Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brandy And The Holidays.

This is the time of year when people who never buy brandy buy brandy.

Although bourbon whiskey is great in egg nog, many people prefer the more traditional brandy. It also figures in other holiday and winter season recipes, not just for drinks but also desserts and other dishes.

So this is when a lot of people who aren't normally brandy drinkers buy and drink brandy, and a lot of that brandy is American-made.

Most American brandy comes from California, or so most people think. Two of the five largest brands are entirely made in California while the other three are distilled in California from California-grown grapes, but aged and bottled in Kentucky. And as I told you Sunday, four of the top five American brandies are aged in used bourbon or Tennessee whiskey barrels.

The United States doesn't have the fine brandy tradition of France, Spain, and Greece. Except for a few boutiques like Germain-Robin, American brandy producers go for a utilitarian spirit, typically aged for two to three years. Most of it is perfectly acceptable for egg nog, punches, and other holiday uses, and it's much less expensive than the imports.

There are four major grape brandy producers in the United States. I specified 'grape' there because Laird's, in New Jersey, is technically a brandy producer but their fruit of choice is apples.

There are countless small brandy producers, in California and elsewhere, mostly associated with vineyards and wineries.

The Big Four are all in California. They are:

1.  E&J Gallo, in Modesto. They make E&J Brandy, the most popular brand. At about three million cases a year, E&J outsells all other brandies, domestic and imported.

2.  F. Korbel and Brothers/Heck Cellars, in Arvin. Korbel Brandy is #4 in sales at about 350-thousand cases. Although Brown-Forman markets and distributes the better-known Korbel Sparkling Wines line, its sole involvement with the brandy is in supplying Jack Daniel's barrels for its aging. Korbel's sales are concentrated in Wisconsin.

3.  O'Neill Vintners & Distillers, in Parlier. O'Neill is one of the two big independents. It provides all of the distillate for Heaven Hill's Christian Brothers (#3) and Coronet (#5) brands, and possibly some of #2 Paul Masson for Constellation. It produces more than five million gallons of brandy and neutral spirit a year. Some customers, like Heaven Hill, just buy their distillate. For others they do the aging, blending, and bottling too.

4.  Vie-Del Company, in Fresno. Vie-Del is the other big independent. It's a former Seagram's plant, now owned by the Nury family. Together Vie-Del and O'Neill supply distillate for just about every brand except Gallo and Korbel. Like O'Neill, Vie-Del is strictly a producer, selling grape juice, wine, and brandy to customers who handle the branding, marketing and distribution of it.

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