Bottle #41: Christian Brothers Brandy

Jan 17, 2024

Bottle #41 is Christian Brothers brandy. Today, this American brandy is a perfectly adequate bottom shelf brand, but it has a fascinating history.

Read the rest of the story

Some historians think brandy might have been the first spirit distilled in what would become America. On the east coast, it would have been brandy from fruit like apples, but in the West it would have been grape brandy. Catholic missionaries from Spain were making wine and brandy there beginning in the 1600s.

The Christian Brothers brand also has a Catholic connection. The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools is a religious order founded by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle in France in 1680. Brothers in the order are not priests, but educators, and they set up and operate schools all over the world. In 1868 they came to California and founded a community in Martinez, where they started making sacramental wine, primarily for their own uses.

In 1930 they moved to a new location in Napa, which included vineyards and a winery. After the repeal of Prohibition, the Brothers decided to start making wine commercially in order for fund their educational projects. To head up this project, they recruited Brother Timothy Diener, who was a young science teacher from the order, and asked him if he’d like to head up the wine making operations.

He took to the job, and in time the Christian Brothers winery was churning out high-quality wines for its day. Early California wine luminaries like Robert Mondavi and Joseph Phelps considered him in their number as someone who helped launch the California wine industry. In the 1940s they started producing brandy commercially as well, and Christan Brothers Brandy was born.

I mentioned in the reveal video for this bottle that there was a fun bit of cocktail history related to this brand. And that is that you can blame/thank Christian Brothers Brandy for the Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned. During the post-World War II years, whiskey in American was terrible – lots of bad blends. And while for many people that caused them to turn to Scotch or Canadian, some Wisconsin liquor distributors got word that Christian Brothers Brandy had an aged cache of brandy. Thirty thousand cases of aged brandy. So they did the logical thing and bought all of it. It would have been much better in an Old Fashioned than a crappy American blended whiskey, so it went into the drink and just never came out.

Brother Timothy was there from the beginning of commercial operation, and he would be there through to the end. Spirit consumption overall began slumping in the 1980s, and hit brandy particularly hard. It was still profitable, but the Brothers sold the entire operation to Heublein, Inc for $150 million in 1989. The official story is that the Brothers were finding it difficult to operate both schools and a winery, but I wonder if Brother Timothy was the real driving force behind the brand. By the time of the sale he was in his 70s, and it’s unclear if perhaps his impending retirement inspired it, or the sale was the excuse he needed to stop working.

Heublein got not only the trademarks and brands, but also 1,200 acres of prime Napa Valley Vineyards. The Brothers kept the property they purchased when they first moved to Napa, and operate it as a retreat center today.

My bottle is from the Heublein period. Specifically, 1989 to 1996, because as I talked about when I told the story of Heublein in Bottle #26, Boggs Cranberry Liqueur, by 1996 the Heublein name was defunct. As a 1980s bottle it is plastic and thus half empty, so I don’t have high hopes for when I get around to tasting this fun little piece of American history.

PS – in case you’re wondering, like I was, these Christian Brothers are NOT the same as the Irish Christian Brothers, who are best known for a history of horrific child abuse scandals involving children in their care in the 1980s and 1990s. Although it must be said that the De La Salle Christian Brothers are not immune from their own such scandals, as reported on their Wikipedia page.

Watch me taste this bottle with Jennifer Querbes.

Listen Now

Watch Now

Bottle #41: Christian Brothers Brandy

Jan 17, 2024 |

Bottle #41 is Christian Brothers brandy. Today, this American brandy is a perfectly adequate bottom shelf brand, but it has a fascinating history.

Some historians think brandy might have been the first spirit distilled in what would become America. On the east coast, it would have been brandy from fruit like apples, but in the West it would have been grape brandy. Catholic missionaries from Spain were making wine and brandy there beginning in the 1600s.

The Christian Brothers brand also has a Catholic connection. The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools is a religious order founded by Jean-Baptiste de la Salle in France in 1680. Brothers in the order are not priests, but educators, and they set up and operate schools all over the world. In 1868 they came to California and founded a community in Martinez, where they started making sacramental wine, primarily for their own uses.

In 1930 they moved to a new location in Napa, which included vineyards and a winery. After the repeal of Prohibition, the Brothers decided to start making wine commercially in order for fund their educational projects. To head up this project, they recruited Brother Timothy Diener, who was a young science teacher from the order, and asked him if he’d like to head up the wine making operations.

He took to the job, and in time the Christian Brothers winery was churning out high-quality wines for its day. Early California wine luminaries like Robert Mondavi and Joseph Phelps considered him in their number as someone who helped launch the California wine industry. In the 1940s they started producing brandy commercially as well, and Christan Brothers Brandy was born.

I mentioned in the reveal video for this bottle that there was a fun bit of cocktail history related to this brand. And that is that you can blame/thank Christian Brothers Brandy for the Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned. During the post-World War II years, whiskey in American was terrible – lots of bad blends. And while for many people that caused them to turn to Scotch or Canadian, some Wisconsin liquor distributors got word that Christian Brothers Brandy had an aged cache of brandy. Thirty thousand cases of aged brandy. So they did the logical thing and bought all of it. It would have been much better in an Old Fashioned than a crappy American blended whiskey, so it went into the drink and just never came out.

Brother Timothy was there from the beginning of commercial operation, and he would be there through to the end. Spirit consumption overall began slumping in the 1980s, and hit brandy particularly hard. It was still profitable, but the Brothers sold the entire operation to Heublein, Inc for $150 million in 1989. The official story is that the Brothers were finding it difficult to operate both schools and a winery, but I wonder if Brother Timothy was the real driving force behind the brand. By the time of the sale he was in his 70s, and it’s unclear if perhaps his impending retirement inspired it, or the sale was the excuse he needed to stop working.

Heublein got not only the trademarks and brands, but also 1,200 acres of prime Napa Valley Vineyards. The Brothers kept the property they purchased when they first moved to Napa, and operate it as a retreat center today.

My bottle is from the Heublein period. Specifically, 1989 to 1996, because as I talked about when I told the story of Heublein in Bottle #26, Boggs Cranberry Liqueur, by 1996 the Heublein name was defunct. As a 1980s bottle it is plastic and thus half empty, so I don’t have high hopes for when I get around to tasting this fun little piece of American history.

PS – in case you’re wondering, like I was, these Christian Brothers are NOT the same as the Irish Christian Brothers, who are best known for a history of horrific child abuse scandals involving children in their care in the 1980s and 1990s. Although it must be said that the De La Salle Christian Brothers are not immune from their own such scandals, as reported on their Wikipedia page.

Watch me taste this bottle with Jennifer Querbes.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *