American Brandy distillation has a very rich heritage. Brandy was first distilled on Staten Island in December of 1640 by Cornelius Toun. Some historians think this was probably apple brandy but Joe Heron from Copper & Kings thinks it was probably brandy made from imported wine that was about to go bad. I think I agree with Joe’s theory. It takes time to get apple trees that produce enough fruit to make into cider and then brandy and I am not sure the settlers on Staten Island had enough time to do that by 1640. Even so it was often fruit brandies that were being distilled in colonial America.
When I say colonial America I should say east coast colonial America. Brandy heritage is a tale of two coasts. On the west coast Spanish colonials were establishing vineyards and distilling Brandy from those grapes. These vineyards date back to 1519 when the Spanish started sending vines and root stock for grapes on every ship bound for New Spain. The Spanish distillers had a head start over the English colonies when it came to Brandy distillation. The American Revolution saw an increase in Brandy production in new nation as territories such as northern Ohio and western New York became areas known for their vineyards and wine production. Even Kentucky had vineyards producing grapes by the 1840s. However it was fruit brandies that were the most popular in the east.
George Washington’s distillery distilled rye whiskey but also produced apple and peach Brandies. In his lifetime Washington is said to have kept all of his peach brandy production to give as gifts to dignitaries and good friends. Peach brandy was a prized drink in the new Republic of the United States. It demanded higher prices in taverns. As early as 1786 James Madison is searching for a barrel of aged peach brandy for his own use. Americans were fond of their fruit brandies and wines from apple, peach, pear, blackberries as well as grapes were being distilled and sold in the spirits shops across the nation.
On the west coast they had fruit brandy but grape brandy was king in the market. The Spanish monasteries had been growing grapes for well over a century and brandy production followed wine production. John Sutter, who later became famous for the gold rush, had a still and was producing Brandy in 1842. He is later furious with his son who sells his still to General Vallejo while he is away in 1849. California Brandy begins to make its way into the markets of the eastern United States after California becomes a State in 1850.
Like whiskey distillation, brandy distillation suffered some during the Civil War. Distilleries were taxed and it became harder for the small distiller to stay in business. Brandy distillation, unlike whiskey, is a seasonal operation. The distillers had to wait for the fruit to ripen and then make the wine or cider to distill. Many of the distillers were small and sold only to local markets within miles of the distillery. These were often the last of the farmer distillers in the United States. In the period of registered distilleries between the Civil War and prohibition, Kentucky had over 400 Brandy distilleries and about 100 whiskey distilleries that also made Brandy. Apple, peach and pear were the most common distilled fruits in Kentucky. Thomas Batman became known as the “King of Brandy” because of his business of purchasing barrels from many of the small distillers in Kentucky, Indiana and elsewhere. He stored the barrels in Louisville for sell in markets across the nation. In Cincinnati the firm of Mihalovitch, Fletcher & Co. sold their blackberry Brandy all over the south and into Mexico. Prohibition puts an end to these small distillers.
Brandy was sold for medicinal purposes during prohibition and a person could get a prescription every ten days. However most people chose to fill their prescription with whiskey instead of brandy. Bakers could also get 12 pints of Brandy and or rum a year for cooking purposes. This still was only a microscopic share of the market the Brandy distillers had before prohibition. The result was that distilleries were closed and often vineyard sold of to developers.
After Prohibition there is a return of Brandy production in California, but not elsewhere in the United States. New regulations and taxes made small scale distillation very expensive and unprofitable. It would not be until 1982 when Jorg Rupf opens the St. George Spirits Company in Alameda, California that we would see the return of small scale distillation. It only makes sense that it would be a person distilling Brandy. With the founding of this distillery, we saw the return of a very rich Brandy tradition in the United States. As more and more fruit brandies are being produced by these small distilleries, I think we will see a growth in the popularity of fruit brandy in the market. This in turn will spark interest in traditional grape Brandies. American Brandy will once again be a major factor in the distilled spirits market.