Spanish Brandy Needs a Rebranding
The perception of sweet and cheap—not to mention all those cardinals and conquistadors—isn't exactly a recipe for success in 2022. Is there hope for Brandy de Jerez?
There are many garish bottles on liquor store shelves, but none do more peacocking than Brandy de Jerez.
Surely, you’ve noticed the bottles I’m talking about—even if, like most people, you’ve never bought one. Most Spanish brandies wear crimson or gold upon their labels. One dons a pretty ribbon, while a rival sports an intricate faux-gilded pattern. Some are affixed with regal wax seals, while others announce their presence in fancy Renaissance-Faire-ish fonts. Then there are the courtly names themselves: Carlos I; Cardenal Mendoza; Gran Duque d’Alba. “Subtlety isn’t the middle name of Jerez’s brandy men,” writes spirits critic F. Paul Pacult in his encyclopedic guide, Kindred Spirits.
In the past, I’ve described Brandy de Jerez as “sort of like that buddy of yours who tries just a bit too hard—the one with the flashy watch or the giant belt buckle or the ridiculous gold chain or too much cologne.” Sometimes, I feel as though I should be wearing a ruffled collar, like a courtier of Philip IV, when I open a bottle.
Now, I happen to enjoy Brandy de Jerez. I believe, for instance, that it works better in the classic brandy cocktails than Cognac does. But lately, something seems amiss with the category.
My good friend, François Monti, a spirits writer based in Madrid, recently called out Spanish brandy in his newsletter, Jaibol. The rant was prompted by Monti’s outrage over a historic brand’s attempt to reinvent itself as a drink to be mixed with Coca-Cola. Brandy de Jerez, Monti writes, is an appellation “not very clear about where it is going.”
Monti notes that fewer and fewer Spaniards drink Brandy de Jerez. Since 2008, sales dropped from 45 million liters to around 9 million liters, with consumption dropping 30 percent between 2012 and 2016 alone. In Spain, he writes, the obscure sloe-flavored liqueur Pacharán Navarro is even drunk more. The export market is just as bad. From 2015 to 2018, exports fell more than 15 percent, with the largest markets being the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea—the latter consuming six times more Brandy de Jerez than the U.S. and twice as much as Mexico.
What’s the problem? Monti minces no words. “Brandy de Jerez does not stand for the quality of its raw material,” he writes. Terroir also means little: “It is very complicated to talk about the terroir of Brandy de Jerez…the vast majority of the raw material comes from outside the Jerez triangle.” The sugar levels—up to 35 grams per liter is allowed—also feel anachronistic. “The perception among consumers of grape spirits is that Brandy de Jerez is sweeter. This is not good news in the current context that is pushing more and more towards dryness.” And finally, the stodgy brand image:
Emperors, cardinals, aristocrats, great battles of Catholicism: the names and image of some of the brands are an obstacle for a more modern consumer. Carlos I, a brand that has made a great effort to modernize its image and that has a clear strategy of going towards the premium segment, still mentions on its website…“Spirit of Conquest.” ¡Ay!
It adds up to a spirit that the younger generation in Spain sees as hopelessly old-fashioned, the drink of their grandfathers—with a cringey legacy of being cosa de hombres (“a man thing”) as this television ad for Soberano from the 1960s suggests. (Even darker was this horrible ad.)
The last straw for Monti in the current marketing is the suggestion of brandy + Coca-Cola. He pointed out a similarly misguided marketing attempt by Calvados producers a decade ago—“another traditional spirit in trouble”—who tried to push the Calvados Tonic.
Big mistake: the Gin Tonic was successful because it was a known format that had become premium. It is one thing to improve something known, and another much more complicated thing is to push people to ask for a new cocktail, unrelated to any tradition and based on a spirit that fewer and fewer people want to drink.
The Calvados Tonic was an unmitigated failure. The brandy-and-cola will meet the same fate. “One of the most uncomfortable truths in the spirits industry is that hardly any recent trends have been created by brands,” Monti notes.
All of this is a shame. I have been a big advocate for Spanish brandy over the years. Monti and I actually presented a panel on the spirit at Tales of the Cocktail in 2015. Even back then, we addressed the same challenges that Brandy de Jerez faces today.
We implored brands to re-evaluate the high sugar content and additives in a world that wants dry and additive free. We bemoaned the low level of alcohol by volume. Most of it is imported into the U.S. at just 40 percent, but much of what’s sold in Spain and elsewhere falls below even that, down to 36 percent abv. We even wore ruffled collars to underscore silliness and outdatedness of the category’s imagery. Little has changed.
Still, what’s most problematic is Brandy de Jerez’s misunderstanding of what premium brandy drinkers are seeking out.
What image sells Calvados? Green apple orchards in Normandy, apple and pear harvest by small farmers, transformation of the fruit into cider, distillation of the cider, and subsequent aging. In many cases, all on the same property, as has been done since time immemorial. What image sells Cognac? It is more industrial, but on a day trip you can meet a small viticulturist, a distiller (with his barrel room for his own consumption) who sells to the big ones, a négociant, and end the day in the tasting room of a prestigious house. What image do we have for Brandy de Jerez?
Terroir, transparency, tradition—who can say what these things mean for Brandy de Jerez? The name invokes the Andalucían city of Jerez, the place famous for sherry. But the grape used for most Spanish brandy is not palomino (as with sherry) but airen, an insipid neutral grape said to be the most-planted in the world, grown mostly on agribusinees vineyards in La Mancha. Most of the brandy is distilled outside of the Jerez triangle, what the regulatory council calls the “processing zone,” before it comes to age in the vast solera cellars back in Jerez. Since, by law, Brandy de Jerez must age in sherry barrels, there’s very little differentiation between brands.
This is all probably beginning to feel like doom and gloom. But there are signs of hope for Brandy de Jerez. There’s a growing number of smaller producers who are more transparent about origin and aging. For instance, Monti recommends José Estevez Maximum, made with 100% palomino grapes.
More widely available here, Nicolas Palazzi of PM Spirits has partnered with Eduardo Oreja and Jesus Barquin of Equipo Navazos to release a series of single-cask brandies, all without additives and bottled at cask strength—revolutionary in Jerez.
“I had always associated Spanish brandy with some subpar version of Henny VS, some dark syrupy crap that makes the floor sticky if you drop some,” says Palazzi. That was before he tasted Equipo Navazos’ casks. “My mind was blown. I realized that at its core the additive-free product can be magnificent.” These are racy, elegant, dry brandies that still retain the rich, dried fruit, and full-bodied characteristics of classic Brandy de Jerez.
• I love the Navazos Palazzi 7-year-old aged in amontillado cask. This unique brandy was made from 100% pardina (an obscure grape I didn’t know) and bottled at cask strength, 42.5 percent abv. You can find it here for $75 and here for $80.
• There are also still a few rare bottles of the stunning Navazos Palazzi fino sherry cask floating around here and here, for around $80. Worth grabbing.
• The newest release, aged in Pedro Ximenéz casks (bottled at 43 percent abv) is delicious, rounder and darker than the amontillado or fino casks, with deep, enveloping dried fruit, with hints of umami and even tobacco. Though the cask as part of a classic solera, the average age of the brandy is at least 35 years old. You can find it here for $119.
While those single-cask selections represent perhaps the zenith of Brandy de Jerez production, I still also recommend also checking out a couple of the classic expressions for comparison. I’ve always liked Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva, which at under $50 is a good value, and easy to find. Instead of airen, Lepanto uses the same Palomino grape from which sherry is made. The result is a brighter, nuttier, and more complex brandy than most in the category.
And if I ever want myself some old-school Iberian brandy, complete with garish label and packaging, I go for the Gran Duque d’Alba. The Duke brings all that big sweet, ripe, creamy, molasses flavor, though you can still feel the attractive notes of the sherry cask. For $40, it’s a very good cocktail pour. Mix it in the classic brandy cocktails we talked about a few weeks ago, and see for yourself. My personal favorite is a drink I call the Little Madrid (2 ounces Brandy de Jerez, 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth, 1/2 ounce Cynar).
With all apologies to my colleague in Madrid, you might also even enjoy it with a Coca-Cola.