LIQUID GOLD 'Tis the season for craft brandies.
In December, thoughts turn to Tom and Jerry. And brandy. Any cheap brandy will do for that winter warmer cocktail, right? That's what I thought until I was wowed by a mere $4 upgrade to a California VSOP brandy. Might there be more to this under-appreciated spirit that is, after all, distilled from wine, in North Bay wine country?
Prohibition Spirits Chauvet Chardonnay Brandy VS ($60): "We get a lot of people's leftover wines," says distiller Fred Groth. He can't say which wineries, but he can say that he distilled this brandy from leftover Chardonnay from the highly regarded Durell vineyard in Sonoma Valley. It's got an earthy spiciness from aging in rye whiskey barrels. Grapes from another vineyard contribute to Chauvet Pinot Noir brandy's ($60) sweeter, red-fruited flavors. A whiskey lover's brandy, Chauvet brandy XO ($75) is aged in both French oak and American bourbon barrels.
23570 Arnold Dr., Sonoma. Daily, 10am to 5pm.
Charbay Distillery No. 83 brandy: "I don't get to make brandy every year," explains 13th-generation master distiller Marko Karakasevic. An understatement? This was actually his father's first brandy made in the U.S., in 1983, from Folle Blanche—the traditional grape of Cognac. For all of its 27 years in French oak, it smells like fresh timber sawed the other day, along with subtle orange peel and spice. The other current release is the Charbay No. 89. Made from Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, it's also ethereal, but shows richer hints of citrus and rice syrup. Charbay brandies are near impossible to find in retail—I found one full bottle ($299) and one split ($149) of No. 83 at Santa Rosa's Bottle Barn. charbay.com.
Sonoma Brothers Distilling Grape Brandy ($50): Do grapes make a difference in brandy? Here, the proof is in the Pinot Noir. Made as a rosé wine at Paradise Ridge Winery before being distilled and aged just two years-plus in used Pinot Noir barrels, this delicious brandy pops with cherry, vanilla and an almost meaty essence of red-wine barrel. Tasting room only.
7759 Bell Rd., Windsor. Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5pm.
Korbel Brandy Aged 18 Years ($59.99): More than age sets this apart from Korbel's VSOP Gold Reserve brandy ($16.99), which is column-distilled in Bakersfield and gets caramel flavors from aging in charred American oak. They make a third of the 18 from Russian River Valley grapes on an alembic still and aged in Chardonnay barrels, lending notes of orange oil, butcher block and cashews warming in a nut hut—as cozy-sounding as the Korbel tasting room, which is the only retail location where this can be found.
3250 River Rd., Guerneville. Daily, 10am to 4:30pm.