Bartending has a long tradition of Brandy Cocktails and the new Brandy blend, Bertoux Brandy, is dubbed as a Brandy created specifically for cocktails.
The brand has just been nominated in the top four at Tales Of The Cocktail within the Best New Spirit Or Cocktail Ingredient category.
We talk to Jeff Bell, whose name you may also know from legendary New York cocktail bar Please Don’t Tell, about Brandy Cocktails and why it was time to blend a cocktail orientated Brandy.
[00:01:05] – What attracted you to blending a Brandy?
[00:02:20] – Explain a bit more about it being America’s primary spirit
[00:02:45] – So it hasn’t been recently made?
[00:03:32] – What makes Bertoux a cocktail-driven Brandy?
[00:06:00] – Tell us about the name
[00:06:53] – What has the reaction been?
[00:09:04] – Is the interest in Brandy increasing?
[00:12:35] – Was there anything you learned from the process of doing this that you didn’t expect?
[00:17:00] – What other flavours are pronounced?
[00:18:46] – Did being a bartender help you with blending?
[00:21:25] – What flavours go really well with the brandy?
[00:22:52] – What other cocktails should people be making with brandy?
[00:25:12] – So highballs are where people should start using the Brandy?
[00:26:14] – Did you create cocktails for the Brandy release?
[00:29:26] – People don’t realise how versatile Brandy can be
[00:30:01] – Was keeping the ABV low done particularly?
[00:31:54] – Has this inspired you to release more spirits?
[00:33:20] – Do you have plans to release it internationally?
[00:34:27] 0 So if someone is living outside the US, can they get their hands on it?
With everyone making gins and whiskeys, what attracted you to the idea of blending a brandy?
Well brandy being in the true spirit of the United States and one of the main ingredients in cocktail creation over 150 years ago it seemed like an opportunity that was wide open because the category has been very well under served in the United States, basically cognac being the only brandy available and we found the opportunity it would be great to make something in California it was time to bring something back. After prohibition it went into two different directions; it became super expensive and super inexpensive and there was nothing like premium quality in the middle so we decided to go after that market thinking so many people were going into gin and whiskey and it seemed like brandy hadn’t been explored super well.
You were saying its American’s primary spirit; could you explain a bit more about that?
It was the original, the first spirit produced in the United States were fruit brandies so you had grape brandy in California and fruit brandies like apple brandy in the northeast. So it was the first thing that American’s started distilling about 400 years plus ago.
So it really hasn’t been made in recent times?
It’s been made in the US but not to this. There are some really great producers in California like there’s Osocalis is one of my favourites, Dan Farber makes that in the Santa Cruz area, high quality and very small scale. But there’s nothing been based in New York there wasn’t anything widely available that I could mix with that was made in the United States other than the right quality. There is a lot of stuff sitting in the $8US a bottle kind of like very low, no aged statement, highly modified book brandies coming to the market. At that level, they are consumed purely for a vehicle for intoxication as opposed to something to be enjoyed and mixed with.
What particularly makes Bertoux a cocktail-driven brandy?
What we wanted to accomplish with Bertoux is that was we wanted to create a blend that was inspired by European eau de vie production and cognac and all the versatility of fruit distillates and see how we could capture that in a bottle. So if you taste some wonderful eau de vie’s in Austria and get like Hans Reisetbauer is one of my favourite producers and he makes these wonderful eau de vie’s that capture the essence of the fruit he distils but that is always the high end. Eau de vie’s typically have a ton of floral, aromatic, high tones and you take that idea and you try to get that into the brandy so it is not something people think they have to drink in a snifter by a fire or after dinner, it is something that can create range. So the idea is to create a blend that has those kind of floral aromatics but also have the textural, the body, the pot still texture you are going to get with a cognac or a malt whiskey but also having that high tone aromatics so that you have this range of flavours to mix with year around. So you could be like ‘oh this would be great in spring, I will do this in a highball with just brandy and soda with a twist of lemon or I could do this in the summer and play off the fruitnotes and do like a sidecar or in the fall I could play this into a Manhattan and highlight those orchard fruit notes and then you can go into the winter and do like an old fashioned with all the dries like dried fruits like apricots, stone fruits, that kind of thing and kind of pivot that into julips at the end of winter, beginning of spring April, May area’. So the idea was to create something that was versatile because I think most brandies are commonly mixed just in fall and winter and it doesn’t really make sense to me. People say oh it is brandy season but no one ever really says that about a whiskey, it’s not like whiskey season, people drink whiskey year round. You think like whiskey highballs, whiskey sours in the summer, people drink old fashioned all year round, I don’t think spirits should be allocated to different seasons. I think if it is good and has range then I think it should be mixed all year round.
Tell us about the name
Bertoux Brandy is named after John Bertoux, he was a prolific inventor in the late 1800’s. He created the attachment for a bicycle to carry a passenger, that was dubbed the sidecar and that involved into the same apparatus for a motorcycle and then became the namesake cocktail, the Sidecar which is probably the most well-known brandy cocktail. The idea behind this was a nod to innovation and a nod to cocktails. We want this to be something that is mixed with, obviously consumed on its own but we feel like cocktails are very exciting throughout the world right now so we wanted to create something for bartenders as another option; something else to work with that has a different flavour profile and a lot of versatility.
What has the reaction been?
We launched in September 2018 so we are about 9 months in. We are in California, New York, Illinois and basically San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are our focus markets right now. It has been extremely well received across the board. One of the interesting ways it is being mixed in New York is kind of what we wanted but without any direction, it’s almost like a seal of approval that we did what we were aiming to do. A lot of bartenders are mixing, in the same way, I explained with the versatile of flavours throughout the year so it’s not like everybody took this and said oh I am going to make Sazerac or this or that, they have all done something a little bit different, like Adan Bowey up at the Avery did kind of like a Grasshopper variation and Meagan Dorman at Reines Law Room did the Alexander and Dev Johnson at EO (Employees Only) has it in like a Manhattan-style drink. Naren Young at Dante has it in a Sazerac and Jillian Vose at the Dead Rabbit has it in a sour split base with Irish whiskey, Masahiro Urushido from Katana Kitten has it in a highball, so it is kind of cool that these great bartenders in these phenomenal bars have just created these drinks that are all over the board of styles but the different flavour profiles are in styles that we were hoping people would mix with so it’s kind of cool to see it pop up like that around the city. I am not as intimate with what is being created in LA and San Francisco because I live in New York and I don’t get to the bars over there as often as I would like but it’s well received, I think there are about 200 bars in those 3 cities right now that carry Bertoux which is a pretty good start and they are reordering it so that is one of the indicators if you are doing well. To buy it once that is one thing but if they keep on buying it that is another.
Brandy is a relatively underutilised spirit, do you think the interest in brandy is increasing?
I think so. I was just at BCB in New York this week and people were talking about brandy and how American brandy especially is having a moment. I think every category has its moment and there are generational trends that happen throughout time and things come into and out of vogue but these categories always exist. Like there is always going to be something, a spirit that is made from grapes and there’s always going to be a spirit that is made from agave and there’s always going to be a vodka, there are all these categories that exist but the culture and society and people will change what’s popular and what’s not, so I feel like in the early 2000’s American whiskey was starting to come up and like it or not Patron really created a premium perception of tequila and took it away from … the general consumer took the idea away from that it is something like something you do shots of in Mexico when you are on spring break and then you get a hangover and do crazy things. So I think what Patron did for that helped create a perception with the consumer that tequila can be a premium product which allowed for a lot of brands to show up and do great things and be accepted. There are brands that have been doing great things for a long time, they weren’t really in the market, so you saw like American whiskey come up in the early 2000’s and tequila come up around the same time and then agave in the late 2000’s with Del Maguey kind of 08, 09, 10 really taken off and leading the charge with mezcal so all these categories it’s almost like cyclical. And I feel like brandy has just been behind and I think it’s going to have a lot of momentum on the upswing because I think there is a ton of versatility to it to mix with, whether you are talking about Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, Spanish brandy or even if they start making brandies widely in South Africa, Australia like I think there is a lot to it because if you think of the way like the lifespan of a grape, it starts as a blossom on a vine and it becomes sour and it is under-ripe and then it becomes ripe and it is fresh and vibrant and juicy and then it becomes overripe on the vine and it shrivels off and then it falls off. It has this lifecycle that you can take into a spirit and have that kind of range. This fruit distillates if you harness it right there is a potential for a lot of range of flavours to be pushed into the distillate and then you have the opportunity to influence in your ageing protocol; what kind of oak you use. So I think there is a lot that can be done here. It’s going to be a little while for it to take off I think because as people come into the category - part of the issue is that it’s an aged spirit, so you can’t really launch it until you have some age behind it. So luckily our brandy is aged from 3 to 7 years, all grown, fermented and distilled and aged and delivered in bottle in California so we have a little bit of a head start because we have some inventory and we are ramping up production a little bit because we think consumers are going to want more of this. So I think more producers are going to come into the space but it is going to take a little bit of time because you have to age it, time.
Was there anything you learnt through the process that you didn’t expect?
Yeah, you know you don’t know what you are getting yourself into exactly, it’s kind of a hard question to answer. I think you know there are a lot of variables, there’s a lot of unknowns. It’s kind of with anything, the parallel with me is I have been blending flavours into cocktails for years and you kind of thing in your head where you have an idea and it’s probably going to work out, then you try and it doesn’t work or you have this idea in your head and it does work out and that’s kind of the same thing happened with the blending process and making a brandy. Like what are we going to accomplish and we start thinking about these different things we need to have and making it and what people think you need to have in spirits and some people think you have to be at 100 proof to be like mixable and all these different things out there, like data stored in your head and then you go and start tasting through these lots and you start thinking about the blend. The first couple of blends we came up with weren’t really that great, they seemed like a good idea but they didn’t have the depth, linear a little bit narrow, there wasn’t too much to it, it was like a single note so I didn’t think that was something that would have commended the right price or anything like that. It took us a little while to figure out how do we get depth to this and what we figured out and we found that our favourite vintage was 2013 so we made that the heart of the blend and then we took some of the older inventory from 2008, 9 and 10 and we made a blend of that and we added that as well as a 2014 Muscat brandy that was aged in French oak and we kind of blended all those together and created this very diverse line of flavours. So it started with the floral, citrus component that you are going to get from Muscat flavour, then the mid-range is the 2013 and what the older stuff did was give it like depth and rancio which gave it length and more texture. So if its younger you need to do something to it to get it to round it out to give it a personality otherwise it is a little bit rugged and you see that with people who are launching like rye whiskeys or something like that which are 2 or 3 years old and don’t have enough age to them. So what are you going to do to add to that to make it so it is going to be good. A lot of people would start adding sugar and giving you things that were not a possibility for us, not something I wanted to be, I thought it was cheating a little bit. It’s like an Old Toms gin or something, sugar is like the secret sauce to mask a bad distillate, so we figured we could use some older inventory to blend in to take care of that lightness that we thought was going to be difficult to mix with. So it’s a really nice harmonious blend now and we mix it with a combination of oaks, mainly French and a little bit of American oak so it is like 2/3 French, 1/3 American is kind of like the schedule. New toasted barrels and we find the French oak pops up the fruit and American oak adds a bit of spice but too much American oak basically in my opinion if you were to put a grape distillate into new American oak for 4 years or something it would really make it not indistinguishable from American whiskey but American oak is intense so it really covers up the femininity of grapes and fruits, so we found it adds a nice little spice, cinnamon and chocolate, those kinds of things, and we wanted to have just a little bit of that and not too much as you will lose all of the top notes.
You are talking of the spice of cinnamon coming through it, what other flavours are fairly pronounced
Obviously, its a fruit forward aged spirit so it’ obviously going to have some fruit to it, it’s not just a throwaway line. The first thing I get is it is honeysuckle, it is aromatic kind of like orange blossom is what you get on the nose and you get a bit of apricot, peach, those kind of stone fruit, you get a bit of apple and then you get a little bit towards on the end, the finish, because of the rancio you get a bit of dried fig, a bit of cherry and on the end a little bit of woodiness which gives a perception of spice, that’s kind of the progression of the blend when you taste it from nosing it to tasting it and letting it finish on your palette. They are the general flavours I find in it. Some people get a little more apple or pear but those are the kinds of things that resonate with me and I find that it mixes really well with some of those flavours I mentioned like apricot. Jean-Marc Roulot makes this fantastic apricot liqueur and you take a little bit of that with Bertoux and a touch of lemon and champagne and its like phew, its excellent and I feel like it mixes very well, aromatic spirits mix very well with bubbles so with a club soda or champagne it really brings all those aromatics, the bubbles bring it to the top of the glass, they are like little vehicles of the flavour coming up. It’s really nice.
Do you think being a bartender and working with a lot of spirits enabled you to be a better blender?
I wasn’t sure if that was going to translate or not but I think ultimately what you do over time is you are blending flavours and you start to build up these formulas in your head and these pairings and there are books out there, there are all these things out there that people use resources but I feel like it is almost like when you use a calculator you don’t know how to do multiplication at a vision, you just go straight to those resources which tell you to taste with this and then you know it because somebody told you but you don’t really understand why you think that. So I find that in the years of figuring out what tastes great with what, it’s all kind of stored in my head. Something that Jim Meehan told me years ago was to think about flavours in colours and it kind of really helps. So say you’re making a strawberry daiquiri and you’re like OK a Strawberry … what I try to explain to the staff is this would be really good with if there was something green in here, whether it is bell pepper, mint, basil, like green things have a similarity of flavour. They are not all the same exact thing but there is some sort of thing there, like yellow is straw and there is red, purple is like berries and violet and those kinds of things so I think about flavours and colour a bit and that helps with mixing cocktails, which has helped in mixing this. The brandy has a lot of tan and deep orange which I think of like spiced orange or candied apricot or orange blossom, those kinds of flavours are almost like honey or maybe honeycomb, that is kind of where my mind goes to when I taste it and smell it. It makes me think about what best to mix with it. So you think of flavours, you think of colours, you want complementary or contrasting, both can work. Visually when you think of complementary or contrasting can both be nice and serve a purpose but sometimes it’s too match of a clash and it’s the same way I think about cocktails. Sometimes you don’t want all complementary flavours because then it becomes a homogenous flavour and there’s not much diversity to it and there’s not much depth so you have to figure out how you find that balance of complementary and contrasting to create a nice balance of flavours where you can taste everything but you understand it is all part of one thing.
Speaking of flavours, what flavours go really well with brandy?
One of the things that was important for us was to make something that was great with citrus, super refreshing but modifier wise, it’s really good with sherry, I like it with an Amontillado or a Palo Cortado, you can do stuff with PX in light or two but I kind of like the mid-range. But apricot, I am really excited this summer to play around with fruits that are going to become available. In the States its summer so we are starting to get our berries and playing around with shrubbery and raspberry. Strawberry and Raspberry you can do with anything but I think it’s going to work with those but you can do strawberry with tequila and strawberry with gin, with vodka and strawberry with whiskey; it’s a nice accent to everything. But I think the stone fruits. We are looking forward to the end of summer when peaches come in and see what peaches do and then go into apple cider and pear are some of my favourite flavours to mix with it. Herbs are always a great complement to it. I would say my top mixers with Bertoux would be apricot, champagne, mint, citrus and cider. You can do almost like a Boilermaker but with cider and brandy, it is kind of nice.
What other cocktails should people be making with the brandy?
There is a lot of range and strengths as well. I don’t want to be the person that says oh this is great with everything. It’s not great with everything, that’s not how everything works but I like it in split-based drinks with rum and split based drinks with aged rum particularly, a Jamaican pot-still rum particularly, in like tiki-style drinks and it also goes very well with reposado and anejo tequilas and stirred drinks like Manhattan variations or Old Fashioned variations are two that really add a nice complementary and contrasting flavours. But the most important drink for us to make sure this brandy works well in is the Sidecar and when we finished the blend we made Sidecars and highballs with it immediately. These were the ones it needed to be good in: Sidecar because it is the most important brandy cocktail, the most popular, most common, and then the highball which I think highballs have a major resurgence right now, a lot of it coming from the influence in Japanese highballs but I think highballs are a wonderful way to consume spirits, like a way to elongate and aromatise spirits. You think of highballs being like whiskey soda, gin and tonic, vodka soda, whiskey coke, whiskey ginger, all these things are highballs and its make to make sure it tastes good in that because those are something that consumers can latch onto real easily and make at home because it is only two ingredients. I think there is this law of diminishing returns with the home bartender where it is like the more ingredients you give them or the more steps they have to do the harder it is for them to make it at home and they are not going to do it, so you figure out OK if this tastes good as a two-part drink the chances are that people will buy it and make it at home. OK, you only have to get brandy, soda and a lemon and you can make a cocktail at home. When you start getting into Sidecars, Julips, Old Fashions and Manhattans and that is what the trade is going to make, that is what the people are going to be making in bars but highballs are what people are going to be making at home. There are obviously the at home enthusiast that will be making cocktails at home but you are only going to catch a few people doing it that way.
If you get someone who hasn’t experimented much with brandy cocktails, I am assuming the highball is where you think they should start
Yes, that is a good way to go and I like a three-to-one ratio in a highball, 1½ ounces of brandy to 4½ ounces is my ideal highball ratio so it’s 6 ounces of liquid in a 12-ounce glass full of ice. You get much more than that it becomes a really strong drink and the idea of a highball is like it is supposed to be refreshing, a long drink so you can drink it relatively quickly and there is more volume, double the volume than a Sidecar or an Old Fashioned which are 2 or 3 ounces in total volume.
When you released the brandy did you create any new cocktails specifically for it?
Yes, I came up with our core recipes of all of the classics. I think there are standard formulas for cocktails but I found that with a little tweak here and there for for they tasted like with Bertoux and I felt like the Old Fashioned for example I only did one dash of Angostura Bitters, a lot of people like to do 2, 3 or 4 but I think 2 or 3 dashes of bitters are great in the rye Old Fashioned but I think rye is more aggressive, I mean I love rye whiskey, but Rye is a spicy grain, so an Old Fashioned with 3 dashes of bitters is fine but I think when you do that with something like brandy you cut into those things I was speaking about earlier, the florals, the feminine, the aromatic, those beautiful delicate flavours and I think Angostura is intense so if you do too many dashes you kind of kill that. So I put those on the website and wanted to refine those classic recipes and how the Bertoux tasted best in those. I have done some events in LA and San Francisco and New York trying to figure out, trying to make sure there is some sort of regionality to it so it makes sense. I don’t just turn up in San Francisco and make something that’s from a Rolodex, I try to come up with more stuff, which is a little bit masochistic but I think it goes over well. But one of my favourites I came up with was called the Brandy Boothby and it is a play on a classic called the Boothby which is equal part drink of rye, vermouth and champagne with angostura bitters and what I did was instead of going one on one I went on 1¼ Bertoux, ¾ Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, ¼ ounce Roulot l’Abricot, a single dash of Angostura, you stir that, poured that into a chilled glass and float ¾ ounce of champagne on top and it just creates this effervescent and you just sip the drink and it comes through the champagne, and it’s just like this awesome drink that sounds kind of weird because it’s like a Manhattan with champagne, but it is really, really good because if you didn’t have the champagne it would be a little bit sweet but champagne dries out cocktails a bit so it’s a really nice, slightly effervescent stirred drink. That one is a lot of fun. One thing I like to make for people is a brandy shandy and you do that with fresh ginger, bottled cucumber, lemon, honey, Bertoux and a little bit of like a wheat beer, kind of like friendly, velvety ale, is a really nice way to drink it in the summertime over brunch. Those are some of the fun ones. I did some Juleps for Derby season, one with strawberry, one with shiso, I have come up with a lot, it’s been a lot of fun.
I suppose a lot of people don’t realise how versatile brandy is
I think people think of it as something that is expensive and sniffed in a snifter and it is rich and it's sweet and all these things that people perceive of it but it’s actually pretty amazing. There are really great producers making all sorts … all across the spectrum, you can do a lot of cocktails.
I notice the ABV isn’t particularly high for a brandy, was that one done deliberately?
Yes, it was actually. It is 40% alcohol and what we did is we thought that some people say things have to be 50% to mix with the high strength they have to be bonded and there are things that people say, there is some validity with that to some products, if you take a 50% bourbon and you cut it down to 40% it is going to taste watery and flabby. If you do that to something that is already made. I think a great distiller is going to focus on what ABV this should be released at. Four Roses, for example, tastes great at 40%, some bourbon taste great at 45, some taste better at 50 and I don’t know how they do it but Booker’s tastes greater at 63 or 64% or whatever the percentage is this year, so I think that’s all on the scale of the distiller. But from Bertoux perspective some things taste better at 50, some taste better at 40 and what we did was taste it from 40 all the way to 50 at pretty much every point and we tried to figure out where it showed the best. 50 wasn’t bad but I thought 50 wasn’t the perfect balance of alcohol and flavour and we found that 40% was. What happened was you got higher in alcohol with the brandy you lost the delicate aromatics and all of the beautiful fruit and it became spicier and it tasted a little more like whiskey so I thought we’re not going to make this at 50% because that’s what people you need to make some cocktails so we have to make it delicious for the sake of being delicious and so we found it mixed better at 40 and it tasted better at 40 so we should launch it at 40. There is definitely a logic and reasoning to landing at that ABV.
Has this inspired you to make more spirit releases?
It’s fascinating, the product has been a lot of fun and a big learning experience but I love a lot of different, I would be happy to get involved in a lot of different categories, I really enjoy learning more about spirit production so I would like to do more in the future. Obviously right now just focussing on getting Bertoux into great bartenders hands and see what they do with it and grow with the trade. But yes, if there were opportunities to do other things like gin and agave are probably the next two I would love to get into. Gin is probably, I mean every category is tough to get into because they are all really crowded right now because there are so many distilleries opening up, there are so many people flocking to the spirits world. We would like to get into more, you just have to think about what does the world need, it is not for my ego, if there is an opportunity where this is a product that the world could use then yes I would like to get into it but I think a lot of people get into things because they want to do it for themselves and if you to do it for yourself it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to buy it. You say a lot of bizarre things on the market and it’s probably just somebody actualising their own pipe dream and no one wants to buy it which is not necessarily a funny thing because it probably won’t do too well.
You mentioned it was available in the major areas of the US, have you any plans to make it available internationally?
Yes we are kind of following the cocktails capitals and I think London is on our radar, I think Sydney would be great, Hong Kong, Singapore, we just want to be focused on where it is at so we make sure we have personnel in the region that can be there to educate bartenders and consumers on it. So we don’t just want it to be all the way out in the world, we want it to be understood and introduced in a thoughtful way. Places like I have mentioned, Paris too and Tokyo, all really wonderful cocktail cities, places we would like to be but we need to make sure we have, we have to grow the business first before we expand. We don’t want to be too broad at the beginning because then you become too big with no base and you could fall over.
So if someone is living outside the US is there some way they can get their hands on it?
We would have to figure that out. It is available nationwide in the US, there are a few liqueur stores like Verve Wine in New York and San Francisco, they ship nationwide. I am not quite sure about the international stuff right now. I guess it depends on each country and how you can ship. I imagine you could buy it online and ship out but I am not sure. It depends on the license of the retail accounts.
And if people want more info on Bertoux, go to bertouxbrandy.com
For more info on Bertoux go to bertouxbrandy.com