Since a single cask expression of Sullivan’s Cove French Oak won the world’s best single malt in the 2014 World Whiskies Awards, Australian whisky has taken the world by storm and demand for many Australian malts now outstrips supply. This success has largely been buoyed by heightened global interest in whisky which is nothing short of a renaissance. Another spirit, which is viewed by many as a “malternative” to whisky but has not yet had a renaissance of its own, is brandy.
While whisky is distilled from a wash made of fermented grain (malted barley for malt whisky), brandy is made from a wash of fermented grape. Put simply, whisky is made from distilled beer and brandy is made from distilled wine. Once the beer or wine is distilled, the distillate is placed into oak barrels to mature. Both therefore are aged spirits.
Australia is home to many distilleries which make all kinds of different spirits, most notably whisky, vodka, gin and rum. Brandy distilleries are less common. By far, the largest and most well known brandy distillery in Australia is St Agnes. It is owned by Angove Family Winemakers and produces brandy in South Australia.
St Agnes produce a range of different expressions of Australian brandy that draw their names from the French brandy tradition: one “VS”, one “VSOP”, and three “XO” expressions including a 15 year old, 20 year old and a 40 year old.
St Agnes brandy is however distinctly Australian brandy, even if it maintains the French tradition of categorising brandy into “VS”, “VSOP” and “XO”.
Richard Angove, the director of St Agnes and Angove Family Winemakers, says that St Agnes brandy ‘has a signature choc orange, fruit driven and sherried style.’ This signature flavour would seem to result from two main things: the grape variety St Agnes use to make the wine that is distilled into new make spirit or eaux-de-vie, and, the type of oak barrels St Agnes use to age that new make spirit or eaux-de-vie.
Historically, St Agnes used Trebiano (Ugni Blanc) as well as Daoradillo and Pedro Ximinez grapes. These days, Angove says, St Agnes use Colombard. In contrast, the vast majority of Cognac (about 98%) is made from the Ugni Blanc grape variety. For Angove, the ‘key for good quality XO spirit is a neutral acidic, dry white base wine’. That wine is double pot distilled to make eaux-de-vie.
Of the 6,000 barrels which are aging St Agnes brandy, ‘50% are American Oak and 50% are French Oak’, while around ‘30% have had Sherry aged in them previously’. So, apart from using a different grape variety to that used by the French to make most Cognac, St Agnes also use quite a different composition of oak types than that used by Cognac makers. Cognac is exclusively aged in toasted French oak, and in particular oak grown in either the Tronçais or Limousin forests. St Agnes’ use of American and ex-sherry oak would therefore give its brandy flavours that are not commonly seen in Cognac.
St Agnes XO 15 year old Australian brandy
Malt Mileage Rating: ★★★★
The bouquet is sweet and dusty, with cedar, chocolate coated candied orange segments, caramel truffles, and mild eucalyptus. On the palate the oak spices emerge, with orange zest, wood smoke, orange jam and butter menthol. The finish is mildly herbal, with lingering wood spice, mild nuttiness and mellowing spices, soft cinnamon and ginger. All this deliciousness is buttressed by a buttery, oily mouth-feel.
St Agnes XO 20 year old Australian brandy
Malt Mileage Rating: ★★★★★
The bouquet presents with sultana, dates, fruit cake, spice and tobacco, cedar and cigars, dark chocolate, mint, toasted nuts and a curious sweet effervescent character. Bright candied lemon peel contributes a brightness to the lively nose, with nut oils and peppermint hiding beneath a layer of St Agnes’ signature zesty sweet orange. The sugars from the wood smell divine, together with nuttiness, toasted oak and associated sugars and caramels.
The palate is sweet and chocolaty, almost as though Willy Wonka decided to suddenly set up shop – very much reminding me of a great Australian “sticky” (dessert wine). Amidst the taste of fruit cake, falling apart with raisin, dates and nuts, is spice (not quite pepper but tasting more of curry powder). It is also quite rummy, with flashes of cigar tobacco, granular coffee, apple and fruit. The sugars are clearly the star of the show.
On the finish find confectionery mint leaves, caramel, lingering wood smoke, sultana (slightly sweeter raisin character), and red berry jam with vanilla and panettone. As with the 15 year old, I also get candied ginger.
St Agnes XO 40 year old Australian brandy
Malt Mileage Rating: ★★★★★
St Agnes XO Grand Reserve 40 Year Old is a full-flavoured brandy with lots of depth, and it brims with the rancio notes you would expect in an old Cognac or Armagnac – mild earthy notes of mushroom and smoky wood and tobacco drift over a foundation of dried fruit, dates, prune and nuts; it is a well-rounded, dense, rummy brandy with lots of wood smoke. The taste of oak is heavy and lingering with saffron and clove amidst the wood smoke, which is perhaps unsurprising after this brandy has spent over 40 years maturing in oak casks in South Australia’s climate.