Spanish brandy: forward-thinking brands hit the mark

23 November, 2023

Spanish brandy is a big hitter despite a history lacking in marketing. But Shay Waterworth finds a sector that’s brimming with innovation today.

The Spanish are among the earliest producers of brandy in the world. Its history of distilling in Spain traces back to the 8th century when the Moors – European Muslims – introduced the practice on the Iberian Peninsula. It wasn’t until the 16th century that brandy emerged, but the Brandy de Jerez region in the south west is one of the oldest brandy regions in the world, pre-dating Cognac, and accounts for more than 90% of all Spanish brandy today. For a long time the category was popular, selling itself, and therefore both marketing and innovation took a back seat, meaning that today it lags behind some of the brandy regions it inspired. However, things have developed over the past decade, and not just in the Jerez region.

According to the latest IWSR Drinks Market Analysis data, global Spanish brandy volume grew 3.6% and 9.7% in value in 2021. The category is forecast to grow by about 10% volume CAGR 2021- 2026, but during a recent visit to Bar Convent Berlin, several producers declared flat sales both domestically and overseas. For further context, Spanish brandy is the most popular brandy (outside Cognac) among the elite level of the on-trade. Spanish producers made up 50% of the Bestselling brands in the Drinks International Brands Report and 60% of the Top Trending list.

Solid category

Cardenal Mendoza, which features on both lists, is one of the best-known names in the Brandy de Jerez region and Borja Leal, international area manager, says: “Regarding the category of Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva, where we have our Cardenal Mendoza, we see a very solid category, although in 2023 due to inflation and rising prices of grapes, wine, glass, cardboard and cork, sales have slowed moderately. In any case, the export of this category to dozens of countries helps us, so the diversification of the business is high and therefore very positive.

“Our great challenge today is to integrate the Solera Gran Reserva category to a younger and more aspirational audience, from 35-45 years old, an age at which consumers begin to purchase premium products and want to have new experiences. To this end, we are offering various consumption options with brandy, whether in cocktails, cigars, chocolate or even coffee. All this through promoting the on-trade in addition to taking care of and updating our brand’s social networks. The aim is to create synergies between countries so that the brand image is very similar around the world.

“It is important to note that we also continue to focus and completely respect our usual and more classic consumer, who is older and who still consumes our brandies at home.”

Leal’s latter point regarding traditional consumers is significant. This older generation of consumers has made up a significant portion of the category’s business, but innovation fell behind. In the past 20 years there have been some efforts to liven up the Spanish brandy scene. Ysabel Regina was launched 11 years ago by Bodegas Ximenez-Spinola in Cadiz. The brandy is a combination of Cognac VSOP Grande Champagne and Petit Brandy Solera Gran Reserva aged for at least 12 months in ‘wet’ Pedro Ximenez barrels. It was launched to shake up the on-trade and engage with bartenders, which although was common practice for other categories by that time, was a new concept for Spanish brandy. Ysabel Regina still sits in the Top Trending list in the Brands Report, and its launch in 2012 has been credited with kickstarting a mini revolution of innovation.

Special releases

Outside the ‘sherry triangle’ of the Jerez region, Brandy del Penedès is the other recognised denomination. Based outside Barcelona in the north east, the region is home to Juan Torres Master Distillers – producer of some of the most progressive Spanish brandies of the 21st century. Behind nearly every back bar in Barcelona you will find a bottle of Torres 10, and its Torres 15 won a trophy at this year’s International Spirits Challenge, but its series of special releases have turned heads. As well as a spiced expression, Torres has launched its Double Double (aged in two types of American oak cask), its cristalino Alta Luz and, most recently, Torres 10 Smoked Barrel – the first Spanish brandy to carry a smoky style.

As part of its Smoked Barrel launch, the brand used The World’s 50 Best Bars ceremony in Barcelona last year to showcase the Torres Penicillin, a twist on the classic cocktail. It was served at the Torres Brandy party by the team at Paradiso, the Barcelona venue which topped the ranking in 2022. This was the perfect shop window for the brand, with all the industry’s top bartenders watching on, and 2023 has been another busy year for the innovators at Torres.

During a meeting with Javier Reynoso, spirits global brand ambassador at Familia Torres, at Bar Convent Berlin, he introduced a new Bourbon Barrel expression, which hasn’t yet hit the market. He used it as the base of an Old Fashioned which worked well, and it’s safe to say Juan Torres Distillers has been a pioneer of modern Spanish brandy with its maverick releases.

“It’s true that Spanish brandy as a whole has been slow-moving in terms of sales, but we’re seeing great interest in exports. Our limited editions aren’t in very high volume, but they’re increasing our awareness around the world, particularly in the on-trade.

“It’s also amazing that people new to the brand can then see that our core range is winning at competitions such as the International Spirits Challenge too.”

Spanish brandy, despite its history, is still lagging behind the enormous sales of Cognac – and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. But with the continued establishment of the Brandy del Penedès region and the ongoing experimentation, it’s fast becoming one of the most progressive of the established brandy regions. This isn’t something we’d have said about the category in the early noughties.

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