Thirty years ago, Spanish brandy functioned primarily as an anesthetic for truckers and other blue-collar stiffs. It was inexpensive brandy that got these hard-boiled men through their arduous days, explains Ricardo Rebuelta, director of the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación Brandy de Jerez, the regulatory body that oversees brandy production in this corner of Spain.

But that was then. Since Franco died in 1975, almost everything in Spain has changed for the better. Amid the national renaissance, there has been a revitalization of the country’s wine and spirits products, both globally and on the domestic front. Today Spanish wines are hot. And-at cigar bars and men’s clubs, and in the parlors of spirits enthusiasts all over the world-so is Spanish brandy, particularly Brandy de Jerez, which accounts for 95 percent of Spain’s brandy production.

If ever there was a spirit with a spirited history, it’s Brandy de Jerez, which is nurtured to maturity in the same region where Sherry is produced, predominantly by the same companies that make and bottle Sherry.

Since the 16th century, decades, after the Spanish had conquered the Moors and reclaimed Andalusia for their own, grape-based spirits have been distilled for commercial purposes in the southwestern part of the country. Yet the first appearance of Brandy de Jerez, as we have come to know, wasn’t until the 19th century; like many great inventions, serendipity played a starring role.

In the mid-1800s, the Dutch were going out of their way to purchase what they perceived to be high-grade Jerezano grape spirits to make their liqueurs called brandewijn, a name for “burnt wine” that was later transformed by the British into “brandy.” As the story goes, an order for 500 barrels of raw spirit, called “Holanda” because of its destination, was placed with the firm that would evolve into Pedro Domecq. When the order wasn’t paid for, the fiery spirit was transferred into barrels, which incidentally had been used previously to store Sherry. For five years, those barrels sat forgotten and untouched in Domecq’s cellars until one day, a still master found the barrels and pulled a sample out of curiosity. Immediately he noticed that the color of the Holanda had darkened from its normal water-like translucency, the aroma had richened and taken on Sherry notes, and the burn of the raw Holanda had mellowed considerably. Almost immediately, Domecq seized upon formulating an alcohol reduction (adding distilled water worked best) and barrel-aging process for Holanda, and by 1874 the company was bottling a barrel-aged Brandy de Jerez called Fundador. Soon after, other companies followed suit.

And more recently

Today, Brandy de Jerez is produced in three styles. At the high end of the ladder are the Solera Gran Reservas, which are aged for a minimum of three years in used Sherry casks, but almost always much longer, usually 10 to 15 years, with some components even older than that. Solera Reserva bottlings must spend at least one year in barrels, but quite often, they age for two or more years in used Sherry butts. The most basic brandies are Solera bottlings, which require just six months of barrel aging after distillation.

It was largely the Solera bottlings or lower-quality brandies made in northeast Spain that fueled the trucker-types of our earlier example. But today, much of the focus in the Jerez region is on the very best sipping brandies-Solera Gran Reservas like Cardenal Mendoza from Sanchez Romate, Conde de Osborne, Lepanto by Gonzalez Byass, Gran Duque d’Alba from Williams & Humbert, Carlos I of Pedro Domecq, and Hidalgo 200. These bottlings stem from the highest-quality distillates and are worthy of comparison with an X.O. Cognac or an aged Armagnac. And they carry price tags that qualify them as serious spirits-about $45 a bottle.

Solera Gran Reservas are, to say the least, robust, masculine brandies. In Wine Enthusiast’s most recent review of five major brands (see box below), spirits tasting director Gary Regan found a fairly wide range in quality, but also many similar characteristics among the brandies: walnut to mahogany colors; aromas of cloves and citrus zest; flavors of Oloroso Sherry, prunes and raisins; and long, dry finishes. Personally, I find the spirits to be strong, almost hot. To a bottling, Solera Gran Reservas are loaded with coffee, vanilla, and chocolate character. With a fine cigar after an equally fine and filling meal, a Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva is an appropriate choice-different but by no means a step down from the best Cognacs and Armagnacs of France.

Fortunately for Brandy de Jerez’s makers, brandy’s reversal of fortune has not been confined to the world of snifters and stogies. In a multitude of Spanish-speaking countries around the world and more casual settings like bars and nightclubs, Brandy de Jerez is frequently being served as an everyday libation, usually on the rocks with Coke or ginger ale. In these cases, $20 Solera Reserva brands like Osborne’s Magno or Domecq’s Carlos III are becoming increasingly popular. They are even less expensive Solera brands like Soberano (Gonzalez Byass) and that seminal marque, Fundador.

Brandy de Jerez is also enjoying success in the kitchen, as its rich aroma and flavors add depth to many soups and sauces. Just try adding a tablespoon or two of Brandy de Jerez to your homemade cream of mushroom soup, and you may never again cook without it.

Understanding Brandy de Jerez

In the 19th century, when the Spanish were becoming efficient in the art of distilling, producers used mainly pot stills modeled after the alquitara stills left behind by their Arab predecessors. Today, economics requires that continuous column stills produce large quantities of high-alcohol distillate for the more basic brandies. But the best bottlings, certainly the Solera Gran Reservas, are still derived from character-packed distillates that come from old-fashioned copper alquitaras-stills that must be loaded with wine each time they’re used and then cleaned out after every batch.

For decades, maybe longer, the grape of choice for brandy distillation was the local Palomino, the same grape used for Sherry. But today, once again, for economic reasons, producers of Brandy de Jerez have turned to the arid plains of La Mancha for their raw spirit. The grape they use is almost always Airén, an acidic, large-crop white grape.

Distillation takes place near the vineyards, after which the clear holanda (yes, the name is still used to describe a high-grade and very flavorful wine distillate of about 65 percent alcohol) is transported to the Jerez region and put into large oak barrels. There the holanda sits, usually for a few years, until it is deemed ready for alcohol reduction (to about 40-44 percent ABV) and maturation in the same type of solera and criadera system used for Sherry.

When you pour yourself a snifter of fine Brandy de Jerez, one of the first things you notice is the brandy’s dark, almost black-coffee color. Unlike lighter-colored Cognac or Armagnac, both of which spend some time in new French oak casks, Brandy de Jerez is aged entirely in 500-liter American oak barrels that previously held Sherry. The barrels are largely neutral and fairly porous, which allows for subtle oxidation and maturation, hence the dark color of many long-aged Solera Gran Reserva brandies.

The barrels also impart flavor and body. A barrel that was once part of a fino solera will impart a finer, leaner, sharper quality to the brandy, whereas a butt that contained an oloroso or sweet Sherry will impart richness. The strong characteristic of vanilla in the bouquet and on the palate is the result of the interaction between the alcohol in the brandy and the chemical compounds in the wood.

But even more important than the barrels themselves is the unique system of aging the brandy after the holanda has been diluted. As with Sherry, aging is done in a dynamic solera consisting of multiple rows of barrels called criaderas. Each criadera contains brandy of a different age, with the youngest labeled criadera one, and the oldest labeled criadera seven, eight, even 20 or 25, depending on how many criaderas the producer wants to maintain. When it is time to take brandy for bottling, a fraction of the oldest criadera’s contents is removed, sometimes as much as one-third. Somewhat confusingly, the oldest criadera is referred to as the solera, the same term that is applied to the whole aging system.

Once brandy has been removed from the “solera” criadera for bottling, brandy from the next oldest criadera is taken to replace what has been taken out. That procedure is then repeated up the line, with, for example, a portion of criadera, two fortifying criadera three, and ultimately criadera one receiving a new batch of holanda. The maturing spirit movement from criadera to criadera is why it’s called a dynamic aging system. The logic behind the solera system is that when a younger brandy is blended into an older one, the younger one acquires the older brandy’s flavor and character. Aeration and accelerated oxidization also occur when the brandy is moved from one criadera to the next. The ultimate goal in solera aging is to create complexity, richness, and softness in the brandy, which exists in all of the Solera Gran Reserva brandies I sampled when visiting the Jerez region.

Should you visit Andalusia and the so-called Sherry Triangle, you will want to stroll through the cavernous bodegas in the center of Jerez, where you will see firsthand the 12-foot-high brandy soleras sitting elbow to elbow with barrels holding Sherry. The vaulted mosque-like bodegas of the old-school producers are all very well ventilated. They also have sand floors, which can be wet down during the sweltering summers to ensure proper humidity and control the bodegas’ temperature. And just like with Sherry, it is in these bodegas that the master blenders work their magic. “What is it that makes one brandy different from another?” asked Luís Díez, rhetorically, as we toured Sanchez Romate’s Cardenal Mendoza bodega in Jerez. “It’s the blending, knowing when and how much to take from each criadera, and which barrels to use.”

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