Set in the heart of Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood, Copper & Kings distillery looks like many others in Kentucky, full of bubbling fermentation tanks, gleaming copper-and-steel stills, and row after row of barrels. But what’s inside those barrels makes this place a true rebel in the midst of the South’s bourbon heartland: Copper & Kings makes brandy.
“Three years ago, nobody was talking about brandy,” says Copper & Kings co-founder Joe Heron. “Now it’s cool.” He should know: The South African-born entrepreneur had already found success in the drinks business twice, starting a vitamin-enriched soda brand called Nutrisoda and Crispin Cider (which was purchased by beer giant MillerCoors), before turning to distilling in 2014.
Though his spirit is made with grapes and apples instead of grain, Heron takes a page from the bourbon-making playbook. “We wanted the power of whiskey without losing the grace of cognac,” he says. To do this, he’s aging his brandy in American oak barrels (cognac, by contrast, must use French oak), which adds some of whiskey’s spice and caramel notes to the floral intensity typical of brandy. “We want to represent American brandy on its own terms,” Heron explains.
A music geek, Heron chose the name Copper & Kings to sound like a band—think Iron & Wine. The rock-and-roll connection goes deeper, too. Through five large subwoofers, the distillery plays music to its barrels all day, every day, in a process Heron calls “sonic aging:” In theory, pulsating bass soundwaves push the brandy molecules deeper into the barrel walls, accelerating the aging process. (During our interview, Steve Earle was pouring out of the speakers.)
Heron expects the first of the house-distilled-and-aged spirits to be ready for bottling later this year. While the brandies made on-site continue to age, Copper & Kings currently sells barrel-aged grape and apple brandies distilled elsewhere, along with its own un-aged brandy as well as absinthe.
So how should you enjoy this new Southern brandy? Heron likes it on the rocks, naturally. For a cocktail, he suggests an Old-Fashioned (recipe below), but not the kind you may be thinking of. He takes inspiration from, of all places, Wisconsin, where Old Fashioneds are traditionally made with brandy instead of bourbon or rye, and include muddled cherry and orange along with the classic sugar and bitters. “It’s the most sessionable, easy cocktail,” Heron says. And it’s remarkably well-suited to Copper & Kings’ barrel-aged flavor.