Before Daniel Farber founded Osocalis brandy distillery in Soquel, Calif., in the 1980s, he worked as a research geophysicist. But to follow his true calling, he studied with French distillers in Armagnac, Cognac, and Normandy, and collaborated with Hubert Germain-Robin from the Germain-Robin Distillery in Ukiah, Calif. (it’s since been bought by Gallo and relocated to Fresno, Calif.).
A traditionalist at heart, Farber uses French-made stills and French oak barrels to distill and age his brandy. Until 2018, he made his rare alambic, XO, heritage, and apple brandy exclusively in an antique Charentais still (similar to those of his mentors from Cognac, the Germain-Robin Distillery, and the Pays d’Auge region of Calvados in France). Last November, he added a second French-made still from Gascony, a region known for producing Armagnac.
“We strive to produce a spirit that has the length, elegance, and finesse of Old World brandy but that reflects the character of California wine and cider,” he says.
Nothing New Under the Sun
In Cognac, brandy is typically distilled from wine made using ugni blanc grapes. In Armagnac, brandy distilleries use wine from baco, colombard, folle blanche, and ugni blanc grapes. “There are no new techniques for making artisan brandy,” Farber continues. “So it’s important to understand Old World methods then apply them to New World grapes, soil, and climate.”
He’s cultivating 65 acres of organic vineyards 10 miles from the distillery. “It’s a mix of classical Cognac varieties and grapes more common to California,” he says. He’s also planted 53 varieties of Normandy apples and refurbished an 8,000-square-foot production facility for pressing apples and grapes. Eventually, he’s looking for a 50/50 split between grape and apple brandy production.
Old World Methods
To start, says Farber, “We’re looking for a light, delicate wine or cider that expresses itself well after concentration.”
Using his 330-gallon Charentais still, he collects 60-proof condensate from an initial distillation and redistills it. Ultimately, the process results in an eau de vie that concentrates the character of the beginning cider or wine eight-fold. For every 1,000 gallons he distills, the Charentais still produces about 120 gallons of eau de vie.
He ages the eau de vie in new oak barrels before transferring it to neutral oak; he then reduces the spirit from 140- to 80-proof by gradually adding rainwater. Toward the end of aging, he blends in a mixture of aged brandy and rainwater (called petites eaux) to lower the alcohol concentration to 40 percent. “The petites eaux adds a richness and roundness to the brandy that you can’t achieve any other way,” he explains.
The new, second still delivers another layer of authenticity, and this breadth of Old World technology adds layers of aroma, flavor, and texture to his New World brandy. Farber says his Armagnac owes its expressive character to the fact that he distills it once (not twice), and at a lower alcohol concentration than his Cognac, delivering rustic complexity rather than elegance and refinement.
“How do you innovate along such a well-travelled path?” he asks. “For me, it’s about producing high quality brandy with Old World techniques and New World fruit.”
Ultimately, Farber says, he’s playing a waiting game. His oldest brandy is 25 years old; he’d rather be working with 50- or 100-year-old California brandies. “I’d like to leave something that will give the next generation of distillers the foundation to make a world-class spirit,” he says.