A friend of mine who's been a long-time spirits and wine buyer once told me, "You don't know how much the French love to classify things." When it comes to the particularities that separate Cognac from Brandy, you really see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
In order for a brandy to be classified as a Cognac, it needs to use certain grapes in a particular percentage, must be distilled twice in a copper pot still, and has to spend at least two years in barrels sourced (usually) from one of two forests in the country. It can only be produced in certain regions, which the French have also taken great pains to separate into seven different quality tiers based on the desirability of the soil. It must be bottled at exactly 40% ABV. There is a set distilling season, so they've even locked down the times you can make this stuff.
Admittedly, we're not immune to these particularities here in the US, and the line between bourbon and whiskey is just as tightly regulated. For us, the mash bill has to use at least 51% corn, has to be aged in virgin oak, must have those casks charred before the liquid goes in, and it has to have a minimum strength of 80 proof. If you want to use the terms "straight" or "bonded," you need to jump through additional hoops—in bonded's case, storing the barrels in a locked, government-certified warehouse.
Admittedly, these standards are there for a reason. For the French, it was a labor of centuries to ensure the inherent quality and distinctiveness of a treasured export. For us Americans, it was a little more pragmatic in the sense that it was (in part) intended to stop people from adding turpentine or antifreeze to our booze. Cut corners do result in degraded or dangerous products.
So, what's the problem?
As a consumer—and again, this is purely my own opinion—I feel like the rigidity of these standards have created product categories where I pretty much know what I'm going to get before I open the bottle. This may be a good thing if I want to enjoy a bourbon or a cognac. But when it comes to teasing out the nuances between two well-produced bourbons with the same mash bill? Well....
Much of the reason why I (now) drink a majority of scotch, mezcal, world whiskey, and gin is that the production methods can vary wildly from one distillery to another, resulting in equally surprising variances when it comes to in the aromas and tastes in the glass. As I mentioned in my guide on mezcals, part of the appreciation I have as a consumer is never knowing what I'm going to get. The reality is that this spirit often comes out of contraptions that look like they took third place at a junkyard science fair.
To be honest, I think the new age of spirits and the new age of consumers like myself are less concerned with traditional production and more concerned with the sheer pragmatism of whether it results in a better product. The "American Single Malt" whiskey category is still very nascent when compared with bourbon, and some would argue that most producers don't create a better bottle.
So to hell with innovation, then?
Maybe not so much so, no. I've made the case that there's a double-edged sword when it comes to high standards ensuring a good product, but perhaps the same product in most ways that matter. So the other edge of that sword that’s worth talking about is the one that concerns the new wave of renegade brandies, mezcals, and whiskies that can't be categorized as cognac / tequila / bourbon / scotch, etc.
In specific, not all of these spirits are good simply because they’re different. As an example, I tried an American, sorghum-based rum a few years ago that was absolutely terrible. I bought it for about five dollars for the fifth (!!!) after steep discounts. Although the negative review would make for some good reading one day, the angel on my shoulder has kept me from posting it—because the company shuttered, it seems in many ways like punching down. I don’t think that bottle was worth five dollars let alone the $30 the distillers originally wanted for it.
Even if these less-standardized spirits aren’t downright terrible, they often aren’t price-competitive. It costs money and time to distill and age spirits, which are luxuries most small “indie” startups don’t have. For every Stranahan’s, which is about $55 for a an American whiskey aged 2 years (the best example of an American single malt done right, I would argue), there are probably hundreds of brands you’ll never hear about again. Free market economics is usually pretty good at dictating what gets shelf space and what doesn’t.
In other cases, if you want something unusual and exotic, you pay out the nose for it. In the case of Mezcal, if you want something distilled from exotic varieties of agave, like Madrecuishe, Tepextate, or Tobalá instead of the more common Espadin variety, and the per-bottle price can easily eclipse $100. My point here is that standardization also produces economies of scale that work in your interest as a drinker.
All I’m saying is that if you’re a bourbon, cognac, or tequila drinker, be aware that you’re the beneficiary of countless decades (perhaps centuries) of tradition. The plus is that you often get a great spirit for not much spend. However, the downside is that it can get a little samey: if you’ve had something like 20 different bourbons and worry “These all taste the same to me,” you may not be as crazy as you think.
In our next article, I’ll have some advice for those who’ve cut their teeth on any of these three standardized categories and are now hankering to go off the reservation.