Serious Eats: Drinks

The Serious Eats Guide to Brandy

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[Brandy snifter photo: Shutterstock]

When I mention brandy, you probably have an image already in your head. An older gentleman, sitting quietly in a leather armchair, perhaps smoking a pipe while listening to Brahms, swirling a snifter of brandy around in his hand.

We think of brandy as an Old World after-dinner drink. And I have to say, it serves that purpose beautifully. But if you limit it to that, you're missing out on a lot.

Brandy is a complex topic, and a single post can't do it justice. But I'll use this space today to start explaining the spirit in all its depths, explaining what brandy is and what the differences are between the many varieties.

Brandy, Defined

Brandy is any distilled spirit made from fruit juice. The fruit is crushed to remove its juice, which is then fermented to make a fruit wine. The wine is then distilled to make brandy. Some brandies are aged in wooden barrels; others are unaged.

Pomace brandy is slightly different. Ordinarily, in making grape brandy, the skins, seeds, and stems are removed from the juice after grapes are pressed. In pomace brandy, however, the solids remain with the juice during the fermentation and distillation process. Pomace brandy is also known as marc (in English and French) and grappa (in Italian).

Taken on its own, the word "brandy" typically implies grape brandy; when discussing other brandies, you usually use a modifier—for example, apple, peach, or plum brandy. I will follow that convention in this post—when I say "brandy," I mean grape brandy, unless otherwise specified.

Brandy in All Its Forms

So, what do we mean when we say "brandy"? I'll describe here some of the most common brandies you'll find in American bars and liquor stores, on restaurant menus, and in cocktail recipes.

Cognac

Made in the wine-growing regions surrounding the town of Cognac. It must be made of a blend of specific grapes, most notably Ugni Blanc (also known as Saint-Emilion). It must be double-distilled in copper pot stills, and then aged in French oak barrels at least two years (although most Cognac is far older). Some Cognacs see up to 40 or 50 years in oak. A master taster at the Cognac house blends brandies of different ages (and sometimes from other areas of the Cognac region) to produce a Cognac that is consistent from release to release.

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A pot still for making Cognac. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Grades of Cognac:

Armagnac

A grape brandy made in the wine-growing regions of Armagnac, in the southwest of France. The wine is made of a blend of grapes, including Colombard and Ugni Blanc. Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is usually distilled in column stills rather than pot stills, and it is usually distilled just once, not twice. (A few Armagnac houses are exceptions: they double-distill, using pot stills.) The result is a more rustic brandy than Cognac. It's aged for at least two years in French oak, and then blended to produce a consistent product.

Grades of Armagnac:

There are three additional things to note about Armagnac grades: First, Hors d'age means something specific in Armagnac, namely that the youngest brandy in the blend is at least 10 years old. For Cognac, Hors d'age is merely another term for XO, which means at least 6 years.

Next, Armagnac will sometimes display an age on the label. If the label says it's 15 years old or 25 years old, that means the youngest brandy in the bottle is that age.

Finally, if you have the money to spend, you can find vintage Armagnacs. The label will display the year of harvest; vintage Armagnacs by law are at least 10 years old.

American Brandy

American brandy is a little harder to pin down than either Cognac or Armagnac. Really, only two regulations affect you as the consumer: first, if a brandy is not aged in oak for at least two years, it must carry the word "immature" on its label. Second, a brandy made from anything other than grape wine must say what it's made from: peach brandy, apple brandy, pomace brandy, etc.

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American brandies generally make no distinction between pot and column distillation, nor between single and double distillation. There are no legal requirements to specify which distillation techniques must be followed.

Grades such as VS, VSOP, and XO don't carry any legal standing in the United States as they do in France. It's generally true that VS brandy is the youngest, VSOP a little older, and XO older still, but let's look at a couple of product descriptions from the interwebs and see what they say.

Paul Masson says its VS release is "aged three years in oak for a smooth taste," while the VSOP is "aged four years in oak for an extra-smooth taste." Paul Masson does not offer an XO.

E&J's website says of its VS that it's "aged at least two years in oak." The VSOP is "aged at least two years," while the XO is "aged at least two years." No, those are not typos on my part. Each release meets the minimum legal standard for American brandy (namely, you age it for two years or you label it "immature"), but beyond that, you have only E&J's word that the XO is aged longer than the VSOP, and that the VSOP is aged longer than the VS.

So buyer beware.

(In a future article, I'll run down some of the craft distillers who are making American brandies, and it's an exciting field. If you have a favorite, feel free to mention it in comments.)

Pisco

South America's contribution to the brandy scene, pisco is an unaged grape brandy, best known as the main component in the pisco sour. Peru and Chile are currently locked in a pisco cold war, each claiming the spirit as its own.

Apple Brandy

Apple brandy is worthy of a post of its own, not just because it's delicious, but because it's so versatile in cocktails that it merits a place in any well-stocked bar. For now, though, I'll just say that the two main players are American applejack and French Calvados. The New World version is brash and bright and fruity; whereas its French ancestor is more subtle, nuanced, and layered in flavor.

Eaux de Vie

Typically unaged brandies, eaux de vie are made from fruits other than grapes. Examples include brandies made from raspberries, pears, plums, cherries, and orchards of other fruits. Because they're unaged, they're typically clear.

German speakers know these as schnaps, although don't confuse true German schnaps with the butterscotch or peppermint-flavored crap sold by that name in the United States.

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Rossatz, Wachau, Austria: Hand painted advertising plate for home made apricot brandy (Marillenschnaps). [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

History

One of the earliest distilled products, brandy production dates to the 12th century. Brandy was originally used as a medicine, or aqua vitae (water of life), in part because laws restricted anyone but apothecaries and doctors from making it. By the 16th century, though, French laws allowed winemakers to begin distillation.

The French brandy industry grew slowly at first until the Dutch got involved. The Netherlands imported brandy for domestic consumption as well as for re-export to other European countries. At this point in Dutch history, the Dutch mercantile fleet was the largest in the world. Adding brandy to water casks kept water supplies fresher on long oceangoing voyages.

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Vineyards in the Armagnac region near Landes and Gers. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

In terms of units of alcohol, brandy is more efficient to ship than wine is. Brandy has about eight times the alcohol content of wine, so in terms of bang-for-buck, brandy offers great economic advantages. (I've discussed the economics of spirits previously; in describing the history of bourbon, I mentioned that Kentucky farmers found it easier, more efficient, and far, far more lucrative to sell and transport whiskey than corn, for example.)

But Dutch merchants would never have grown so rich on brandy had they built distilleries in The Netherlands. Rather than shipping French wine to Dutch distilleries, it made far more sense to invest capital in the very areas that were producing the wines in the first place. Initially, the Dutch built distilleries in the Loire and Bordeaux, but then found a more lucrative region to tap: Charente. Farmers in that region began to cultivate grapes strictly for distilling, producing wines that tasted acidic and thin on their own but that had qualities perfect for distillation.

One town in the Charente region eventually grew to define a specific style of French brandy: Cognac.

The Dutch influence on the trade of distilled wine was so great that it even lent the product its name: brandy derives from the Dutch brandewijn, or "burnt wine."

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