Why We Should Be Paying Attention to California Brandy
The state’s warm climate produces fruity, bright versions of the wine distillate.
When most people think of brandy, one of two images tends to come to mind: lush, high-end iterations produced in southwestern France, or bottom-shelf offerings that often serve as the pilfered introduction to the wine distillate. It’s a spirit that’s thought to be either too expensive or too cheap, reserved for slow-sipping gentlemen alongside cigars or college kids who don’t mind booze that burns on the way down.
But outside of those narrow definitions exists a worthwhile third option. Home to award-winning wine regions like Napa and Sonoma Valley, California has a long history of brandy production dating back to before it gained its statehood.
“If California had an official spirit, it would be brandy,” declares Ryan Herzog, Tasting Room Lead at California Brandy House, the first stand-alone tasting room dedicated to California brandy, located in Downtown Napa. “It’s been produced here for over 300 years and almost every mission in California grew grapes to make wine and brandy. We have some of the best soil and best agriculture in the world, which translates to some of the best grapes.”
Brandy even had a role in founding one of California’s most prized universities—in the late 19th century, industrialist Leland Stanford rose to become the world’s largest brandy producer, with a 55,000-acre vineyard in Tehama County. He used that money to fund Stanford University, which continued after his death until Prohibition forced the sale of his estate.
“After Prohibition, people had a lot to celebrate and would often give a toast of their finest spirit at the end of a meal,” Herzog says. “Usually, the finest spirit that they had on hand was brandy. That’s actually how brandy gained the connotation of being an after-dinner drink.”
Although principally associated with wine, brands like Korbel and E&J Gallo became some of the first modern craft distilleries when they launched brandy operations—in 1889 and 1975, respectively. Lacking the strict governance and regulations that surround Cognac production in France, California brandy makers had carte blanche to reinvent the spirit with non-traditional varietals like pinot noir, riesling, viognier, and semillon.
Despite this legacy and innovation, the California brandy industry is only beginning to evolve to meet the needs of the modern consumer. That shift is in part due to places like California Brandy House, which opened in late 2020 and offers education alongside tastings with California-based Germain-Robin and Argonaut brandy.
Launched in 2021 just outside of Fresno, Omage Brandy is another label that’s approaching the spirit from a fresh perspective. The brand is helmed by Julious Grant, who brings over 30 years of spirit industry experience, including serving as senior vice president of sales for Moet Hennessy.
“I spent a lot of time in Cognac and throughout France visiting all of these distilleries, looking at the tradition of craftsmanship, how they were making it, and what made it unique,” Grant says. “There’s a lot there, but what I felt and what I still feel is that cognac doesn’t fit the consumer taste profile in a way that allows them to truly enjoy it—after all, most cognac is still consumed with coke.”
For Grant, it’s the differences in terroir and the freedom in production methods that put California brandy into a class of its own. “The warm climate in California is perfect for making a quality product,” he says. “Cognac, on the other hand, is a cold grape-growing region, so their grapes are high in acidity. I didn’t want to lose the acidity, but I also wanted to create something that was fruit forward.”
Another contrast is in the type of barrels used for aging brandy. Omage is aged in charred and toasted American bourbon barrels as well as French barrels, while traditional cognacs only use French barrels. In Cognac, they only distill with pot stills, but both Omage and Argonaut use column in addition to pot stills, which Herzog says lends the brandy a brighter flavor, allowing it to retain the natural fruitiness from the wine.
Like most brandy labels, Omage is offered in three expressions in the traditional age grading system of VS (very special), VSOP (very superior old pale), and XO (extra old). Argonaut eschews tradition altogether with its own naming system, offering a 91-proof “Saloon Strength” brandy; “Speculator,” a blend of brandy stocks aged 4 and 19 years; “Fat Thumb,” brandy stocks aged 2 to 16 years; and a one-off release called “The Claim” with rare brandy stocks that are aged 14 to 25 years.
Just like wine, there’s a lot of nuance between brandy categories. Generally with California brandy, VS and younger versions are light and fruit-forward, with hints of nuttiness and vanilla. VSOP offers a more robust flavor profile with stronger notes of oak and citrus, and XO options are distinct, with notes of dried fruit, spices, oak, and a sweet caramel finish.
While hand-crafted brands make it easy to sip brandy straight, there’s no reason to be shy about mixing the spirit into cocktails. Part of the history covered at California Brandy House includes the liquor’s role in Prohibition and the early cocktail movement.
“Almost all classic cocktails are rooted in brandy,” Herzog says. “For example, brandy would have been the typical spirit of choice for an Old Fashioned when it was first created in the 1800s. The Mint Julep is another cocktail that was originally made with brandy, which is really fun and interesting. The Sidecar is another great choice.”
Grant likes to mix Omage VSOP with orange juice or as a Manhattan, but also offers a twist on the classic French 75 that he’s dubbed an American 75. “A French 75 is champagne and cognac, but you can make an American 75 with California brandy and California sparkling wine,” he recommends.
Referencing the current cocktail movement, Herzog is optimistic that California brandy will soon get the global attention it deserves. “Everyone is going back and trying to find the original recipes for classic cocktails,” he says. “Rye whiskey really had a resurgence because of that, and likewise with gin. As people continue to dig and explore more with crafted classic cocktails, California brandy is definitely poised to make a big comeback.”