Kentucky is bourbon's home, and Louisville its epicenter. Louisville though has other attractions, such as museums dedicated to Muhammad Ali and Louisville Slugger, for starters. Oh, and one of the leading distillers of American brandy, Copper & Kings. That's right, delicious American brandy made in the center of bourbon country. Let's just say they don't mind doing things differently.
Copper & Kings makes apple and grape brandies, primarily aging them in ex-bourbon casks. “We're making brandy for the bourbon drinker,” head distiller Brandon O'Daniel says. In fact, their location was chosen in part thanks to their proximity to the bourbon world and the barrels they could source as a result.
They also offer popular beer barrel finished brandies, and have myriad experiments with different cask finishes and blends already released or currently in the works. They even make absinthe, too, and quickly have made a name for themselves for their delicious and versatile products, and their willingness to think outside the box. “We like our spirits to have some balls,” O'Daniel says.
The distillery uses three copper pot stills made by Louisville neighbor Vendome Copper, all of which are outfitted with traditional alembic helmets to produce signature brandy qualities. “And all are named after women in Bob Dylan songs,” O'Daniel notes. There's 50-gallon Sara – “Sara, Sara, radiant jewel, mystical wife,” Magdalena – “Me and Magdalena on the run, I think this time we shall escape,” and Isis – “I married Isis on the fifth day of May.”
A passion for music runs deep at the distillery. In fact, they actually play music to their brandy barrels to help spur on its maturation. Think of it as reading to a baby in the womb, or something.
Actually, though, the process is dubbed sonic-aging, and they aren't the first to deploy it even if they are one of just a few. “I'm the only person playing music to brandy barrels as far as I know,” O'Daniel says. “24/7 we're blasting something.”
The key to sonic-aging is the pulse of the music. “It's got to pulse,” O'Daniel says. That pulse shakes the brandy inside the barrel, which moves spirit in and out of the wood, and brings fresh spirit not in contact with the wood into contact. Open up a barrel and “you'll see the brandy wave in there.”
Sonic-aging doesn't speed up the aging process, it just shakes things up a little bit. It also makes for a fun distillery visit, with bass lines thumping as barrels get popped and samples get poured.
As for the music selection, anything goes. One day an artist's birthday may be honored, on another, a staff member with a birthday may get to set the playlist. Better yet, you can even listen along at home. “It's extremely eclectic, and it's run on Spotify,” O'Daniel says. “So you could listen to what the barrels are listening to.”
This all might sound very new age, but outside of the music and the bright orange color scheme ubiquitous around the distillery, Copper & Kings actually does things quite traditionally. “We run the distillery closer to like you would have seen in the 17th or 18th century,” O'Daniel says. He's not using any computers or automated equipment; he's basing things on his palate and his experience. “We're sitting next to those pot stills all day long,” he says, constantly taking samples, and making distillation cuts by hand.
They also don't add any colors or flavorings or additives. “If it doesn't come from the vineyard or the orchard, or off the still or from the barrel, we don't use it,” O'Daniel says.
After distillation and maturation, the art of blending then comes to the forefront. “We spend a ton of time blending,” O'Daniel says. “We just blend, blend, blend.”
Copper & Kings began sourcing product from essentially every American brandy producer using copper pot stills they could, blending those together to create a house style, what O'Daniel calls their “DNA.” They've gone through several iterations since, and will soon be working their self-distilled brandies into their core products, with the goal of being entirely self-distilled within the next several years.
Ultimately, you can think whatever you want about sonic-aging, but it damn sure captures your attention. And maybe that's half the battle.
“Brandy has been around forever, but nobody's been excited about it, nobody's done anything fun with it in ages,” O'Daniel says. “We're all about entertainment in addition to distillation. You have to have a good story in this business.”