“People are looking for the next spirit,” says Allan Delmare.
The current craft alcohol movement was ignited, according to Meehan’s Bartender Manual, with Blanton’s 1984 release of the first single-barrel bourbon. A decade later came more small-batches (Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek), followed by single-malt Scotch whisky (Oban, Talisker, Lagavulin). “Most bargoers still clung to fruit-flavored martinis or disco drinks, but brown spirits were creeping back into the public consciousness, and suddenly Americans were open to the idea that a drink didn’t have to taste like candy or nothing at all,” writes Jim Meehan.
From there, it seems like every spirit had its moment at the bar, with rye and gin and mezcal and an amaro for every day of the year. Google “brandy” and “trend” and headlines promise it could be time for the grape liquor to shine.
Delmare hopes so.
October marks a year since Delmare and his family opened Dida’s Distillery. His family has long worked with grapes, owning a vineyard in Northern California before moving to another in rural Virginia. Delmare, the second oldest of 12, his older brother and dad were the winemakers at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly. When other 15-year-olds were being screamed at to stop playing video games, Delmare remembers his dad yelling, “Hey boys, go add yeast to that tank.”
Now 33, Delmare built Dida’s on the same land as his family’s winery. It started, says Delmare, because he wanted to sell a port-style wine, and to make that particular fortified wine it needs a grape-based spirit. It needs brandy. At first, the winery bought the spirit, but after almost a decade, the family decided to make it themselves.
Delmare also wanted to expand, to do something new, but also something familiar. “We’ve been doing grapes for 30 years,” he says, so it “doesn’t make sense to go back and learn how to brew.” Instead, he is turning grapes into booze. Pluck grapes, ferment the grapes to turn it into wine, distill it, age it, and it’s brandy. It’s also much more complicated.
It’s about the grapes used, in Dida’s case, seyval blanc, vidal blanc and chambourcin. It’s also about what happens inside the barrel. Brandy traditionally sits in toasted wine barrels, but to push brandy to a more whiskey-like taste, Delmare first fills a charred oak barrel with his juice, but only for a month, before the charcoal zaps the fruity notes. Delmare then transfers it for long-term aging to toasted wine barrels to pick up more oakiness and color.
Brandy, the most famous variety being made in Cognac, France, is made from grapes and must be aged for two years, though it can be sold with alternative age statements, which is how Dida’s (named for their Croatian great-grandfather) already has product out on the market. There’s one “aged not less than one day,” which is more akin to vodka, plus two more aged one month in barrels, and a gin. In October, the on-trend aged-gin will be available.
For now, this is still very much a fledgling venture. “As far as economics go,” says Delmare, “it’s not good to make brandy.” Delmare’s back-of-the-napkin math: 100 gallons of wine can either make 42 cases of wine or 10 cases of brandy. And he’s not selling it for four times the price.
But being in the craft drink industry has always been about, of course, the craft. His goal, he says: “To become the premiere grape spirit producer in the U.S. I got to set my goals high, right?”
And as drink experts look for the new cool kid, there’s room for Virginia’s famed wine region to become its base of operations. “American brandy has certainly never had a place on the main stage,” says Delmare. “Cross your fingers this is the first stage of a brandy cycle.”
The American Brandy Revival
Media hype calls for a second look at a spirit associated with Colonial times.
“Rethinking American Brandy”
Simply put, U.S. consumers want to discover something new, and, according to Copper & Kings’ [Joe] Heron, ‘brandy is the new story.’ -Kimberly Tharel, Market Watch Magazine
“A Ripening Market for American Brandies”
Given whiskey’s steady surge over the past decade or so, as well as the rapid climb of agave-based spirits, it’s no surprise that the beverage alcohol industry has been eager to anoint another category as the next big thing. Plenty of candidates might fit the bill, but one that’s been getting a lot of attention lately—and rightly so—is American brandy.
-Jeff Cioletti, SevenFifty Daily
“Brandy has a Branding Problem”
…of all the kinds of booze in the U.S., brandy has had arguably the hardest time coming back.
-Laura Burgess, VinePair
“American Brandy Is Surging, Even in Whiskey Country”
Though overshadowed by the bourbon boom, domestic brandy has a growing appeal. Adventurous young consumers, weaned on craft whiskey and beer, are eager to try something new.
-Clay Risen, New York Times