Nobody Expects Spanish Brandy

Paul Blow

A snifter of brandy is generally taken to mean Cognac or Armagnac. But there’s another brandy appellation in Europe, Brandy de Jerez, that gets far less play than its more famous French cousins.

Brandy de Jerez, produced by the major sherry houses in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía, has its roots in the Moorish domination of Spain, from 711 to 1492. Spain had a long tradition of winemaking, and when the Moors introduced distilling, the two methods met, giving the world sherry, a wine fortified with distilled spirit, as well as Spanish brandy, which is distilled wine aged in sherry casks.

Those barrels are the soul of Spanish brandy: They provide the flavor, texture, and aromatics. So brandy needs a neutral, pallid wine as the starting point—the Spaniards use the bland Airén grape. Thanks to the endless fields of it on the plains of La Mancha, it has the Jeopardy-worthy distinction of being the most widely planted grape on Earth.

Brandy de Jerez is made using the solera process, a carefully orchestrated system of blending younger and older brandies. Bottling is done from the casks containing the oldest brandies, though only half (or some percentage) from each barrel is removed, and younger blends are added to it. The result is a product that is both consistent and complex: chestnut-hued brandies with a deep, burnished fruitiness, which merge the fire of distillation with the sweet souls of rich sherries like the Olorosos and Pedro Ximénezes that have previously resided in the barrels. Consequently, Brandy de Jerez is generally a sweeter spirit than Cognac or Armagnac. This is especially true of one of the most popular Brandies de Jerez, Cardenal Mendoza. It is smooth and lush, sweetened with a little extra dose of Pedro Ximénez—which makes it a good starting point for brandy greenhorns. The producer of Cardenal Mendoza, Sanchez Romate, also makes Carta Real and Non Plus Ultra. These more elevated liquors might be the next ones to try.

Other venerable sherry houses make some famous brandies. Carlos I is the silky brandy of Pedro Domecq, and one of the most pleasing to drink. Conde de Osborne, from the house of Osborne, is one of my favorites—incredibly satisfying and easy to drink. I’m not much of a cigar-smoker, but if I were, this is what I’d drink with one.

Like sherry, Brandy de Jerez has been facing a declining market over the last 10 years. This is partly due to its packaging and marketing: cheap-looking bottles carrying the names of Spanish grandees of the Renaissance like Cardenal Mendoza and Gran Duque d’Alba. Brandy de Jerez would do well to update the exterior of the product to match the quality of what’s inside.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.