There are many garish bottles on liquor store shelves, but perhaps none do more peacocking than Spanish brandies.
You’ve surely noticed the bottles I’m talking about — even if, like most Americans, you’ve never bought one. Most Spanish brandies have crimson or canary yellow labels with glittery gold accents. One bottle wears a pretty ribbon, while a rival sports an intricate faux-gilded pattern. Some have regal wax seals affixed to them; others announce their presence in Renaissance faire-style fonts. They have courtly names, too: Carlos I, Cardenal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba.
Because, perhaps sadly, I am not a ruffled-collar courtier of Philip IV, for years I pretty much ignored the advances of these brandy grandees. But as part of my personal campaign to spread the joy of brandy among American drinkers, I decided to pop open a few gaudy bottles.
My only disappointment is that I waited so long to do so.
“People think brandy de Jerez is just a cheap cognac, but it’s not. It’s just a different brandy altogether,” said Claire Henderson, who toured me around the cellars at Gonzalez Byass in Jerez on my recent visit.
Spanish brandy is properly called brandy de Jerez and, like the French brandies, can be produced only in a designated region. Brandy de Jerez comes from around the Andalucian city of Jerez, the same place sherry is made. In fact, the brandy is aged in sherry casks, using the same solera system, a carefully orchestrated process involving successive barrels in which younger brandies are added to older ones as they age. The younger brandy takes on characteristics of the more mature spirit, and the older wine retains a freshness and vitality.
If it ages at least three years, it’s called solera reserva. If it ages 10 years or longer, it’s called solera gran reserva.
Most brandy de Jerez is made with the neutral airen grape, which is said to be the most-planted wine grape in the world. Sometimes a little bit of Pedro Ximenez grape is added, lending sweetness and intensity.
I tasted about eight reserva and gran reserva bottlings on the market. While I enjoyed them immensely, I have to agree with spirits critic F. Paul Pacult. “Subtlety isn’t the middle name of Jerez’s brandy men,” he writes in his authoritative 2008 guide, “Kindred Spirits 2.” These are full-flavored brandies that are best after a big meal.
I was also surprised at how expensive the gran reservas were, with most over $40. Still, I really liked Cardenal Mendoza ($43), with its dark, concentrated flavors of raisin and burnt caramel. And the Gran Duque d’Alba ($45) was beautiful, a huge brandy with creamy notes of ripe fruit and molasses and a hint of sherry cask.
But my favorite of the tasting was Lepanto, which was also the most expensive ($50). Instead of airen, Lepanto uses the same Palomino grape that sherry is made from. The result was a brighter, nuttier and more complex brandy.
I also liked one of the cheaper bottlings, Fundador ($18), especially as a substitute in cognac cocktails such as the sidecar, the Phoebe Snow and the Metropole. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more expensive brandies work even better.)
Though it has never caught fire in the United States, brandy de Jerez sells more bottles worldwide than does Armagnac. The Philippines, a former Spanish colony, is a huge market, as is Mexico.
In the States, brandy, by law, must be at least 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof. That means the brandy de Jerez made for export is actually slightly higher in proof than that produced in Spain, where it’s about 36 to 38 percent alcohol (72 to 76 proof). It seems a small margin, but in spirits that’s a significant spike.
One of the brandies in my tasting was a 76-proof bottling: Elcano, which I brought home from Gutierrez Colosia, the sherry producer. It was well balanced, with lots of chocolate and raisin notes, leading me to wonder whether the 80-proof export version is the best expression. For now, we Americans will have to go big, as we always do, anyway.
In the end, brandy de Jerez is like that buddy of yours who tries just a bit too hard; the one with the flashy watch and ridiculous gold chain and too much cologne. Yet somehow, he pulls it off. Everyone loves him.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound.” Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.