Australia, I have a question for you: what gives with your continued nonchalance to brandy? Whether I'm recommending it from behind the bar or raving about it in this column, I always seem to get a muted response.
A part of me thinks I should just drink all the brilliant brandy out there myself and be done with it. But then I'd be derelict in my duties (and, well, just derelict in general). And I've tried some excellent brandies of late – from the Old World and the New – that are definitely worth your time.
In fact, some of the world's finest brandies can transport you to a different time. I was reminded of this recently when tasting some notable cognacs from Normandin-Mercier (distributed in Australia by Cerbaco, a wholesaler of fine French spirits). This family firm specialises in rare and old brandies, and their VSOP 12 years and La Peraudiere Grande Champagne are textbook, reasonably priced, examples of the quality you can expect from their range.
But the highlight of the line-up was the remarkably vibrant Tres Vieille Grand Champagne, which draws on eau die vie distilled as far back as the 1890's, much of it pre-World War I. At around $1300 a bottle, it'll burn a hole in your wallet about the size of the Cognac region, but considering the absurd prices some 'luxury' spirits are fetching these days, that's incredible value for a taste of history.
Spirits of place
If you like an historical spirit, look no further than our own backyard. Australia has serious heritage when it comes to brandy production. A few Australian wineries are even exploring their warehouses for forgotten treasures, which is how I recently came to sample some fascinating Aussie brandy that was distilled way back in the 1930s.
It's not available to the public yet, but producers are now sensing that there might be a future for what was once Australia's dominant spirit.
Grape and grain
Such is the potential, Australian whisky producers are even dipping their toes in the, erm, wine. The Overeem XO Brandy was released this month, created by Casey Overeem – founder of the famed Tasmanian single malt whisky brand. For the XO, a Tasmanian winery supplied the base wine which was then distilled and matured for seven years in ex-fortified wine casks.
These casks – only five of them – were then married together to create what's been described as a whisky drinker's brandy: it's got the mouthfeel of a malt whisky, but displays all the finesse and balance you'd expect from the house of Overeem.
How do you like them apples
The release of the Overeem XO follows the successful launch of another (non-whisky) Tassie spirit, the Charles Oates Fine Apple Brandy, which has quickly earned praise on both sides of Bass Strait.
Fans of calvados, the famed French apple brandy, should also be on the lookout for another elixir from the Apple Isle, the Pomadoros Apple Brandy produced by John Cole, the calvados-obsessed owner of the Wilmot Hills Distillery. It's a fine expression of the genre.
Back on the mainland, seek out the Ochre Aged Grape Spirit from the Bass & Flinders Distillery, south of Melbourne. The first casks of this exceptional brandy – distilled from Mornington Peninsula chardonnay grapes – were filled in 2010, and every new bottling I've tasted reveals an evolving depth and complexity.
Of course, no round-up of Australian brandies could overlook South Australia. The epicentre of brandy in the state is Renmark, about three hours north-east of Adelaide. There you'll find the new Twenty Third Street Distillery, a slick operation that's determined to bring brandy back to life. Try their Prime 5 Brandy for a starter.
But Renmark's most famed brandy is St Agnes. It's long been Australia's benchmark drop, with their award-winning XO expressions proving how good the Aussie stuff can be.
If cocktails are your go to, it's worth remembering that many of the classics were originally designed around cognac and brandy (the Sazerac, for example). The bolder palate weight of many Australian brandies makes them ideal for mixing. The classic Sidecar, for instance – brandy, triple sec (normally Cointreau) lemon and sugar – is often too sweet or too tart. But using a richer, older base, like the impeccably-priced St Agnes XO 15 year old, adds much needed balance to the equation.
St Agnes have also recently charged some beer through their famous old stills, joining the increasing number of distillers making single malt whisky in South Australia.
So, brandy producers are making whisky, and whisky makers are now releasing brandies. If you're a dark spirits fan, it's a golden age.
Check out the gallery above to see a selection of brandies to try now.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, 'The Australian Spirits Guide', was recently published by Hardie Grant Books.
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