Brandy Rebrands: How The Winemaker’s Spirit Is Making A Comeback
When Bass & Flinders Distillery first released Ochre in April 2015, it had been aging in French Limousin oak barrels for five years and had a rich, golden colour.
The spirit was made from single-vineyard chardonnay and they called it “aged grape spirit”. Distiller Holly Klintworth says it was branded that way “because we wanted to set our brandy apart from others on the market”.
It may also have been because, for a long time, Australians weren’t used to putting the words ‘fine’ and ‘brandy’ together. It was once the most widely produced spirit in Australia and many vineyards had their own distilleries onsite but that prevalence was also its downfall.
Klintworth alludes to “brandy’s more turbulent past when cheaper and low quality ‘hospital brandy’ was commonly consumed,” but says that a new generation of drinkers is increasingly open-minded and perception is changing. The surge in popularity of craft spirits is finally filtering down to the winemaker’s spirit, and Ochre is now properly called a Fine Aged Brandy.
Twenty Third Street Distillery’s Not Your Nanna’s Brandy
Twenty Third Street Distillery is home to Black Bottle Brandy, a label around since the beginning of the industry. So the distillers have heritage on their side but when they launched a new product three years ago they called it Not Your Nanna’s Brandy. Venue manager Jessica Zimmerman says it was their way of bringing the drink “into the modern age by producing a brighter and fruitier brandy that is more suited to today’s palate”.
Having spent two years in French and American oak, the combination of single and double copper pot-distilled spirit is younger and sweeter than most brandies. The soft oak spiciness is accompanied by a vanilla finish and notes of honey and dried fruit that lend it to a variety of cocktails, making it better suited to the modern bar landscape.
It’s very different from the other brandy in the Twenty Third Street range, which is aimed at drinkers with a bit more experience. Prime 5 is a rich spirit aged five to eight years, resulting in a “fruitcake in a glass” with a deep colour and smooth finish that she hopes people will gravitate to as they become more familiar with brandy.
St Agnes Distillery’s XO range
Juggling multiple labels is something Matt Redin is used to. As the Marketing Manager for St Agnes Distillery, he oversees everything from their entry-level brandies to a new product designed for cocktails that will be launched in September.
And on the very top shelf is the super-premium XO range. That was released in 2015 with a mission to bring Australian brandy into the luxury category where products like cognac reside and includes 12, 20 and 40-year-old expressions. The last retails for $750 a bottle, and as Redin says, “these really are not spirits destined to be mixed with cola.”
The range has had considerable success at competition, including internationally where it’s been crowned “best brandy” multiple times. And the response has been “phenomenal” – that entire range is experiencing double-digit growth and “we are seeing a number of higher-end cognac drinkers moving across to our World Class range” not just in Australia but in Canada, The UK and China.
As a result, he promises an even older expression will be launched next year that will be “unlike anything the spirit market in Australia has ever seen”.
These highly aged products are possible because St Agnes is Australia’s oldest continually operating brandy distiller, having been established in 1925. In those 94 years, there have only been five master distillers and the original handmade copper pot stills are still in use today. It’s why Redin regards it as “Australia’s original craft distillery” and says the secret is simple: “patience”.
While this heritage wasn’t always appreciated by consumers, it’s recently become a great asset for St Agnes as they’ve found that discerning younger drinkers are “looking more towards craft and provenance of their products.” And it’s telling that the greatest growth has been in the higher-end products, which are positioned as an Australian answer to the spirit most associated with luxury: cognac.
Cognac, the finest of fine brandy
For centuries, cognac has been regarded as the epitome of fine brandy. Louis XIII placed a luxury tax on it in the 18th Century, and it quickly became a symbol of luxury – today some bottles go for thousands of dollars. When it entered the US market, it was with an aspirational bent and “sippin’ on yak” became a favourite of American rappers long before ‘Pass The Courvoisier’ hit the charts in 2002. Most of the famous houses have now partnered with rappers as brand ambassadors, introducing the drink to a new generation.
Brandy’s path to popularity in Australia has come through different means, but cognac remains the reference point. From mirroring the VS, VSOP and XO designations used by cognacs to using the same Limousin barrels, the Australian producers are emulating the great houses. And it’s paying dividends.
As Klintworth says, “we are seeing perceptions change as quality brandies enter the market, proving brandy still has a place – maybe even for the top shelf – in Australia’s drinks cabinet”.
(Lead images: Twenty Third Street / Will Matthews &
Published 02 August, 2019