is patience. We never thought it was going to be a high-profit, rapid turnaround thing. We do it because we love it."