Brandy, which comes from the Dutch word brandewijn meaning “burned wine,” is exactly that—in a way. It’s distilled wine, which means the wine is heated to the point of vaporization. Brandy can also refer to a distilled spirit made from fruits like apples, cherries and peaches, but more often than not, it’s distilled from wine made from grapes. And like wine, a heck of a lot of the best stuff comes from France. Whether you like it as an after-dinner digestif, enjoy it in a cocktail like the Sidecar or simply think you look dapper while holding a snifter, brandy is a spirit worthy of any liquor cabinet.
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The History of Brandy
Brandy, like many of the best things in life, was invented by accident. In the early 16th century, enterprising Dutch merchants distilled wine to preserve it during transport and to export higher volumes, intending to add water after reaching their destination. But upon arrival, people found that the distilled spirit (which was transported in wooden casks) tasted just great—no water needed.
Many winemaking countries started distilling their own versions of the spirit. The highest grade and most renowned brandy came from France, although Spain, as well as countries like Bulgaria and Georgia, also contributed some quality bottlings. Spanish missionaries also brought brandy production to California, where it is still produced today.
Fun fact: Aside from being a delicious spirit, brandy was also used in the first thermometer before scientists switched to mercury.
How Is Brandy Made?
Just because you happen to have a bottle of wine and a still doesn’t mean you can make brandy. Brandy is distilled from a base wine made from young grapes, which have higher acidity and lower sugar levels than the grapes from which table wine is made. The juice from these grapes spends two to three weeks fermenting, after which, the juice is ready to be distilled, a process that varies between grades.
Brandy, like many of the best things in life, was invented by accident.
Cognac is double-distilled in copper pot stills, leaving it at about 70% ABV. Armagnac, which often falls in the shadow of its more famous counterpart, is distilled just once, typically in a column still. Distilling the brandy once leaves it at about 50% ABV.
When it is made from grapes, brandy is typically aged in oak barrels after distillation for at least two years—though some high-end brandies are aged anywhere from 6 to 50 years. V.S. (very special), also known as “three stars,” is the youngest form of brandy, aged at least two years. V.S.O.P. (very old super pale) refers to brandy that has been aged for at least four years. XO (extra old) or “Napoleon,” named after the conqueror himself, refers to brandy aged at least six years. And finally, hors d’age must meet a 10-year requirement, although it is typically aged considerably longer.
Like non-single-malt whiskeys, many brandies like Cognac, Armagnac and Brandy de Jerez (Spanish brandy) are typically made with a blend of different vintages. Doing this ensures not only complex flavors but also consistency throughout the years.
Where Is Brandy Made?
France: It’s no surprise that France, home to some of the world’s best wines, would be a major player in the brandy-making industry. The country is, primarily, home to two main styles: Cognac and Armagnac, both named after the regions in which they are produced.
Spain: Spain produces Brandy de Jerez in, appropriately, Jerez. These brandies are aged using the solera system (much like sherry, which the region is known for). Barrels are arranged in a pyramid from oldest to youngest. To create a brandy, master blenders take measures from different barrels and mix them together. Then they top the barrels off with younger brandy.
South America: Many Spanish-speaking countries have taken to producing brandy, including Chile and Peru, both of which, to this day, claim they are the first to have produced a type of brandy called pisco. Pisco is made from grapes, and it is unaged, unlike other styles of grape-based brandy.
United States: America manufactures its fair share of brandies as well. American brandies are aged two years before bottling. (Companies are required to label their product as “immature” if it is aged any less.) Only grape-based brandies can be labeled as straight brandy. If the distiller used any other fruit like apples or peaches, the bottle must indicate that on the label.
Cognac: Widely considered to be the best of the brandies, Cognac takes its name from the wine-making region in France in which it’s produced. There are numerous legal regulations that all Cognacs must meet. The juice must be pressed from Ugni Blanc grapes. It must be distilled twice, and it must be aged longer than two years. That said, Cognac is typically aged well past the necessary minimum, with the best and most expensive spending 50-plus years in an oak cask.
Armagnac: Cognac’s wonderful but underappreciated younger brother, Armagnac, must also be pressed from certain grapes, although restrictions are a bit more lax. Also unlike Cognac, Armagnac is only distilled once, ultimately producing a brandy that is richer in flavor than Cognac but with less boozy kick.
Pisco: Pisco is an unaged brandy made from grapes in Chile and Peru. To this day, the two countries are duking it out over who founded the unorthodox type of brandy. Though it is not so common in the U.S., sales are skyrocketing, with exports growing exponentially year after year. Get ready to see more of this raw, white spirit.
American Brandy: While the U.S. does impose the same two-year minimum as France, that’s about the only regulation American brandy makers need to follow. That lack of regulation on ingredients and aging grades makes American brandy a good but not optimal option, as it’s hard to say what exactly you’re getting in terms of quality.
Eaux de vie: An eau de vie is an unaged brandy made from any fruit besides grapes, such as apples, cherries and peaches. The result? Something similar to an authentic German schnaps.
How Do I Drink Brandy Straight?
Cognacs and even higher grade Armagnacs are brandies best enjoyed neat at room temperature. Brandy is very sensitive to heat; just the heat of your hand can be enough to warm the brandy and strengthen the alcoholic aroma, much to some brandy-drinkers’ preference. In fact, it’s not uncommon for brandy drinkers to ask for their glass to be warmed before the brandy is poured.
Notable Brandy Cocktails
Sidecar: Made with Cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice, the Sidecar is an underappreciated classic cocktail that deserves to be revived.
Brandy Hot Toddy: Nothing cures a cold like a Hot Toddy, and brandy is a the perfect spirit to help do the job.
Brandy Alexander: Dessert in a glass. A Brandy Alexander is made with brandy, crème de cacao and cream.
Pisco Sour: Deliciously sweet and tangy, the Pisco Sour is topped with frothy egg whites.
Brandy Old Fashioned: Swap out brandy for the usual whiskey in an Old Fashioned and you will be richly rewarded.
Brandy in Culture
- It seems like Winston Churchill has a quote for every type of spirit, and brandy is no exception. He labeled it one of the four “essentials of life,” along with hot baths, cold Champagne and new peas. In 1942, Joseph Stalin gave Churchill a bottle of Armenian brandy.
- Brandy wasn’t only popular among the leaders of the world’s superpowers. In fact, you would be hard pressed to think of a platinum-selling rapper who hasn’t included his or her love for Hennessy, a popular brand of Cognac, in at least one song. Heck, Tupac, widely considered one of the greatest rappers who ever lived, dedicated an entire song to it, entitled — you guessed it — “Hennessy.” In not so politically correct terms, Tupac denounces the popular drink combo of “gin and juice,” made famous by Snoop Dogg, and recommends Cognac in its place.
Quotes About Brandy
- “Hot baths, cold Champagne, new peas and old brandy.” —Winston Churchill (on the four essentials of life)
- “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.' —Samuel Johnson
- “Even the cops can't stop us, my enemies flip, When they see me drink a fifth of that Hennessy.” —Tupac Shakur