The Louisville, Kentucky, craft distillery is transforming the grape-based spirit traditionally associated with stuffy post-dinner sipping by the fireplace into a beverage that’s ready for its close up.
It’s a Friday morning in late summer, and Isis, Magdalena and Sara hold court, sitting in front of the shimmering reflecting pool and the bright orange pop of the six repurposed shipping containers that comprise the Copper & Kings welcome center, tasting room and gift shop, all just outside.
Those fetching females are, of course, the three shiny, curvy Vendome copper pot stills named after women on Bob Dylan’s album Desire. Each is used to produce the brandy and other spirits at the distillery launched three years ago by South African entrepreneur (and music fanatic) Joe Heron.
I’m strolling through the facility with Heron, who tells me what an exciting time it is in the US right now for culinary exploration, cocktails, beer, wine, and craft spirits. “American brandy is not constrained by dogma – you can use any grapes, and any barrels,” he tells me. “In France, brandy is terroir driven, but here, it’s fruit driven.” There are, indeed, lots of pesky restrictions and regulations related to the production of classic brandies like Cognac and Armagnac. In the States, though, anything goes – and that’s truer nowhere else than in this distillery smack-dab in the middle of bourbon country.
The Butchertown neighborhood where Copper & Kings is located dates back to 1796, and has a history of butchering and stockyards. Today, the area is more gentrified, with meat production joined by an urban market, antique shops and art galleries. As part of the community, Heron sees an environmental responsibility, since although many don’t see it this way, alcohol production is agriculture. After all, whiskey, gin, brandy and vodka all start out as grain, grapes, potatoes or fruit
Heron created a 4,700-square-foot butterfly garden that serves as an urban pollinator haven and a natural storm water drain. If you bike or drive an electric car to the distillery, you get a half-price tour and tasting. And those aforementioned shipping containers saved on building materials, reducing carbon footprint. Everyone thinks they need to do something big for the environment, and then end up feeling overwhelmed at the prospect, Heron explains to me. Better to do something small than nothing at all.
On the distillery floor and in the cellar, Copper & Kings relishes a philosophy of experimentation, using barrels previously filled with Bourbon, sherry and beer to craft some of the most exciting brandy being produced anywhere. Unlike other spirits’ distillation processes which strive for purification of flavors, brandy is all about concentrating and retaining the essence of the fruit. Heron sources grapes from California’s Central Coast: Muscat adds a heady floral note, Chenin Blanc lends elegance and refinement and can boost the length of time a brandy can be aged, and Colombard adds a pop of brightness and tropicality. What emerges is decidedly American brandy, Heron says, not Californian or European.
Brandy is promiscuous, he tells me, in that it easily picks up flavors from casks. Ninety percent of Copper & Kings brandy is aged in bourbon barrels, during which the whiskey’s tonality is injected into the essence of the fruit. Where whiskey is strapping and masculine after resting in wood, though, brandy becomes sexy, supple and feminine.
As we head down to the barrel room I hear the thumping baseline of a rock tune; music is pumped into the space 24 hours a day, seven days a week for sonic aging. Heron is partial to rock and similar genres with a pulsating beat, which cause the barrels to vibrate and push the spirits into and out of the grains, giving them more contact with the wood that will add color, aroma, flavor and body. It’s also just plain cool. (The distillery’s homepage is updated daily with the current Spotify playlist.) Their brandy goes into the barrel at 135 proof (whiskey, by comparison, usually comes off the still closer to 125), and there is no topping off to account for the angel’s share.
Of course, the question lingers: why would anyone attempt to make craft brandy in the heart of whiskey territory? Heron reminds me that brandy distillation dates back to 1640, making it America’s oldest distilled spirit. There were actually a hundred or so producers making it in the late 1800s before Prohibition all but decimated the alcohol industry. In other words, it’s grapes’ birthright in Kentucky to grow up to be booze just as much as it is corn’s.
We head upstairs, passing walls flanked with local art and orange vinyl records, before heading to the rooftop, which touts a cocktail bar and an expansive outdoor patio with sweeping views of the river and downtown. The distillery holds a lot of events here as well as in in its courtyard, including Kentiki, where guests sip tiki libations and nosh on Hawaiian meat pies. Lest you think it’s difficult to make a tiki connection with brandy, Heron reminds me that two of the genre’s most famous cocktails, the Scorpion and Suffering Bastard, have their basis in brandy, not rum.
As we taste through the brandy lineup, which includes American Craft Brandy, Butchertown Brandy and unaged Immature Brandy, Heron instructs me to first sip each neat, then add ice to taste. He also introduces me to one of his favorite sips: the Copper & Kings Express (which he also dubs the Poor Man’s cocktail), where an expressed orange peel is added to brandy on the rocks. Simple? Absolutely. Stunning? That too, as the citrus oils mingle nicely with the caramel and vanilla notes from the bourbon barrels in which it’s rested. Floodwall, their apple brandy, is bottled at 100 proof. Add a little ice, and it’s like Calvados meets Scotch
But there are other categories Heron delves into gleefully, including two core gins. American Dry Gin starts with an apple brandy base, which adds crispness to the traditional juniper, while sweeter American Old Tom Gin is perfect in the Ampersand cocktail, with sweet vermouth, orange bitters and brandy or Cognac, as it’s made with grapes.
Their latest release is Destillaré Orange Curaçao, which gleans its subtle earthy sweetness from honey, natural citrus flavor from sweet and bitter vapor-distilled orange peels, and florality from lavender petals. It’s made for cocktails, Heron said, especially the Sidecar. The morning I tour the distillery, it’s being bottled for the first time, and I have the chance to not only taste the first batch, but return home with bottle #1 for my own cocktailing. It’s a gorgeous product, with luscious orange and honey on the palate and a touch of spice (and no artificial flavor – blue or otherwise – to be found.)
The brandy market, Heron points out, used to be dominated by low-end bottles costing $15 or higher-end French offerings starting at $50 or more. Today that’s changed, as Copper & Kings have found that sweet spot and a whole new audience.
Recipe and image courtesy of Copper & Kings
- 2 oz. Copper & Kings American Craft Brandy
- 1 oz. Destillaré Orange Curaçao
- ½ oz. Lemon juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake until well chilled. Double strain into a sugar-rimmed cocktail glass.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.