Beverage Director Amanda Reed explains how she fell in love with brandy and the important role the spirit can play in Heartwood’s menus.
Amanda Reed: Brandy is so interesting to me because it merges wine and spirit production. It’s a very layered process. After winning a Hennessy cocktail competition, I was fortunate enough to win a trip to the region.
When visiting any region where a wine or spirit is part of what defines a culture (history, tradition and norms), it’s easy to fall in love. While visiting Cognac last summer, I was charmed by it’s beauty. The cobble streets at the center of town are lined with little shops and bistros, the peripheral is full of chalky vineyards, and at the heart of the region is the scenic Charantes River. This small, sleepy town conveys an old world romance, making the Cognac taste that much better.
Hennessy’s process was much more hands on than I would have guessed based on the size of their production. I was surprised to discover that they had their own vineyard sites and were producing their own juice for distillation. They even have their own cooperage for producing barrels to age their product. The barrels are stored for aging in facilities throughout the region. One of the most impressive things I learned, is that while the Cognac is being barrel aged, there is a daily tasting panel (who train for years before being allowed to contribute) who taste through a selection of barrels and determine which expression each barrel is best suited for. It was great to see that whole process.
The barrels are stored for aging in facilities throughout the region. One of the most impressive things I learned, is that while the Cognac is being barrel aged, there is a daily tasting panel (who train for years before being allowed to contribute) who taste through a selection of barrels and determine which expression each barrel is best suited for. It was great to see that whole process.
I feel like French brandy—and brandy in general—is underrated. The amount of complexity that occurs from grape to barrel to bottle is amazing. Since you can use any type of fruit for brandy production, the flavor profile can range depending on the local fruit that was used. Choosing the a cask for aging is also a factor. Calvados is often aged in ex-Cognac casks, while Spanish brandies are often using barrels that were previous filled with Sherry. Brandy is a spirit that really does provide a sense of place.
Beyond that, Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados are delicious! With Cognac, I love its bright grape and orange marmalade fruit flavors and its spice notes. Armagnac often has this dried fruit and nuttiness I enjoy. It makes a great substitute for whiskey in cocktails. And Calvados, which has apple notes that can range from bright and crisp when young to cooked and baked as it ages, is always so delicate and beautiful.
While I love to drink brandy straight, I also find it to be a very useful ingredient in our pairing cocktails. The structure and flavor profiles of Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados all work beautifully with rich, fatty foods. I currently use Armagnac in the bone marrow and cheese pairing; Calvados for the pork chop pairing; and Cognac in the duck pairing. For most of these the brandy is being used similarly to how we’d us liquor—as a modifying ingredient. So, it’s typically used in smaller proportion than other ingredients in the cocktail. And yet, the addition of this spirit is often just the right thing to add richness, nuttiness, fruit, and spice to a drink. A little can go a long way.