Brandy distillation was an important part of Kentucky’s distilling industry before prohibition. In the early days of settlement, apple, peach and pear brandies were the premium spirits in the local taverns. A drink of these brandies would cost you twice the amount of corn whiskey – even more if they were aged brandies. The people settling in Kentucky made fruit brandy from the native fruits such as blackberries and expanded to apples, pears and peaches once they had established orchards. In the years before prohibition there were several hundred brandy distilleries in Kentucky and dozens of whiskey distilleries that also made brandy. Thomas Batman became known as the “King of Brandy” for his ability to purchase apple brandy from both sides of the Ohio River and store the barrels in his Louisville Warehouses.
Copper & Kings has revived this heritage of making Brandy in Kentucky. Joe Heron is originally from South Africa but is now an American citizen and businessman. He made some money in the soft drink industry on the West Coast and used those funds to build Copper & Kings. He introduced his first bottles of Brandy in 2014 using barrels of sourced brandy while they started to distill and age their own product. He hired Alan Bishop and Brandon O’Daniel as distillers. Alan has since left to take a job elsewhere and Brandon became the Master distiller. Brandon has a background in wine making and an excellent palate.
Copper & Kings does not have a fermenting facility but they send O’Daniel to wineries that make their wine for distillation to oversee the process. The wine then comes to the distillery to be distilled in one of the three Vendome copper pot stills. They are all named for Bob Dylan from the album “Desire”. The largest is Isis at 1,000 gallons. Next is Magdalena at 750 gallons and the smallest Sara at a mere 50 gallons. O’Daniel uses the differences in these stills to create different flavors in the final distillation. Copper & Kings uses a low distillation proof to keep as much of the fruit flavors as possible in their brandy but does double distill.
The aging process takes place in their warehouse in a basement under the distillery. They use a variety of cooperage to age their brandy. They use new and used barrels and they are not afraid to play around with the used cooperage. Yes, they have some of the larger sherry butts but they also have used Bourbon barrels, used Tequila barrels and even an ongoing series of used beer barrels from a variety of artisan breweries. One thing that is very noticeable in the warehouse is the loud music playing there all day long. They believe the vibrations from the music will help the aging process. The warehouse is also heated in the winter.
They have four different types of grape wines that they distill into their Brandy. They blend these aged Brandies together to create different flavor profiles and they sell bottles of each type as individual Brandy expressions as well. They also make apple Brandy with apple cider sourced from Michigan.
Copper & Kings has a growing portfolio of Brandies and an extended line of other spirits made using brandy as the base spirit. Absinthe and Gin are the two spirits they play around with most and have offered several expressions of each spirit. They often get a chance to purchase barrels on the market and have recently purchased some 10 years old Pear Brandy. They put their own mark on these barrels by finishing them in new toasted oak barrels to bring out more vanilla notes making this an excellent Pear Brandy. They offer it only at the distillery and you get to fill your own bottle from the barrel when you purchase it.
Copper & Kings is bringing back American Brandy. They are using many modern innovations while doing so, but they respect the heritage of the industry. There are problems with Brandy production that limit the amount that can be made. Brandy distilling is limited to distinct times of the year – only after the fruit has ripened and been fermented. This is unlike whiskey production where dried gains, corn, rye and malt can be found year round. The other problem is orchards or rather the lack of them. Fruit growing has become very one dimensional in the past century and many of the best cider apples, pears and peaches are hard to find. It is hoped that as Brandy production becomes more popular, there will be a growth in the number of orchards growing these heirloom varieties of fruit.
Kentucky has a rich heritage in Brandy production and Copper & Kings is bringing it back from the grave. Even more importantly they are part of a nationwide revival of brandy distillation. Joe Heron hopes to play a role in this nationwide revival and hopes to cooperate with other Brandy producers to learn more of this heritage and share it with the public. The future of Brandy is as bright as its past and Copper & Kings is leading the way in Kentucky.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl