By Neal MacDonald, Editor
Bottom line: why go out of one’s way to buy Alita brandy—from Lithuania—when there’s so much other brandy available? The answer: it’s the very distinctive, very exotic flavor of the grape. To us, it was redolent of plum and brought a very exciting characteristic to any cocktail we put it into. It’s particularly well-suited to the Sidecar cocktail. For the price-point, this is a great brandy to purchase precisely for its flair and character. We can’t proclaim it as a brandy to savor in a snifter in snooty soirées, but for the dedicated mixologist it’s a revelation.
Now for the details.
Alita brandy is made by a now decades old winery and distillery in Lithuania under the Alita Group name. While the wine production has been around since 1963, the modern company formed in 1995. Their classic expression that we got to try out is what we would regard as a value purchase coming in at around $20 and possessing a deep color. (It is legal to color brandy with a little caramel color to make the hue consistent and this is a very common practice with younger brandies.) Their grapes come from France (ugni blanc, folle blanche, and colombard) so it seems appropriate to compare the Lithuanian brandy to cognac.
While brandy hasn’t necessarily enjoyed the surge in North American popularity that whiskey (particularly bourbon) is experiencing, the two spirits share similarities and many cocktail recipes. Where whiskey is essentially distilled beer, brandy is distilled (“burnt”) wine. Where whiskey can celebrate the grain with the oak-aging flavors of vanilla and caramel, brandy celebrates the grape… with those same oak flavors of vanilla and caramel.
For our purposes, we wanted to compare Alita against a well-known cognac as well as a California brandy to detect the differences in craftsmanship and taste and then follow-up with some cocktail tasting both in brandy settings and in whiskey settings. Our points of comparison:
- E&J VSOP—the pinnacle of value brandy brands in the USA; from California and widely regarded as competent.
- Hennessy VS Cognac—one of the most famous of cognac brands, we selected their younger expression at a comparable price point.
- Maker’s Mark Bourbon—for comparison in whiskey cocktails, we selected Maker’s Mark for its soft, wheated approachability as more fitting in comparing to cognac.
Read on to see our results!
Neat in a Tulip Glass
Preparation: pour into the glass, swirl and warm with the hands, then drink.
This is the absolute classic preparation for brandy. Many vintage movies will highlight their actors swirling brandy glasses in their hands so that the warmth of their bodies will heat the spirit and release its flavors. (There’s a memorable scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window where the stars are frenetically swirling their brandy as the tension mounts.) The worth of a brandy is often told by its ability to be enjoyed neat, lightly warmed to body temperatures, with all the bouquet of wine… as compared to whiskey which so often must be taken with a little water or ice.
E&J VSOP: the nose has a kind of initial minty/menthol aroma, which is a bit weird. After some time, the aroma opens up with a little swirl and a little hand-warming (dare we say, “fluffing?”). That fluffing achieves a kind of grape juice / grape jelly character that’s actually more appealing than it might sound. Tasting, it’s definitely a bit sweetened but also maybe a touch of maple. There’s no needle and no harshness on the alcohol, which is nice. There is a strong, oak-wood bitterness on the finish. In fact, the finish is the big problem… it’s something to get over rather than savor.
Hennessy VS: the Hennessy is immediately more exotic, more fruitful, and more sophisticated when comparing the aroma to the E&J. This is all in the grape and the craft since we’re comparing a VSOP in the E&J to a VS in the Hennessy, meaning the average age of the Hennessy is significantly less. There is no grape juice or grape jelly here… rather, it’s grape as in wine grape. Plus a little dash of apple and maybe a breath of blackberry. It tastes very much like it smells plus a velvety mellowness on the tongue. It’s quite lovely. And no added sweetness that we could detect.
Alita: the nose is strikingly different… it’s redolent of plum; we’d almost swear it was a plum brandy (slivovitz). It’s a heady, heavy aroma with maybe a breath of ester content (congeners that typically come out in the distillation and in small amounts can add character but in large amounts are undesirable). The style also reminds us a bit of Italian brandy that we’ve tried in the past. Tasting, it has a nice velvety taste that’s smooth and light (perhaps just a slight bit sweetened). It’s silky but quiet on the initial taste but finishes with a big, brassy bass note of flavor. It has the strongest finish of the three. But the ester quality is a pronounced note on the palate as well.
Maker’s Mark: just for fun, we try the bourbon neat. It’s wonderful to contrast the fruit of the lightly oaked brandy come up smack against the charred, new-oak, multi-year aging of the bourbon. The caramel just sings out of the glass after so much grape along with some vanilla and then up fumes the sour corn notes from the grain bill itself. Next to brandy, it’s very much the bare-knuckled brawler of the group. And that’s saying something for a bourbon that’s usually regarded as quiet and sweet!
What have we learned? These respective brandies are priced $10 (E&J), $20 (Alita), and $40 (Hennessy). We find that the price very accurately reflects our impressions. We agree that Alita is easily twice as good as the E&J, while the craftsmanship on the Hennessy is a little better than the Alita… probably not twice as good so you’re overpaying a bit for the French stuff. But more to the point, it’s great to see that Alita has a point of view that’s quite distinct from cognac. There does appear to be a reason to seek out the Lithuanian product.
Brandy and Soda
Preparation: 1 – 2oz brandy, 4 – 6oz soda water, twist of lemon. Use ginger ale if you like. Serve on ice in a tall glass.
The snobs everywhere are now rolling their eyes. Go ahead. The fact is, whiskey and brandy have both a long history of serving in soda… particularly in the afternoon heat when one wants to gulp instead of sip. We’re not using 50 year old spirits here (nor are we recommending that one should); we’re using younger, less-expensive brandy which should be highly eligible for this setting. In keeping with the drink’s style, we used garden-variety Schweppes Ginger Ale in 2 parts to 1. (This also happens to be one of our very favorite drinks with whiskey so another good reason to use it.)
E&J VSOP: the lemon and the grape jelly mix in very interesting ways… just barely complementary. Sort of like saying… yeah, I can see the rocker Seal dating the model Heidi Klum. But the pairing isn’t exactly automatic. Drinking it isn’t as fun as smelling it… it tastes like it should be good but it really isn’t. It takes about 3 swallows to fully realize the plain negative opinion but there it is: not a good drink. Sad, because the E&J should be a mixing brandy.
Hennessy VS: not surprisingly, while the E&J smelled like lemon flavored candy this smelled more like lemon flavored wine. Seriously: it’s like smelling a lemonhead in the former versus lemon zest in the latter. The mix almost works better here… it takes a lot longer to realize it doesn’t work but the flavors collapse into a kind of medicinal fade, which is a sad ruination of a good cognac. Still, would rather smell this all day long than drink the E&J version.
Alita: would the plum make a better mix? We’re back to the lemon candied side of the aroma but the plum does provide a depth of smell that was lacking a bit in the E&J and even the Hennessy. It’s much more promising! But how will it taste? We dared to try it and we’re glad we did. This is the first place where we could say: Yes, here is the Alita. There’s no question. 100 times out of a 100 you could place the Alita in this drink. That by itself is something significant to have a spirit declare itself so clearly. The taste is interesting… the plum isn’t quite the natural complement to lemon that the more traditional aroma of the Hennessy was but it’s far more fascinating. We found ourselves savoring it and wanting to drink more like investigating a wine where the former two were a drink just to get through.
What did we learn? So far, Alita appears to be a superior mixing brandy even if it loses out head-to-head in a tasting against a more refined cognac. This is rather exciting, in a way, because there are a lot of fabulous brandy-based cocktails out there. Let’s try a few.
Preparation: the recipe calls for 2oz brandy, ½oz Cointreau, and a ½oz (or so) of lemon juice with a lemon twist. This is a martini-style cocktail shaken on ice and served up in a martini glass right out of the golden age of cocktails and a revelation to young hipsters.
If this sounds like a martini recipe for gin (see, for example, Orange Blossom, Red Lion, and many other variations), that’s true. How will wine character of the brandy show?
E&J VSOP: the E&J is not doing well here. It tastes like a cocktail should but one that’s built on a bunch of individually sound ingredients that collapse because they don’t work well together. It’s too sweet with the Cointreau and the extra sugar coming out of the gate followed by an alcohol wallop. In fact, it’s hard to know there’s brandy in this drink instead of just vodka. No. (If we don’t find a decent drink with this E&J soon, we’re going to have to relegate it to cooking.)
Hennessy VS: The Hennessy was exciting even while mixing it up! The fruit was bursting out of the shaker even while we were stirring (yes, we stirred instead of shook). The aroma is all cognac with a bit of a candy covering. Drinking it is a terrific, bright experience: clearly this is what drove the starlets of Hollywood to order this drink and make it famous! It’s light, sophisticated, clearly born of cognac but carrying exotica from the Cointreau. It’s a fantastic cocktail and one we’re surely to repeat. Anyone who would pay $30-$40 for a gin should be grateful to pay $30-$40 for this cognac and make this cocktail.
Alita: that sets the bar very, very high for the Alita. If a $20 former Soviet republic brandy can stand up to the French version at half the price, it is surely a force to be reckoned with. The plum didn’t come boiling out of the shaker this time around, so that was a bummer. But the smell… ah, the smell. Any trace of the esters (or whatever) that we were complaining about above is gone; it has vanished entirely in the ingredients (at least on the nose). We can’t specifically place the Cointreau but something about it rendered the plum aroma perfect. The great thing was the taste. It was entirely different from the Hennessy version but entirely as good. If we were forced—forced, mind you!—to declare a winner we would have to give the Hennessy version the nod by a whisper. But the flavors are so profoundly different with the plum and the orange and the lemon that we could easily recommend having both in a liquor cabinet. For the price, why would you turn it down?
What have we learned? We’re finding that Alita is a match for the Hennessy in cocktail settings, which makes it a superlative value at half the price. If it can continue this run, then it should deservedly earn a place in many different inventories. In fact, one might plausibly argue that Alita is the more exciting brandy than Hennessy.
Preparation: showing red for the Harvard colors, this calls for 1½ oz brandy, ¾ oz sweet vermouth (we used Noilly Prat), a dash of lemon juice, a dash of grenadine (for color—we used Stirrings for authenticity), and 1 dash of Angostura bitters. Again, shake on ice and serve up.
Like the Sidecar, this drink should sound very reminiscent of a Manhattan cocktail where the bourbon or rye is swapped out for brandy. We’ll be honest: we don’t really like classic Manhattans all that much; we’re not sweet vermouth fans. So if the Alita can make it good… well, that would be saying something. This is an example where we ended up comparing our brandy directly to whiskey in the attempt to see if we could make a case for committed whiskey drinkers to switch and/or explore.
E&J VSOP: Just for the heck of it, let’s try. Smelling it, we only get vermouth. Nothing else going on. Seriously: wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that brandy was in there with any degree of confidence. It’s also not remotely crimson, to the disappointment of Harvard alumni everywhere. More like a burnished mahogany. It doesn’t taste quite as disagreeable as it smells… but it does taste overpoweringly of vermouth. To us, the ratio here is ridiculous but checking many independent sources, it’s consistently at 2:1 and 3:1… we used 2:1. That’s a good test for a brandy. If we hadn’t mixed this drink ourselves we couldn’t prove that the E&J was even in it.
Maker’s Mark: this really is a Manhattan recipe with the grenadine standing in for the maraschino cherry garnish. So we swapped out the Hennessy VS for the Maker’s Mark. (Even better, we had the 84 “aborted proof” version so the alcohol content was right with the brandy.) Good news: the grain character of the bourbon is a match for the vermouth, even at these ratios. After tasting so much brandy one can easily appreciate the grain. It’s way, way too sweet for us—a waste of half-decent bourbon. But this cocktail is on the verge of drinkable. The whiskey was able to flavor the vermouth and make it a bit better.
Alita: again, the bar is set very, very high in the opposite sense of the Sidecar experiment. Can Alita make this ridiculous cocktail taste good? We’ve often said that an ingredient that can make an otherwise lousy cocktail tolerable is high praise indeed. One prediction: the plum-like flavors of the Alita will mesh very well with the sweet vermouth. And smelling, we are vindicated: for the first time, the smell of the liquor—in this case the Alita—melded and complemented the vermouth. That’s a first, actually, in our entire liquor experience that easily spans hundreds of different bottles and flavors. This may be perfectly suited for Harvard. But you still have to like sweet vermouth—and we don’t. That’s what we’re getting on the nose. Before we get too effusive with our praise, let’s be clear: we would never, ever order this drink in a bar. But having said that, this is the closest we’ve ever had to a drinkable version of the Manhattan. It’s actually bordering on pleasant! But alas, while the plum is there the vermouth just kills it. The Alita puts up a fierce fight right to the end but the evil of the vermouth is too strong. But we at Proof66 say that Alita came that close to making sweet vermouth drinkable is a strong endorsement.
What have we learned? The Alita continues its run of awesomeness in mixing. This is an exciting, mixing brandy bringing unusual flavors and highly distinctive flair to the cocktails.
Preparation: 1oz brandy, 1oz half-and-half (we used RumChata if you can believe it), 1oz crème de cacao (we used garden variety DeKuyper). This is shaken, served up, and garnished with nutmeg.
So here comes the dessert drink! The Brandy Alexander is one of those classic drinks that somehow survived into the modern era… at least, we’ve seen it on cocktail tests even if we’ve never seen it ordered. So let’s see how this fares in a cream setting.
Alita: ignoring the comps in this case (because do we need more hate on the E&J or more acknowledgment of the classic sophistication of the Hennessy VS?), this an exciting moment because one doesn’t associate plums with cream and cinnamon. Why use RumChata? One because who has half-and-half laying around the place and two, it’s a fantastic liqueur that we find elevates a lot of different spirits. Can Alita elevate the RumChata? The aroma is an overpowering cinnamon aroma with a plum undertone. Curious is the best word to describe that sensation. Tasting, this is exciting because the brandy plays a supporting role rather than a leading role. The stars are cinnamon (RumChata) and chocolate (crème de cacao). The Alita comes through as a fruit aftertaste on the finish. It wakes a person up… “Wait, what was that?” *drink* “Is that, fruit?” *drink* “I like that!” It’s a highly successful drink and one perfectly suited for the qualities and the price point of the Alita. It’s the kind of cocktail that might win cooking competitions.
What did we learn? Once again, as a mixer—even in spaces where one might not expect great results—it’s shining.
In summary, one has to make distinction between mixing spirits and straight spirits. One wouldn’t dare mix an 18-year old scotch. Nor should one necessarily mix a 15-year old brandy. (For the record, we’ve done both but we wouldn’t recommend it for the home bar.) But spirits in the $10-$20 range are often well-suited for mixing. Simply existing as a mixing spirit at a reasonable price shouldn’t cause scorn... craftsmanship will still shine. This is clearly identified by the Alita absolutely blowing the E&J out of the water and matching the Hennessy drink for drink in cocktails. One can buy this spirit with confidence—if acknowledging it brings a bit of an exotic taste. Critics tasting in a scheduled tasting in a controlled setting might find that it suffers by comparison (and to be fair, we did as well) but it is an exciting mixer that is perfectly suited for professional bars where mixologists are looking for different flavors or well-stocked home bars looking for something new to show off.
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle each of Alita brandy for review… all other ingredients mentioned were acquired on our own.]