by Karl H. Kazaks
“What interests us is trying to find out whether we can produce brandy of world-class quality and unique character here in the U.S.,” said Dan Farber, the owner and distiller at Osocalis.
Farber began his quest 30 years ago, and given the scope of his ambition, it’s a process still in its initial phases.
Osocalis, which is located in Soquel (near Santa Cruz), makes brandies from grapes and apples grown in northern California’s coastal regions. They make only 40 barrels annually — under 2,000 cases a year.
“Much of it is stocked and aging,” Farber said. “We have stocks that go back into the ‘80s.”
Farber first started thinking about distilling as a craft and life pursuit when he attended a two-day course on Scotch whiskey by Michael Jackson some 30 years ago. Farber, who had made beer as a hobby as an undergraduate, thought, “This starts where beer making stops.”
He made a few whiskies, noticing that, at the time, there weren’t many small distilleries in the U.S. In order to make a spirit “that’s world class and quite special” while representing the “unique spirit of place” of northern California, he decided to make spirits from fruit.
Initially, he considered making white eau de vies from plums and pears. But he settled on producing more classic brandies from apples and grapes.
“I thought they had the greater potential to be world class.”
Farber earned a Ph.D. in geophysics, but he also found time to study distillation in Cognac, looking for equipment and researching.
“Unbelievably enough, you couldn’t just google stuff on the Internet back then,” he said.
Farber had a technical background in physical chemistry. What he didn’t have, though, were the “great palates and great noses” of the master distillers of Cognac, attributes they had developed from experience and from knowledge passed down by generations.
Farber realized it was time to develop his own base of knowledge and experience. He brought a 100-gallon antique alembic Charentais still imported from Cognac and started distilling.
Osocalis makes grape brandies with the classic Cognac variety Colombard, but they also use a number of varieties not used in Cognac, including Pinot Noir and Viognier. The flavors of those grapes, Farber believes, are what can give Osocalis’s brandies a distinctive quality.
The base wines used in distilling brandy are made with a different approach and different goals in mind than those used for wine made for direct consumption.
“You can’t just use wine made for still wine production and get great brandy,” Farber said.
For example, sulphur is often added to commercial still wine. Taking a sulphur-added wine and distilling it — a process which, Farber said, concentrates “everything by a factor of eight or ten” — would lead to a strongly sulphurous brandy.
“It’s more similar to sparkling wine production,” Farber said. The aim is to produce a base wine that is more acidic in structure, low in alcohol, while also delicate in aromas and flavors.
The base wine should have a prominent fruit character, one which emphasizes freshness rather than the cooked or dried fruit flavors that can develop as grapes ripen. The idea is to add the darker, nutty notes through wood aging — which will, hopefully, complement a beautiful high-toned array of flavors and sensation derived from the fresh fruit qualities of the base wine.
Producing appropriate base wine and distilling it are only the first of many steps of raising brandy at Osocalis.
Like wine, which develops character as it ages in barrel or tank, “brown spirits go through a similar process post-distillation,” Farber said.
The goal is to maintain the varietal character of the base fruit, which is transformed with layers and layers of complexity and maturity as it ages for decades.
“Brandies can be wonderful, old spirits,” Farber said. “They are the spirit that will age on the time scale of a human life.
“In California, we don’t know where the peak maturity of the brandies we are making will be.”
Though Osocalis at present buys grapes, it is in the process of developing its own 40-acre vineyard, planting Folle Blanche and Meslier-Saint-François as well as Pinot Noir, Viognier and Sémillon. (They will continue to purchase Colombard from a favored source.) The vines will be planted in 2015. When the vines are producing, Osocalis will be able to bump its production to 5,000 cases per year. Their apple orchard covers 20 acres. They are also building a 4,000 square-foot fruit processing building, using straw bale construction, which offers great thermal protection and humidity stabilization.
At present Osocalis distributes its spirits in more than a dozen states. “We’re in a number of markets but are still a very small distillery,” Farber said.
Even when its expansion is complete, Osocalis will still be a small producer, even by craft distillery standards. Instead, Farber compares his operation more to a small winery.
“Our approach to what we do come out of our sensibilities as a wine maker,” he said. “Our sense of scale is different.”
Brandies are the most expensive spirit to make. First, the cost of raw ingredients is so much higher.
“We’re not buying commodity items like wheat, rye, barley and corn,” Farber said, “we’re talking about wine grapes.”
What’s more, brandies made in the style Farber produces — a kind that gains wonderful complexity over years and years, decades and decades of barrel aging — aren’t released for many years, leading to a significant delay in the interval between production and revenues.
“If you sat down with a pencil and paper and looked at the costs,” Farber said, “you wouldn’t decide to make brandy.”
Instead, Farber’s decision is driven by different motivations — to build a distillery built on the model of Cognac but influenced by the flavors of California, producing brandies for long-term aging with classical aging techniques.
“We’re involved in a long-term project,” Farber said. “The experience of long-term aging of brown spirits — something that can take 80 years — has to be passed down from generation to generation.”
That slow, deliberate process is well underway at Osocalis.
Osocalis uses Cognac as the model for making brandies for long-term aging
by Karl H. Kazaks