Invecchiato Per 24 Anni

I've been waiting a long time for this day; the moment when we could start talking about Italy's potential as a serious source of distilled spirits beyond the ubiquitous vermouth, amaro, and herbal liqueur selections that are sweeping the cocktail culture. Distillation has been practiced in Italy since the early days of grappa and medicinal remedies. Unlike what's happening with the craft distillation scene in America, many of the "new" labels we're seeing from Italy come from companies established in the 1800s. In many cases these producers have not only generations of knowledge as it pertains to spirits, but also plenty of back inventory. Take the case of Guido Zarri as an example, the man behind the Villa Zarri brand. In addition to his fantastic amaro, his delicious nocino, and his dangerously drinkable ciliegia, Guido has mature stocks of Cognac-style brandy (distilled from trebbiano, basically ugni blanc grown in Italy) dating back to the late 1980s. As if his incredibly well-priced ten and twenty-one year old brandies weren't enough to persuade you of his prowess, I decided to dig a little deeper into his cellars.

"I want to do a single barrel and I want to do it at full proof. Is that OK with you?" I asked Guido during a phone conversation earlier this year.

"Yes, I actually think it tastes better that way," he replied, almost as if he was embarrassed by that admission.

I laughed and reassured him: "So do a lot of other people."

Last month I decided to do a little survey with some of my most knowledgeable whisky customers. At a private dinner event, I poured each person a small glass of the 1991 Villa Zarri K&L single cask from an advance sample I had received from Guido, then I bid everyone adieu. The next morning I had multiple emails from these guys asking me just what in the hell they had tasted that evening. Most of them were shocked to discover it was brandy. All of them were stunned that it had been distilled in Italy. It was when I told them the potential price that the excitement really got going; I was hoping to sell it for just under a hundred bucks.

Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful place. Located just north of Bologna, the Villa Zarri estate is set in between rolling hills of green. The property itself dates back to 1578 and has hosted scores of parties, concerts, exhibits, and events over those many centuries, but distillation at the site is a rather recent development in context. Everything Guido Zarri does in the distillery is exactly as is done in the Charentes: the grapes are same varietal, the stills are the same shape and size, the proof of the spirit comes off just over seventy as it does in Cognac. It's in the barrel room, however, that Guido changes direction. Rather than age his brandies in used Limosin oak, he starts each distillate off in new oak casks to impart color and intensity before transferring them into refill barrels over time. He also does not top up the barrels to prevent evaporation, instead choosing to transfer the brandies into fewer and fewer barrels as they begin to lose volume. The result is a richer, darker, and more oak influenced spirit; one that does not require coloring agents or added sugar to soften the mouthfeel. The brandies are impressive and all encompassing from the very first sip. But, if you're a whisky fan, wait until you taste that concentrated flavor at 59.7%

Back in April, I wrote an article about three upcoming spirits I was very excited about: Four Pillars gin, a new cask of Caol Ila, and this cask of Villa Zarri. So far I haven't met one person who hasn't fallen completely in love with the Four Pillars gin. I expect the reactions to this single cask of Villa Zarri 24 year old brandy to be similar. On the nose, the aromas meander between stewed fruits, oak spice, burnt vanilla. On the palate, the flavors continue to evolve along the same track, but what shocks you is the richness and the power. I have to imagine that Bourbon fans will be drawn to that sheer strength and Scotch fans to the maturity and the concentration.

Again, my favorite part about this whole deal is the price. Our very, very best Cognacs typically retail in the $90 to $150 range and that's at the watered-down 40% ABV. Here we've got single barrel, unadulterated brandy at full proof with twenty four years of age at $99.99. It doesn't matter what you like to drink: Scotch, Bourbon, or Cognac. If you're a fan of brown spirits, you're going to love this. The proof? Our owner just bought a bottle and he drinks about one glass of brown spirits per year. Looks like we know what this year's selection will be. Don't wait for a better Armagnac or Cognac to come later in the year. There's nothing better than this bottle on the horizon.

Villa Zarri 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Italian Brandy 99.99- Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still by from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the ten and twenty-one year old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. At nearly 60% ABV, there's a lot of heat so a drop or two of water really helps open up the fruit. Underneath all that power is plenty of rich vanilla, sweet oak, lush stonefruit, and Cognac-like finesse, but without all the sticky additives. What you get here is almost like a Glenmorangie version of brandy.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll