The Republic of Georgia is located in Eurasia east of the Black Sea and just south of Russia. More importantly, it has millennia of wine production behind it. Georgian wines are made with particular varieties of grapes whose names are not common in western commerce or critical attention but provide unusual flavor notes. Still, the region of Caucasus (of which Georgia is a part) is said to account for two-thirds of the world's brandy and wine production. (Take that California!) Distillation began in the 19th century with David Saradjishvili brought the French technique to Tbilisi.
That brings us to BS Gorelli Brandy. This is a particular distillation of 3 Georgian wine grapes that were meant to perfectly replicate 19th century styles. The brandy was aged for 7 years, then bottled as a single run; there will be no others. There is hope of future runs - this particular expression labeled as the No. 1 run - but there will never be another brandy like the No. 1.
Receiving this brandy to test, we thought to compare it to more common western tastes in classical settings. What is the distance between our common expectations and what BS brings? We lined up:
- E&J VSOP Brandy, from California and very, very inexpensive. Many people cook with it. Many bars probably mix with it.
- Hennessy VS Cognac, a straight-up classic French spirit widely regarded as a benchmark but still obtainable to the "common man."
- Hennessy Privilege Cognac, which brings us into the $60 price range and the threshold of premium cognac.
- Alita Classic Brandy, this brings us closer to the Caucasus with a Lithuanian brandy.
- Castarede VSOP 10yr Armagnac, another premium and long-aged French brandy... this one an armagnac.
- Lecompte 12yr Calvados, as long as we're in France we thought to try an aged apple brandy in this calvados.
- Clear Creek Blue Plum Slivovitz... let's go all fruit and no age and see where we land!
How will Georgia's BS compare against that from other countries?
BS Gorelli No 1 vs E&J VSOP
The E&J tastes more of rum than anything else. Sugary, syrupy, molasses driven, with only a hint of delicacy to suggest a wine. Meanwhile, the Gorelli expresses a sweetness but it's grape-driven rather than sugar or molasses. No one would ever call it a rum. Gorelli compels one to think of a dessert wine brandy—on both the nose and the palate. It completely lacks the dryness one might associate with exotic and premium cognacs.
Assessment: no question, Gorelli's BS beats the crap out of E&J's BS and it's not even close. Of course, that's expected since the Gorelli is 10x the price but it's nice to see it proven. It's easily 10x better.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Hennessy VS Cognac
With California easily dispatched, we sojourn to France. Hennessy VS is a ubiquitous cognac but a well-regarded one and well-priced one. It is delicate on the nose with an easy-drinking palate and fairy-light finish. Unassertive, perhaps even meek, but quite a buy at the price and an introduction to the French craft. The Gorelli comes in with far more robust nose and flavor with plum and brown sugar. Where Hennessy is a coy glance, Gorelli is wild-eyed shimmy. A little ester comes with the flavor on the finish (almost a yeasty, bread-like taste) in comparison.
Assessment: same price? The Gorelli is better. But it might barely be 3x better. Knowing one can get 3 bottles of Hennessy VS for 1 Gorelli is a little daunting. This pulls Gorelli into the "special occasion" brandy.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Hennessy VSOP Privilege Coganc
The Hennessy VSOP Privilege is bordering on premium price at $60 or so. It is aged a bit longer and oak sings out of this cognac on tasting. It's delicious but the oak drowns the grape just a bit. But the long, lingering finish is a tribute to the time it spent in the cellar. Contrasting with the Gorelli, it's never clearer that this is a wine lover's brandy. No oak, all grape, it will displease whiskey enthusiasts or lovers of other aged spirits but delight the oenophile.
Assessment: if you're accustomed to Hennessy VSOP Privilege-and potentially other long-aged brandy-you will find Gorelli reading like a dessert wine instead of an aged spirit. Take as a dessert after the steak.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Castarede VSOP Armagnac
This is 10yr aged armagnac, so older than the Gorelli by a good bit. The nose is all oak and it reads like a rye whiskey that's had a tincture of port wine added. Delicious and well-made. Once again, Gorelli contrasts it like a dessert course; it's next to liqueur-like taken side-by-side with the older armagnac. There is a definite trend developing.
Assessment: we'll restate the above: if you're accustomed to drinking aged brandy, this will be like a dessert wine. We'll take it a step further: those who are accustomed to Manhattans will adore the Castarede while those who enjoy Pisco sours and other eau-de-vie cocktails (or perhaps classic margaritas) will gravitate towards the Gorelli.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Lecompte 12yr Calvados
With all the fruit powered flavors of Gorelli, the aged apple calvados is a good comparison. The nose is apple and cinnamon, the oak presents it, it's a bit hot going down. But the finish is a little disappointing... the finish is simply the burn with no lingering taste. It is the guest who leaves only dirty dishes but no memories. The Gorelli fruit flavors surpass the apple of Lecompte with flagrant ease even if it lacks a bit of complexity from the oak.
Assessment: for those accustomed to fruit-forward calvados, the Gorelli could be a revelation in how much fruit can emanate from a spirit.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Alita Classic Brandy
Lurching over to Lithuania we take a look at a value brandy that we originally described as being redolent of plums. Would the heavy plum flavors of Alita match the heavy flavors of Gorelli? In comparison, the plum is there but it's sugary and light on the nose. We're finding in every single occasion that the nose and the fruit is overwhelming on every pairing. The Alita is no match.
Assessment: for those used to Lithuanian brandy, Gorelli is most definitely worth the extra money. And then some.
BS Gorelli No 1 vs Clear Creek Distillery Slivovitz
This will be telling. We've been comparing aged brandy to a fruit-forward, Caucasus spirit. Slivovitz is a fruit-forward (plum) spirit also famous in Eastern Europe (which is in at least spitting distance of Caucasus). This is fruit vs fruit. This was interesting because the Clear Creek delivers on the nose and the taste with big fruit flavors. There's no oak, obviously, but the flavors between the fruit eau-de-vie and the Gorelli are actually closer in kinship than that with the aged brandy. This is a very enlightening comparison.
Assessment: for those few who enjoy fruit eau-de-vie or any eau-de-vie spirits (and potentially grape-based vodka like Ciroc) would serve themselves very well by switching to Gorelli. The touch of oak enlivens rather than dampens the fruit and the Georgians are peerless at retaining the wine character.
BS Gorelli No 1 in a Brandy Alexander
This is a classic, sweeter, dessert-styled cocktail. It calls for equal parts brandy (we used Gorelli), creme de cacao (we used garden variety DeKuyper), and cream (half-n'-half dangerously close to the expiration date) shaken on ice and served up with a garnish of freshly grated nutmeg (ours came pre-ground out of a plastic container of unknown vintage). Our speculation is that the fruit punch of the Gorelli will unify both the cream and the chocolate flavors in ways that more classic brandy will not. And that's exactly what happened. Gorelli is almost a perfect mixing brandy, at least in the case of the Brandy Alexander we made, shaping and coloring the drink in ways that a more prestigious and oak-driven cognac simply can't match. /p>
Gorelli BS No. 1 brandy is something that requires a careful and nuanced analysis. It's the kind of brandy that can suffer in a "derby" setting where critics are sampling brandy after brandy side-by-side in an accelerated format. It is so vastly different-almost a different category-than its peers that it must suffer by comparison. But the better comparison is fruit-forward eau-de-vie or potentially calvados. When tasting with fruit and grape character in mind, in this arena the Gorelli is near peerless! This is small solace to the whiskey enthusiast who ruminates on aging, cellars, barrels, and the patient intermixing of spirit and wood. It will delight others who revere Demeter and the bounty of earth, the vineyards, and the stomped grape in the oak vat. In principle, it exposes where the critics are fallible. It is an excellent spirit for what it is and judged on what it achieves rather than how it sits in the categorical box by which the judges constrain it.
by Neal MacDonald, Editor
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle of Gorelli BS No. 1 Brandy for sampling purposes. The Alita brandy was received and left over from a prior tasting. All other brands mentioned here were acquired on our own.]