For years now, American rappers have been praising the seductive powers of cognacs like Courvoisier and Hennessy. Tupac Shakur even named a song after Hennessy. "They wanna know who's my role model," he rapped. "It's in a brown bottle."
But when was the last time you overheard a hip-hop artist name-check Korbel or Germain-Robin? Those brandies originate from the same sunbaked Californian hills and valleys that produce about 90% of all U.S. wines. The state has distilled brandy ever since the first Spanish missions were established there in the 1700s.
French brandymakers would cringe to see some Californian producers freely blending both white and red grapes (cognac is made from white grapes only) and others happily distilling the liquid in modern stainless-steel tower stills instead of the traditional copper pots. But the fact that U.S. producers work unhindered by the calcified traditions found in Europe can pay off. American brandies are the only ones in the world aged in used bourbon oak casks, sometimes making them smoother and lighter than their competitors.
"Our brandy has been served at the last several presidential inaugurations," says Paul Ahvenainen, director of winemaking at Korbel. The historic 810-hectare Korbel estate is tucked away in a redwood tree-filled corner of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. It distilled its first brandies in the 1800s and is one of the few big Californian producers.
Most of the state's brandymakers are small, artisanal outfits like Germain-Robin. It produces some of Cali's best brandies by using an antique French alembic still and planting only French colombard grapes (one of the traditional cognac varietals). Its rare single-vineyard, single-varietal brandy was a favorite of Ronald Reagan's.
Other Californian producers stumbled into brandymaking by accident. "We don't usually advertise our brandies," explains Debbie Dean from the Domaine Chandon winery near Napa. "Chandon is known for sparkling wines. But we came upon some forgotten brandy barrels and cases from years ago, and realized it was really excellent quality. We only sell this limited-edition brandy to visitors to our premises, and we don't have plans to make any more."
Although the brandy market is static in the Western world, it's booming in Asia, where people drink more than half the global supply. India, the world's biggest brandy-consuming nation, has seen huge growth in premium-brandy sales annually. Imports in China, another prodigious brandy consumer, are also on the rise.
That's why California brandy labels like E&J (made by wine giants Ernest and Julio Gallo) are aggressively going after a younger, global market. E&J's ads feature multiethnic hipsters enjoying cocktails made with Easy Jesus, as the liquor is nicknamed. There aren't any slick raps praising Easy Jesus just yet, but there is a metal track of the same name, performed by industrial-rock band Zilch. Will that do?