Loud rock pumps from a dim basement venue heaving with Sydney’s young and hip. Inside the deliberately gritty, red-carpeted Ramblin Rascal Tavern, tattooed ’tenders sling tinnies and line the bar with shots of… brandy?
Yes, the spirit of choice at this coolest of bars is not whisky or rum but brandy, a drink more often associated with Nanna than Nirvana. Asked why he’s made this decidedly un-trendy tipple a signature of his bar, the co-owner Charlie Lehmann says, “Brandy is just delicious.” And while some hesitate at first, the good vibes at Rascal make it hard to say no to Lehmann and his crew. “Folks who would never order brandy are surprised how good it is,” he says. “Brandy kicks for everyone on some level.”
Savvy drinkers are exploring the experimental like never before — natty wines, farmhouse beers and gins infused with green ants — and Australia’s booming craft beverage industry is all too happy to oblige. It’s given rise to an obsession with “authentic” products that has drinkers exploring the trends of yesteryear. Lehmann and his old-time tipple are a case in point, the green shoots of a nascent brandy revival sprouting like a vine in springtime.
The word “brandy” comes from the Dutch word “brandewijn”, meaning “burnt wine”, and encompasses any spirit distilled from fermented fruit, though most brandies are made from grapes. With the nuance of wine and the power of a spirit, brandy is as intriguing as whisky yet has a lighter texture and a lifted, floral perfume. Some spend decades in oak, layering on rich, earthy tannins.
The most famous brandies come from the Cognac region of France and have long been associated with opulence and wealth. But high-quality brandy is often very reasonably priced and is common in wine- and fruit-producing regions the world over, from Peru’s ubiquitous pisco to America’s applejack and the grappas of Italy.
Much like the wines of those countries, brandy represents its terroir. As Heather Tillott, the distillery manager at Sullivans Cove in Hobart, explains, “The grape has a certain magical knack for being able to capture the essence of a place and its people.” Though it’s known for single-malt whiskies, Sullivans Cove also produces brandies from Tasmanian wine in very limited quantities. As Tillott says, “What better way to express our regional character than to carefully distil and frame it in spirit form?” (Full disclosure: I worked at Sullivans Cove for several years.)
If you’re producing wine, it makes sense to make brandy, too, as most grape brandy is distilled from the leftovers of winemaking. In Australia, we’ve been doing it for well over 100 years. In the past, almost all wineries would have had a still in the shed for this purpose, and they would use the resulting spirit to fortify the sweet wines (sherry, port, muscat) that were popular for most of our post-colonial history.
Some of these spirits were also laid down in oak casks to mature into high-quality brandies in the French style, giving rise to labels like Black Bottle and St Agnes that have been around since the early 20th century. Richard Angove is a fifth-generation brandy-maker at St Agnes distillery in Renmark, South Australia. “Brandy was probably first made in the Hunter Valley in the mid-1800s, when some of Australia’s first grapevines were planted,” he says. “My great-great-grandfather Dr William T Angove first started distilling in the late 1800s and the St Agnes distillery was built in 1910. We’ve been making brandy here ever since.”
As with many things, in brandy, patience is a virtue. “We’re lucky to have old batches that were distilled by my grandfather in the 1970s that we draw on today,” says Angove. “It’s amazing to think that some of the spirit we’re making now won’t be sold for another 40 years or so.” And at good prices, too. You can pick up a bottle of outstanding 15-year-old St Agnes for $114.
Spirits made from other fruits also have great potential in Australia. The Smith family in Tasmania’s fertile Huon Valley has managed apple orchards for four generations and built a thriving cider business, Willie Smith’s, using apples not pretty enough for the supermarket as well as varieties grown for fermentation. By double distilling a specific style of sulphur- free cider, the family also makes an excellent apple brandy, Charles Oates.
Much like distilling the leftovers from wine production, the pulp from juicing can also be fermented and distilled into brandy (known as “marc”), a technique long employed in the fruit-growing regions of Europe where brandies are common. It’s an approach that has historical precedent and represents the low-waste future of agriculture, ripe for exploitation by Australia’s fruit growers.
So why don’t Aussies drink brandy?
A few decades ago, knowing your brandy was considered a mark of refinement. Take, by way of example, a scene from 1964’s “Goldfinger” in which Sean Connery’s 007 quips to M that the brandy they’re drinking is “a 30-year-old fine, indifferently blended, sir… with an overdose of Bons Bois”. (“Fine”, by the way, is a French term used to describe high-grade French brandies, among them Cognac and Armagnac.
Varieties include Fine de Bordeaux, Fine de Bourgogne and Fine de la Marne. Bons Bois refers to Cognac that is made from grapes grown in the Bons Bois region; the cru is considered to be less ordinary than Bois Ordinaires but not as fine as Fins Bois.) But the 1980s and ’90s were a bad time for brandy as Generation X turned to vodka as its drink du jour and increasing spirits taxes led many Australian wineries to decommission their stills. In the 2000s, French brandies got a bump in sales thanks to American rappers calling out famous Cognac brands in their lyrics, but the cultural impact was far less in Australia.
While Busta Rhymes was passing the Courvoisier, the Hilltop Hoods were in the front row all covered in beer. By the time the Australian craft spirits industry started to gain traction about 10 years ago, brandy had been relegated to a few dusty bottles of overpriced Cognac on the top shelf and most Aussies thought of local brandy as the cheap stuff used for cooking.
But ask an Australian bartender or sommelier how they feel about brandy and their eyes will light up like flames on a crepe suzette. “Brandy is nostalgic for me,” says Shanteh Wong, the head sommelier at Sydney’s Quay restaurant. “I will never forget the experience of drinking a Tesseron Lot 29 XO Exception. It was no more than a couple of drops — the dregs from the spirit measure — but I could detect more aromas and more emotion in that single moment than anything I had experienced before. It sent me on a path of wonderment for brandy that continues to this day.”
Along with whisky and gin, brandy plays a key role in Australia’s thriving cocktail culture. It’s a favourite of Ollie Margan, the co-owner of the Adelaide cocktail institution Maybe Mae. “The various personalities in the brandy space allow for exciting drink-making possibilities, be it a richer barrel-aged style or a crisp eau de vie,” he says. “It has the ability to stand up to citrus in a sour or works beautifully stirred down into a deeply aromatic cocktail.”
Holly Klintworth of Bass & Flinders Distillery on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula thinks the future is bright for local brandy, as renewed interest from drinkers and distillers alike drives innovation. “In Australia, we’re not bound to working with certain grape varieties sourced from certain regions, as they are in France,” she says. “This affords us great flexibility and creativity, which is really exciting for the future of the industry. It’s just a matter of time before brandy is well and truly back in fashion.”
Turns out, when it comes to brandy — as with a lot of things — Nanna was right.