The adage that ‘everything old is new again’ rings especially true for some drinks. Brandy has fallen out of favour since the 1950s and ’60s, when it was the most popular spirit in Australia. And while it is too early to be declaring a brandy renaissance, there are early signs that the current enthusiasm for whisky is transferable to other dark spirits.
“Whisky enthusiasts love having a diversity of whiskies in their home cellar,” says Richard Angove, managing director of St Agnes Distillery (stagnesdistillery.com.au). “They don’t mind tasting brandy, because it’s an aged brown spirit that is similar to whisky, and the opulence and fruit character of brandy can definitely win some people over.”
Founded in 1925, St Agnes is Australia’s oldest continually operating brandy producer. It now has company in the brandy arena from some more recent distilling entrants, such as Archie Rose Distilling (archierose.com.au). Last year, the Sydney-based distiller released the Hunter Valley Shiraz Spirit, an unaged eau-de-vie distilled from salvaged shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes that were tainted by smoke in the 2020 bushfires. The majority is undergoing maturation for release as a brandy in coming years.
Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove Distillery (sullivanscove.com) is best known for its whisky exploits, which have earned it global recognition as the winner of multiple accolades for world’s best single malt. But in 2018, Sullivans began releasing brandies that had been laid down about a decade earlier.
“We didn’t know what to expect in terms of sales, because brandy clearly doesn’t have the same consumer interest that whisky does currently,” says head distiller Heather Tillott. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Our brandies are ticking over quite well.”Tillott argues brandy is the most worthy stablemate in Australians’ liquor cabinets. “We’re a beer drinking nation and we’re a wine drinking nation, so therefore we should be a whisky and brandy drinking nation,” Tillott says.
Around the same time as Sullivans began putting down stocks of brandy, Bass & Flinders Distillery (bassandflindersdistillery.com) started up in the Mornington Peninsula.“Our family was really inspired by the rich tradition behind French brandies, such as Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados,” says Holly Klintworth, second-generation distiller. “A lot of classic cocktails call for brandy and wherever there’s a wine region it makes sense to have a distillery producing brandy.”
Cognac and Armagnac are French appellations for brandy made in accordance with certain rules, in specific regions. Australian distillers typically work with different wine grapes to those used in Cognac, where there are nine acceptable varieties.
“The brandy that we make is 100% Victorian chardonnay, which I feel is a really quintessentially Australian white grape variety,” Klintworth says.
Sullivans Cove releases single-variety brandies labelled XO Single Cask made either from pinot noir or chardonnay.
“You can absolutely tell the difference between the pinot noir and chardonnay-based brandies, even if they’ve been matured for roughly the same period in the same type of cask,” Tillott says.
“The pinot noirs have a very juicy dark berry, almost lactic note, and the chardonnays have a really nutty taste to them.”
The XO Double Cask releases are vatted blends of eau-de-vies that include pinot, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, cabernet and merlot. All are matured in ex-tawny French oak casks for upwards of eight or nine years in the Tasmanian climate.
“Cognac is a much finer, delicate spirit-driven drink. They’re very tentative about oak influence,” says Tillott. “Armagnac has got much more body and oak influence and so our brandy stylistically is a bit more akin to Armagnac.”
Lark Distillery (larkdistillery.com), also in Tasmania, has been producing brandy for even longer. “We use the same pot stills as for our whisky, so it’s a more chunky and robust style of brandy,” says head distiller Chris Thomson. “The wine that we use is majority pinot noir, with some chardonnay in there as well.”
Thomson says Lark releases a couple of casks that are quickly snapped up.
“People might start off being a whisky drinker, then that piques their interest and they move across into other spirits,” he says. “There’s a growing interest in spirits all round, and brandy is such a great contributor to cocktails.”
Recognising this opportunity, St Agnes has released Bartender’s Cut, a brandy developed in collaboration with 10 leading Australian bartenders.
“It’s quite a robust spirit; higher in alcohol and really drawing on the sherry and tawny characters of the oak that it’s matured in,” Angove says. “It’s a really unashamedly Australian brandy that does add depth of flavour to a drink.