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Kosher Brandy: A Spirited Addition to Your Pesach Table

By Gamliel Kronemer

One of my favorite anecdotes is a likely-apocryphal story that dates back to the mid-1950s. According to this story (first mentioned in print in 1956), a group of engineers was trying to develop an electronic system to translate English to Russian and vice versa. One of the first sentences that they tried was “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The machine instantly translated it to Russian and back to English, and came up with “The liquor is good, but the meat is rotten.”

In the mid-1950s—and for that matter in the early 2000s—just the opposite was true at most Pesach meals: The meat was good but the liquor was rotten. Until the last two decades, the one exception to Pesach’s “rotten liquor” rule was brandy (i.e., distilled wine). There have been good kosher l’Pesach brandies available for decades. I remember tasting my first, a brandy from the Cognac region of France, sometime in the 1980s. But today there is an ever-growing assortment of kosher l’Pesach brandies on the market—while the majority still come from France, good and great examples can be found from Israel, Italy and the United States.

Some of this variety is coming from large distilleries that are committing resources to the multiyear (and in some cases, the multi-decade) process of creating kosher brandy. According to Pierre Bellion, the export manager for Distillerie Des Moisans (which produces about a dozen kosher brandies under the Deau, Roland Bru and Maison Royalle labels, as well kosher gin, vodka, pastis and peppermint rum), market demand, particularly in the export market, has led to their big investment in kosher.

Yet there is also a growing number of producers new to distilling, driven to try to bring a kosher brandy to the market. A handful of the notable new brandies are coming from established kosher wineries—such as Covenant and Psagot—looking to experiment. “I really like chenin blanc,” said Jeff Morgan, proprietor of Covenant Wines, when asked what led him to start producing brandy, “and I was really curious to see what [a brandy made from] chenin blanc from our terroir would deliver.”

While other new kosher brandy producers are completely new to the world of wine and spirits, “I was studying medicine,” explained Abraham Leneman, who is the vintner and distiller for Maison Bruchaut & Fils, the first kosher producer of brandy from France’s famous Armagnac region, “Being a doctor wasn’t something I thought would be the most interesting thing I could do with my life. Viticulture felt like something more in place with what I wanted to do.” He chuckled that “coming from medicine to doing the ‘poison’ is an interesting journey.”

Most kosher brandies are either made in the Cognac region of France or in the Cognac style. For the better part of a millennium the town of Cognac in the southwest of France has been known for its vineyards. Originally Cognac was known for table wines, but that all changed in the 15th century, when Dutch merchant-mariners (looking for brandy as a less-bulky commodity than wine to carry on their ships) taught the vintners in Cognac’s region how to distill. And thus, the world’s most renowned brandy was born.

Cognac is made from ugni blanc grapes which are crushed and fermented, before being distilled twice (like single-malt Scotch whisky) in copper pot “alembic” stills, and then aged for no less than two years in French-oak barrels. What makes cognac such a great brandy is the terroir of the Cognac region whose chalky soils help produce subtle, acidic, minerally wines that are just perfect for distilling into complex and distinctive brandies that capture the essences of the original fruit and soil.

As with whisky, brandy will change—growing softer, more nuanced and often richer—with extended aging in oak barrels. However, unlike whisky, most brandy bottles (at least those from France) do not bear numerical age statements, but they will bear an age statement of a sort. Bottles labeled VS, meaning “very special” will be fiery and young, aged for a minimum of two years; such brandies are best enjoyed in a highball with either seltzer (a brandy and soda) or with ginger ale (a Horse’s Neck cocktail). Brandies labeled VSOP, which stands for “very superior old pale” (a term borrowed from the sherry trade), must be aged for at least four years, and being a bit less fiery than VS cognac, can be enjoyed neat on their own or in a cocktail. The term “Napoleon” on a bottle of cognac at one time meant that the brandy in the bottle was distilled during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I, but these days it merely indicates that the bottle contains brandies barrel-aged for the at least six years; and most Napoleons are best enjoyed neat in a snifter. Finally brandies labeled XO, standing for “extra old” must be aged for a minimum of 10 years (but in practice often much longer), and such brandies are best to be sipped and savored.

After tasting nearly 20 brandies, I’ve distilled it down to the best dozen. Below are the best brandies in each age category, any of which could brighten up your holiday table. L’chaim.

VS Brandies (Aged 2-4 Years):

Covenant, Double Edged Sword, Brandy of Chenin Blanc, Batch 5780 (Sonoma, California):

This dark, copper-colored brandy was distilled twice in an alembic pot still. Look for flavors and aromas of pears, honey, ginger and vanilla, with floral notes of heather and lavender, and just a whiff of leather. Look for eucalyptus and a Turkish-coffee-like note towards the back of the palate, and a touch of cream on the finish. While young and still very fiery, this dry, aromatic brandy is far more nuanced than almost any other brandy I have tasted of such a young age. Better enjoyed in the snifter (with a good splash of water) than in the cocktail shaker, but given its fieriness, it would be enjoyed more as an aperitif rather than as a digestif. Score B+/A-, $175.

Naulin, VS (Cognac, France):

Like all of Naulin’s products, this entry-level brandy is made from grapes grown in Cognac’s most prestigious subregion, the Grande Champagne. Bright copper in color, this brandy has a bouquet of baked apples, nutmeg and cinnamon. Look for flavors of baked apples, green table grapes and nutmeg, with a hint of honey towards the back of the palate. While this brandy can be enjoyed neat, it would probably be better in a cocktail or highball. Score B, $46.

VSOP Brandies (Aged 4-6 Years):

Deau, Privilege (Cognac, France):

This dark, copper-colored brandy has a floral nose of lavender and apple blossoms, with a whiff of apples and notes of treacle and mace. Look for flavors of apples, treacle, vanilla and oak. With its smooth mouthfeel and caramel undertones, this is definitely a brandy destined for the snifter. Score B+, $90.

Naulin, VSOP (Cognac, France):

This well-balanced, tawny-copper-colored brandy has flavors and aromas of orange blossoms, baked apples, nutmeg, raisins, plums and praline, with a delightful note of mocha towards the back of the palate. Enjoyable and elegant, this sipper is definitely worth seeking out. Score B+, $60

Maison Bruchaut & Fils, VSOP (Armagnac, France):

Made using the Baco 22A grape (a French-American hybrid grape almost exclusively planted in the Armagnac region) and distilled only once in a type of hybrid-column still used only for Armagnac production, this dark-amber-colored brandy has a bouquet redolent of freshly baked apple pie and grapefruit. Look for flavors of toffee, apples, warm baking spices and a hint of coffee. With still a bit of youthful heat, this brandy can be sipped, but would also be a good choice for cocktails and highballs. Score B, $48.

Roland Bru, VSOP (Cognac, France):

This fiery and youthful bright-copper-colored brandy has a notable bit of alcohol burn, but nevertheless is very well structured. Look for flavors and aromas of caramel, cinnamon, allspice, pine and candied orange peel, with hints of espresso and pepper on the finish. This would be a good choice for either drinking neat or enjoying in a brandy-driven cocktail, such as the Sidecar. Score B, $64.

Napoleon Brandies (Aged 6-10 Years):

Maison Bruchaut & Fils, Extra (Armagnac, France):

Light copper in color, this eight-year-old brandy has a spice-laden nose of cinnamon, anise, leather and oak, with a hint of leather and a whiff of fresh-cut herbs. Look for a taste of stewed sour cherries at the front of the palate, with a long herbal note mid-palate, and pleasant note of burnt orange towards the back of the palate, all playing against a mellow background of cinnamon, allspice and woodsy notes. Light, elegant and eminently drinkable. Score A-, $65.

Deau, Napoleon (Cognac, France):

This copper-colored brandy has a vivid bouquet of dried figs, tangerine zest, lychees, dried apples, cloves and cinnamon. Look for flavors of figs, mocha, caramel and citrus, with an intriguing note of Sichuan peppercorns on the finish. This brandy has a rich mouthfeel, with just a bit of burn at the back of the palate. Score B+/A-, $110.

XO Brandies (Aged 10 years and up):

Roland Bru, Extra (Cognac, France):

Not to be confused with the similarly named Roland Bru XO Extra Old, Extra is the flagship brandy in the Roland Bru line. This bronze-colored, velvety smooth brandy has a bouquet redolent of dried figs, warm baking spices and candied ginger, with hints of citrus, vanilla and oak. Look for flavors of peach, young ginger, toffee, mace, cloves and candied orange peel, with notes of grains of paradise and pu-erh tea on the finish. Score A, $225.

Deau, XO (Cognac, France):

Made from grapes grown in Cognac subregions of Fins Bois and Petite Champagne, this dark copper to bronze-colored brandy is both satiny rich and luxurious. Look for flavors and aromas of thistle honey, candied citrus peel, cardamom, nutmeg and baking banana bread. Look for a smoky, sweet note in the finish—something like a cross between crème brûlée and latakia pipe tobacco. Truly satisfying. Score A, $170.

Deau, Black (Cognac, France):

This brandy is named for the black-painted snifters that the cellar master uses in blind tastings. Bronze in color, it has a nose redolent of quince, leatherwood honey, nutmeg, toffee, vanilla, pipe tobacco and mellow oak, with hints of boysenberries, lemon zest and wildflowers. Look for flavors of nectarines, lychees, toffee, Meyer lemon, and baking spices. This brandy has a silky mouthfeel and a nuanced structure. Score A, $190.

Psagot, XO (Judean Hills, Israel):

This 12-year-old, dark-copper-to-bronze-colored brandy has a nose of apricots, pears, citrus, cinnamon cloves and oak. Look for flavors of caramel and pears at the front of the palate, leading to a herbal, peppery finish. Dryer and lighter in style than most of the cognacs in the tasting, and somewhat reminiscent of an Armagnac, this is an excellent example of Israeli brandy. Score A, $180.

Brandies are scored on an ‘A’ to ‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is best used as lighter fluid. Prices listed reflect the prices found at retailers in the New Jersey/New York area.


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