Apr 9 2013
Grounds to Wollersheim Winery, across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac, open at 8 a.m. April 13, and winemaker Philippe Coquard expects a crowd before doors open 90 minutes later.
Making a debut that morning: 5,000 bottles of Coquard Brandy, an all-Wisconsin product, right down to the barrels of Wisconsin oak that the liquor aged in for two years.
“We will sell out within a day,” predicts Philippe, whose priority in the next six months is to find a site to expand distilling operations. Wollersheim is best known for Prairie Fume, a semi-dry white wine that has earned numerous international awards. The winery opened in 1972.
(The brandy actually sold out in three hours.)
Until 2009, state law did not allow a business to operate as both a winery and distillery. Federal law requires traditional, grape-based brandy to age in wooden barrels at least two years.
“So this is a long time in the making,” Philippe says. “My father-in-law (the late Bob Wollersheim) and I dreamed about making brandy 20 years ago.”
Wisconsinites have a deep affection for brandy and bought more than one-third of all produced by Korbel in 2012. (Korbel’s next best customer was its home state of California, which purchased roughly one-half as much.)
You can do what you want with Coquard Brandy, but at $28 for a 375 ml bottle, it would be shame to dilute it with soda or an Old Fashioned. The cognac-style brandy “is much better than that,” Philippe says. “It’s the sweetness and fruit and all-natural nature of it – I’ve added no spicing or monkeyed it up.”
The product began with Wisconsin-grown La Crescent, LaCrosse and St. Pepin grapes that are picked earlier than usual, so they contain less sugar, higher acid and less alcohol. This is a prerequisite for French-style cognac.
Andrew Faulkner of The American Distilling Institute says Wisconsin is in its infancy with brandy production. He describes brandy as “a wonderful class of spirits,” but we tend to not savor it as a fine apertif, like Europeans do.
“It takes 12, 15 or 20 years for a great brandy to really develop in a barrel, and most small distilleries haven’t been operating that long,” Andrew observes. “It will take some time before the real beauty of these spirits come out.”
Brandy is caramel-colored or clear, depending upon the type of fruit, time distilled, cask and additive. Some distillers are going way beyond grapes as the fruit.
Matt Rick at Infinity Beverages, Eau Claire, celebrates on April 25-28 the release of his watermelon brandy. The 60 proof liquor was aged one year, but not in oak because “it would take away from the fruit flavor,” the distiller says. Cost is $30 per 750 ml bottle, sold only at Infinity’s tasting lounge.
“It has more of an earthy watermelon flavor,” Matt explains. “It’s not a Jolly Rancher sugary mix.” Now he’s exploring cocktail possibilities and so far recommends mixing the product with lemonade or sipping it as a martini with mulled blueberries and club soda.
Matt considers the watermelon brandy “part of an experimental series,” and next is a mulberry brandy, to be released in a year or two.
In Madison, Yahara Bay Distillery released an apple brandy in 2009, then a Kirschwasser (traditional, clear German brandy) made with Door County cherries and Birnenschnapps (pear brandy). Next: maybe a plum brandy called Slivovitz.
“As a craft distiller, we do everything by hand, in single batches and in single barrels,” says spokeswoman Jill Skowronski. “By doing this we can achieve an artisinal quality that allows our products to stand by themselves or be the perfect complement to any cocktail.”
Near Burlington, AeppelTreow Winery and Distillery also makes spirits one barrel at a time. In 2010, two types of brandy – white pear and apple – were released within weeks of each other. Another product is Immature Wisconsin Brandy, named this way because it was bottled before the federal two-year minimum for aging.
“We buck the trend,” says Charles McGonegal; wife Milissa is the distiller. “We run our fermentation slow, no matter what we make. Certainly age has a long and great reputation in spirits, but it’s not everything.”
As a result, “our brandy is really aromatic, like a perfume,” and needs no more than an ice cube, or to be used in a champagne cocktail.
It’s $30 for a 375 ml bottle and not for average brandy drinkers who, as Charles says, like their liquor cheap. “We’re a small producer, we’re expensive and we try to make it worth it,” he explains.
So the process of making brandy requires time, patience and space.
Paul Werni of 45th Parallel Distillery, New Richmond, says the number of his products has doubled and “almost maxed out our equipment.” All liquors are grain-based because that’s what grows best and in abundance. “We got into the business with the idea of making a brandy,” he says, “but it hasn’t turned out that way.”
He notes that “when you make brandy, you’re really making a wine and distilling fruit. When we do a whiskey, we’re making more of a beer and distilling grain.” The latter doesn’t take as much time, so that’s why the distillery’s newest product is a bourbon whiskey. Next up: rum.
Wollersheim Winery, 7876 Hwy. 188, Prairie du Sac, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and tours begin on the hour. For more: wollersheim.com, 608-643-6515.
Brandy orders are not being taken by phone because the product cannot legally be shipped. A select number of Madison and Milwaukee stores will sell the brandy, starting April 17. Wollersheim is aging two other batches of brandy, for release in one and two years.
For more about Infinity Beverages, 930 Galloway St., Eau Claire: infinitybeverages.com, 402-374-6542.
For more about Yahara Bay Distillers, 3118 Kingsley Way, Madison: yaharabay.com, 608-275-1050.
For more about AeppelTreow Winery and Distillery, 1072 288th Ave., Burlington: appletrue.com, 262-878-5345.
Other Wisconsin distillers with brandy products include Great Lakes Distillery, 616 W. Virginia St., Milwaukee (greatlakesdistillery.com, 414-431-8683); Old Sugar Distillery, 931 E. Main St., Madison (madisondistillery.com, 608-260-0812); and Door County Distillery,
5806 Hwy. 42, Sturgeon Bay (doorcountydistillery.com, 920-743-7431).