If you love Old Fashioneds, Mint Juleps and Milk Punch, you might be surprised to know that whiskey and rum haven’t always been the go-to spirits for these drinks. Back in the era of Jerry Thomas and the revered career bartenders of yore, brandy was often the star of the back bar—as is evidenced in any vintage cocktail book.
Brandy is most often distilled from grapes, but sometimes other fruits like apples and pears are utilized. Aged brandies—which include styles such as cognac and armagnac—are rich, complex spirits that exhibit fruitier flavors than spirits made from grain. They also remain as useful in a home bar as any other barrel-aged spirit—for both sipping neat and mixing. If you’re ready to kickstart your brandy collection, any beginner brandy in this list is a fantastic introduction to the spirit. Each is worthy of a spot in your home bar.
To recap for those unfamiliar with this brandy style, all cognac must be made within the French region of the same name. It also has to be made with specific varieties of grapes. Furthermore, it must be aged in oak barrels for a period of time specific to its categorization. With a minimum aging requirement of two years, VS cognac is a great place to start exploring cognac. Hennessy VS Cognac costs less than $30 and is an easy beginner brandy to find. Though young, it’s bright and fruity, making it a great addition for cocktails. It offers a preview on what deliciousness you can expect from extended aging.
California wine country gives us plenty of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines. But the New World region also provides drinkers with this cocktail-friendly brandy. Bertoux first launched in 2018 and was blended by acclaimed bartender Jeff Bell of New York’s PDT and sommelier Thomas Pastuszak of The NoMad. The pair decided on a final blend of three-to seven-year-old pot-distilled aged brandies—so you know it will make a killer cocktail.
The next tier of cognac after the VS designation, VSOP cognacs must be aged for a minimum of four years. H by Hine is a blend of 20 different cognacs aged at least four years. It is the result of a collaboration between the brand and the French Bartenders Association. With more time in the barrel, this beginner brandy takes on even more of the stone fruit flavors found in moderately-aged brandies. It also exhibits a variety of spice and floral notes, giving it a bit of complexity. These flavor profiles show well in a spirit-forward drink like the Old Fashioned.
While a bit more expensive than the aforementioned brandies, Camus VSOP Elegance is worth the slight jump in price. This is especially true if you prefer drinking your spirits neat over enjoying them in a cocktail. The family that makes Camus has been producing cognac since 1863. That expertise comes through in this wonderfully spiced and fruity cognac. There is a honeyed sweetness that’s not too overwhelming along with dried fruit flavors that envelop you like a cozy blanket. Pair it with a rich chocolaty dessert for the ultimate night in.
Though many brandies are made in Old World wine regions, apple brandy is a wonderfully American tradition. Laird’s is one of the oldest, most celebrated producers in the country. Records show that the Laird family has been selling apple brandy since 1780, and making it for at least a century prior. This particular bottling is made at the company’s New Jersey distillery from apple cider that is allowed to ferment naturally. It is then aged for at least four years in charred oak barrels. The finish is as warm and inviting as a baked apple pie. It’s rich in both its flavor and in its in history. Laird’s Bottled in Bond should be added to any beginner brandy collection. But it’s a great all-around brandy to have on hand regardless of your level of expertise.