Joe Heron is on a mission from the brandy gods. He’ll preach the ever-sweet word of brandy to whoever will listen. Not just any brandy – American brandy. His church is the newly opened Copper & Kings distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.
Though Copper & Kings produces gin and an array of absinthe, the company’s main focus is brandy. Currently available is their 90 proof American brandy and 124 proof Butchertown Brandy, both made from grape wine. An Apple brandy is another offering. Heron began sourcing aged brandy from different American producers before the business fully kicked off in order to have some beginning stock to blend and sell.
All of the brandy from Copper & Kings is non-chill filtered. Additionally, none of his brandy has added flavoring, color or any other additives. It’s all natural. Heron and his staff have sourced brandy that is distilled 100% in pot stills. For the most part, maturation is achieved through a combination of ex-bourbon barrels, new American oak barrels and, in the case of their apple brandy, ex-sherry casks. There are other types of casks Heron experiments with, but no brandy aged in those casks have been released.
I reached out to Joe Heron to learn a little about Copper & Kings and expand my brandy knowledge a bit. He sent over some brandy samples and was kind enough to answer a few questions. Below is my short interview with Joe, followed by my tasting notes for all three Copper & Kings brandy expressions.
The brandies you currently have on the market – American Brandy, Butchertown, and American Apple Brandy – are they sourced brandies?
Everything we sell now is blended from sourced brandy. The youngest aged (brandy) in the bottle now is about 5 years old. The oldest is approaching 15 years old. Most (of the blend) is 8 or 9 years old now. We call this our “DNA base”. We sourced pure potstill brandy and stored it in bourbon barrels in Kentucky before opening the distillery and our cellar. When we finished off the maturation cellar, we blended all the brandy into our DNA base.
Talk a little about your process.
As a small distillery, we are essentially still in a “make-to-order” production process, and blend selected barrels pre-bottling. As we do not chill-filter, it takes 3-4 weeks to proof down pre-bottling to avoid saponification. So we blend, then proof, then bottle. We do not adulterate with boisé, sugar or caramel coloring post-distillation. We do not dilute with water in the barrel during maturation.
Brandy does not respond to accelerated aging techniques more common at, say, craft whiskey distilleries, such as high heat, small barrel, heavy char or all of the above. Good brandy needs time. You stroke brandy into shape. You don’t muscle it. Hence our DNA sourcing strategy. It’s all about exceptional juice in the bottle. Every time.
When we first started sourcing potstill brandy, it was quite plentiful, particularly grape brandy, but far less so for apple brandy. We have been unable to source aged pot-distilled brandy for about a year. Everyone wants to keep it now. This may give us a significant challenge if we are fortunate enough to take off. So, if you hear of anyone with pot-still brandy aged for over 3 years for sale let me know!
To follow up on the DNA base going forward, every year we take the bulk of the barrels down and re-blend old into new. A solera variation. This requires enormous effort and math (“talking to you’s like long-division” – Old 97’s). We are up to DNA 5, with an ever decreasing percentage of our original DNA 1 as we go forward. We have about 5 years to go doing this. Bloody Fuck.
I understand you and your staff spend part of the year sourcing wine on the west coast, and part of the year actually distilling brandy. Is distilling brandy more of a seasonal thing, or are you producing it year-round?
Brandy is inherently seasonal as you are dependent on fruit. We do not distill year round. We distill about 9 months a year, stopping in the summer when it’s too hot and the wine has been distilled pre-season. Apple brandy is easier to distill longer throughout the year. Apples stand up well in cold storage, while grapes obviously don’t. We source grape wine in California and apple wine in Michigan. Here’s something to bear in mind: it takes five tons of grapes to make one barrel of brandy. Fuck. Brandy has a very challenging supply chain that’s way harder than grain-based spirits.
How’s your distribution?
We are (currently) in 22 states. We may add a few states this year, but we are more focused on filling in the gaps on the eastern seaboard, and really working our existing markets very hard with our wholesaler partners, as partners.
Finally, and most importantly: Beatles or Stones?
Ahh – super tough call, but… the Stones baby! Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street – what a triumvirate of records amongst a pretty legendary pantheon of albums. Although.. anyone who doesn’t like the Beatles is full of shit. Great band. Legendary. And this is obvious, really.
But if I hear a Copper & Kings sound in my head at the moment – North Mississippi All Stars – because American Brandy boogies – yessir, gets down and boogies.
Bottled at 45% abv, Copper & King’s American Brandy is aged in ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels and American White Oak barrels. According to the label, the new American oak barrels have a medium-char. The nose is expectedly fruity – think adding brown sugar, a little wine, and raisins to a small pot of stewed fruit. The bourbon barrel maturation shows its influence with a touch of vanilla. It sort of smells like a signature dessert at a 5-star restaurant. On entry, this brandy has a little bite. A fruity wine note blends with some creamy caramel, cinnamon sticks, and some vanilla. The finish is medium-long, and carries a mulled wine note. The higher-than-normal proof gives the spirit a bit of character, but the true star is the exceptional blend Joe put together. Make no mistake, this is one nice brandy.
Butchertown Reserve Casks Brandy
Named after the neighborhood where the distillery set up shop, Butchertown is a bruiser of a brandy. It’s bottled at 124 proof (62% abv). The Copper & Kings website states that 75% of this brandy is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, while the remaining 25% is aged in new American oak barrels. Talk about a robust nose! I get strong notes of spicy white wine, burnt caramel, and vanilla. In the background is a bit of oak and a lovely perfume note. Surprisingly there are no expected alcohol vapors. The entry here is softer than expected at first, with the high proof slowly revealing itself, tingling your tongue in the process. I’m smacked with a blast of stewed red fruit and brown sugar. Some old oak dries things up just a little. Small waves of butterscotch and vanilla carry over into the long finish, where a fresh, sweet berry note appears. What we have here is an unexpectedly mellow (for it’s high proof) brandy that’s full of flavor. I honestly haven’t had a brandy like it. Lovers of barrel strength bourbon might find a new friend in Butchertown. Highly recommended.
Copper & Kings’ apple brandy comes in at a hearty 100 proof (50% abv). It’s aged in a combination of ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks. I don’t really have experience with apple brandy. Let’s jump right in. On the nose, crisp and tart green apple dominate. A touch of toffee and lemon zest round out the nose. The entry starts with a baked Granny Smith apple and oak combination, with bigger cinnamon sticks and vanilla notes emerging moments later. A hint of dried fruit show up in the back palate… probably due to the partial use of sherry cask maturation. The finish is medium-long with a little heat (due to the proof), turning slightly dry and semi-sweet. I initially thought this apple brandy was just okay, but it grew on me a bit. After tasting all three expressions, my tastes lean towards the other two grape-wine based brandies. I enjoyed the apple brandy more with an ice cube as opposed to drinking it neat.
Thanks to Joe Heron for the samples. Learn more about Copper & Kings at their website (check out their blog while you’re at it): copperandkings.com.