Review: E&J XO Brandy

I’m pretty sure I’ve loved brandy since my first sip of cognac Courvoisier. There are many reasons I loved cognac. It’s a brown liquor, and brown is my favorite color.  Besides, as Ron Swanson says “Clear liquors are for rich women on diets,” though I do like gin with breakfast personally. Now, I don’t remember when that first sip was, but I do know that I’ve spent a lot of money on cognac since then, and my dad has spent a lot of money on cognac’s sweet cousin of the south, Armagnac—which I promptly drank most of.  I’ve loved every drop, shit’s not cheap though.  Even regular VS Courvoisier, about as cheap as it gets, runs in the mid $20s—that money just goes further on bourbon, so that’s what I drink mostly.  However, while reading an article on another alcohol related webpage (this one) I determined, well, perhaps it’s worth trying American brandy.  After all, there are great California wines and brandy is made from grapes too.  The aforementioned article reviews Paul Masson brandies, and I had one of the one’s they mentioned some time ago.  Apparently my subconscious doesn’t remember that as a tragic experience because when I saw that E&J, a brand not known for great brandy, had an XO at around $14 my brain thought I could make a wonderful article out of this.  I’ll let you read the above article for why you should give American brandy a try.  I’m just going to talk about the stuff in the bottle in front of me because this is a review inspired by a concept piece that’s already been written by a far more respectable spirits journalist.  I’m a young guy who drinks hooch and babbles on a keyboard.

Before I get started here’s a brief primer on the rating system used for brandies, so you know what the hell XO means.  I’m stealing this from Wikipedia, as it appears every other article on the subject did.

  • A.C.: aged two years in wood.
  • V.S.: “Very Special” or 3-Star, aged at least three years in wood.
  • V.S.O.P.: “Very Superior Old Pale” or 5-Star, aged at least five years in wood.
  • X.O.: “Extra Old” aged at least six years in wood.
  • Vintage: Stored in the cask until the time it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date.
  • Hors d’age: These are too old to determine the age, although ten years plus is typical

So you see, XO is the high grade shit.  You’ll recall I bought this XO for $14, and yes, that’s insane.  There’s a reason for that.  This is not the kind of brandy that world conquerors drink by their fire while plotting the exploitation of the proletariat and smoking a Cuban cigar that was custom made for them by an old man they promptly killed.  Actually, it might be, I suspect Karl Rove is a cheap sonuvabitch. So what is this brandy like? First off, it has a sweet and slightly astringent nose that reminds me almost of apple jack, but when you sip it there’s a whole different thing going on.  First things first, props—this is quite complex for something so cheap.  The most dominant flavor is vanilla which arrives in shocking proportions, something I’ve never tasted in a brandy, though it makes sense because XO’s get a lot of barrel time.  Also present are brown sugar (demerara, as the fancy people may say) and shockingly something similar to a little maple syrup.  What’s good is this does taste like brandy, and it is quite smooth—it doesn’t suffer from that bitter burnt note that pretty much all cheap, and even some more expensive, brandies and cognacs can get.  But I suspect that’s because vanilla has a tendency to be pretty smooth.  I’m not being very clear here.  That’s because I’m not sure what my brain is thinking either.  On the one hand it’s nice to drink some brandy, it’s been a while and brandy is oh so pleasant and warm in my brain.  On the other hand, this isn’t the Armagnac of days gone by; it’s $14 dollar brandy.  Then again, it’s fucking $14 dollars—and it tastes reasonably good.  Sure, the barrel sweetness and vanilla seem to be masking some less savory flavors, and even distracting from some of the good distilled grape, but hell $14 dollar brandy.  At that price it’s acceptable to mix it with things.  College kids, go ahead, put sprite or some shit in with it. Me, I suspect this would even make a decent sidecar.  Wait; do I have the ingredients to test that theory? Damn, no lemons.  Anyways, the point remains the same.  You a little bit broke? You have $14, you can get a classic and wonderful bottle of Old Grandad, which is always a great choice–but if you want brandy, it’s $14.  Give E&J a chance, it’ll satisfy that brandy hankerin’ and temporarily cure your sobriety based problems.

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Scotch Showdown: How far does $25 go?

I should preface everything that I’m about to write by informing you of my stance on scotch.  I’m led to believe that scotch is one of the signatures of manliness, the drink of those with taste and refined palates—it’s traditionally treated as the most refined of the whiskies.  To me all this gives me the feeling that scotch is the drink of elitist swine that are trying to oppress us.  Maybe that’s an unfair judgment, but what I’m saying here is that scotch that isn’t piss is prohibitively expensive.  Or is it?  Can 25 bucks get me a scotch that doesn’t taste like somebody put liquid smoke flavoring in the blandest whiskey imaginable?   I’m sorry, since it’s scotch, it’s “whisky.”

As you can tell by my aforementioned prejudices, I’ve never been truly impressed by a scotch.  Granted, I haven’t had all that much good scotch, it’s overpriced—Glenlivet 12 is basically the most expensive stuff I’ve had.  Other than that, there were a bunch of blends that well basically barely drinkable and cost more than I usually spend on a solid bourbon.  For this article I decided to step outside of my comfort zone, and acquaint myself with some scotches, so here’s the showdown:  Speyburn 10 Highland Single Malt and Famous Grouse.  I chose a single malt and a blend specifically because I wanted to see if a cheap single malt would be cheap because it’s worse than a more regulated blend, which is specifically designed to make a consistent product.  The Speyburn cost me $20, at $5 off, and the Grouse was $23 or something.  Similar price=similar quality level? No.  So let’s evaluate.

Speyburn 10:

I was hesitant about a $20 single malt.  Clearly it must be pretty bad if it’s so bad and on the bottom shelf, right? Well, it’s not bad.  I’d buy this again, if a scotch drinker were to visit or something.  The nose on this is nice, a tad astringent, but also rich and a bit fruity.  There’s very little peat to this scotch.  I’m happy about this. I’m not too fond of peat.  So the sweet apple and pear notes here are rather likable.  It’s gentle, though 86 proof, and though this whisky won’t confound you with complexity I find it to be very pleasant—and it’s cheap!  So for what is usually $25, it’s a good buy to me—I’m not much of a scotch drinker, but I enjoy it.

Famous Grouse:

I’d heard good things about this blend—it’s been billed as a best buy in scotch, blended to perfection to cut costs and make a consistently better product than rivals in its range such as Johnnie Walker Red or Dewar’s White.  I’ll stipulate that it’s better than those rivals. But not by much.  It’s a bit one-dimensional—light peat smoke and a bit of chewy caramel.  It’s not swill, but it’s not particularly exciting.  Got someone coming by who insists they only drink scotch? They sound like an ass, don’t buy them something too expensive, if this is on sale, maybe buy it.  But over Speyburn 10? Naw.  It’s rather boring.  But it’s the best blend in the range as far as I can tell.

So what’s the conclusion here?  There isn’t much of one.  There are a lot of scotches under $25.  I haven’t had them all.  But from my fuzzy memory of what I’ve tried Famous Grouse is the most drinkable blend in this range, and Speyburn 10 is actually quite likable.  Unfortunately, this article isn’t worth much.  I’m still a bourbon guy.  But in Speyburn 10 I found a scotch that I could consider buying and actually afford to buy. So maybe I’ll try some more budget single malts, and maybe scotch isn’t just the whisky of the power elite that drain us all of our life blood—maybe there is a good single malt at a working class price.

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Think I’m a moron ignoring plenty of great cheap scotches? Let me know in the comments or send me a bottle!