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All About Brandy, Cognac and Armagnac

Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy." – Samuel Johnson

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V.S. Cognac (Three Star)

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Three Classic Cocktails

Sidecar

Fill a short glass with ice. In a shaker combine:

  • 1 oz. Brandy
  • 1 oz. triple sec
  • 1 oz. lemon juice
  • Ice to fill

Shake and strain into the glass.

 


Stinger

Fill a short glass with ice. Add:

  • 1 oz. Brandy
  • 1 oz. white crème de menthe

Stir and serve.

 


Brandy Alexander

In a shaker combine:

  • 1 oz. Brandy
  • 1 oz. dark crème de cacao
  • 1 oz. cream
  • Ice to fill

Shake and strain into a large Brandy snifter. Dust with nutmeg.

The word Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, ("burnt wine"), which is how the straightforward Dutch traders who introduced it to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain in the 16th century described wine that had been "burnt," or boiled, in order to distill it. The origins of Brandy can be traced back to the expanding Moslem Mediterranean states in the 7th and 8th centuries. Arab alchemists experimented with distilling grapes and other fruits in order to make medicinal spirits. Their knowledge and techniques soon spread beyond the borders of Islam, with grape Brandy production appearing in Spain and probably Ireland (via missionary monks) by the end of the 8th century. Brandy, in its broadest definition, is a spirit made from fruit juice or fruit pulp and skin. More specifically, it is broken down into three basic groupings.

Grape Brandy is Brandy distilled from fermented grape juice or crushed but not pressed grape pulp and skin. This spirit is aged in wooden casks (usually oak) which colors it, mellows the palate, and adds additional aromas and flavors.

Pomace Brandy (Italian Grappa and French Marc are the best-known examples) is Brandy made from the pressed grape pulp, skins, and stems that remain after the grapes are crushed and pressed to extract most of the juice for wine. Pomace Brandies, which are usually minimally aged and seldom see wood, are an acquired taste. They often tend to be rather raw, although they can offer a fresh, fruity aroma of the type of grape used, a characteristic that is lost in regular oak-aged Brandy.

Fruit Brandy is the default term for all Brandies that are made from fermenting fruit other than grapes. It should not be confused with Fruit-Flavored Brandy, which is grape Brandy that has been flavored with the extract of another fruit. Fruit Brandies, except those made from berries, are generally distilled from fruit wines. Berries tend to lack enough sugar to make a wine with sufficient alcohol for proper distillation, and thus are soaked (macerated) in high-proof spirit to extract their flavor and aroma. The extract is then distilled once at a low proof. Calvados, the Apple Brandy from the Normandy region of Northwestern France, is probably the best known type of Fruit Brandy. Eau-de-vie ("water of life") is the default term in French for spirits in general, and specifically for colorless fruit brandy, particularly from the Alsace region of France and from California.

Brandy, like Rum and Tequila, is an agricultural spirit. Unlike grain spirits such as Whisky, Vodka, and Gin, which are made throughout the year from grain that can be harvested and stored, Brandy is dependent on the seasons, the ripening of the base fruit, and the production of the wine from which it is made. Types of Brandies, originally at least, tended to be location-specific. (Cognac, for example, is a town and region in France that gave its name to the local Brandy.) Important Brandy-making regions, particularly in Europe, further differentiate their local spirits by specifying the types of grapes that can be used and the specific areas (appellation) in which the grapes used for making the base wine can be grown.

French Brandies: Cognac and Armagnac

Cognac is the best known type of Brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other Brandies are judged. The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux, in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The region is further subdivided into six growing zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bois Ordinaries, Borderies, Fins Bois, and Bons Bois. The first two of these regions produce the best Cognac and will frequently be so designated on bottle labels. Cognacs labelled Fine Champagne are a blend of Petite and Grande Champagne. The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. The wines made from these grapes are thin, tart, and low in alcohol; poor characteristics for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Brandy. Cognac is double distilled in pot stills and then aged in casks made from Limousin or Troncais oak. All Cognacs start out in new oak to mellow the fiery spirit and give them color. Batches that are chosen for long-term aging are, after a few years, transferred to used, or "seasoned," casks that impart less of the oak flavor notes while the Brandy matures.

Virtually all Cognacs are a blend of Brandies from different vintages, and frequently, different growing zones. Even those from single vineyards or distilleries will be a mix of Brandies from different casks. As in Champagne, the production of local vineyards is sold to Cognac houses, each of which stores and ages Cognacs from different suppliers and then employs master blenders to draw from these disparate Brandies to create continuity in the house blends. Because there are no age statements on Cognacs, the industry has adopted some generally accepted terms to differentiate Cognacs. It is important to note that these terms have no legal status, and each Cognac shipper uses them according to his own criteria. V.S./V.S.P./Three Star: (V.S., very superior; V.S.P., very superior pale) A minimum of two years aging in a cask, although the industry average is four to five years. V.S.O.P.: (very superior old pale) A minimum of four years cask aging for the youngest Cognac in the blend, with the industry average being between 10 and 15 years.

X.O./Luxury: (X.O., extra old) A minimum of six years aging for the youngest cognac in the blend, with the average age running 20 years or older. All Cognac houses maintain inventories of old vintage Cognacs to use in blending these top of the line brands. The oldest Cognacs are removed from their casks in time and stored in glass demijohns (large jugs) to prevent further loss from evaporation and to limit excessively woody and astringent flavors. Luxury Cognacs are the very finest Cognacs of each individual Cognac house.

Armagnac is the oldest type of Brandy in France, with documented references to distillation dating back to the early 15th century. The Armagnac region is located in the heart of the ancient province of Gascony in the southwest corner of France. As in Cognac, there are regional growing zones: Bas-Armagnac, Haut Armagnac, and Tenareze. The primary grapes used in making Armagnac are likewise the Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. But distillation takes place in the unique alambic Armagnacais, a type of column still that is even more "inefficient" than a typical Cognac pot still.

The resulting brandy has a rustic, assertive character and aroma that requires additional cask aging to mellow it out. The best Armagnacs are aged in casks made from the local Monlezun oak. In recent years Limousin and Troncais oak casks have been added to the mix of casks as suitable Monlezun oak becomes harder to find.

Most Armagnacs are blends, but unlike Cognac, single vintages and single vineyard bottlings can be found. The categories of Armagnac are generally the same as those of Cognac (V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O., etc.). Blended Armagnacs frequently have a greater percentage of older vintages in their mix than comparable Cognacs, making them a better value for the discerning buyer.

Have Still, Will Travel

Up until the 1970s, portable alambic Armagnacais mounted on two-wheel carts were hauled among small vineyards in Armangnac by itinerant distillers called bouillers de cru. These traveling stills, alas, have mostly given way to larger fixed-in-place setups operated by farmer cooperatives and individual operators.

French Brandy is the catch-all designation for Brandy produced from grapes grown in other regions. These Brandies are usually distilled in column stills and aged in oak casks for varying periods of time. They are frequently blended with wine, grape juice, oak flavorings, and other Brandies, including Cognac, in order to smooth out the rough edges. Cognac-like quality designations such as V.S.O.P. and Napoleon are frequently used, but have no legal standing.

Spanish Brandies

Brandy de Jerez is made by the Sherry houses centered around the city of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwest corner of Spain. Virtually all Brandy de Jerez; however, is made from wines produced elsewhere in Spain -- primarily from the Airen grape in La Mancha and Extremadura -- as the local Sherry grapes are too valuable to divert into Brandy production. Nowadays most of the distilling is likewise done elsewhere in Spain using column stills. It is then shipped to Jerez for aging in used Sherry casks in a solera system similar to that used for Sherry wine. A solera is a series of large casks (called butts), each holding a slightly older spirit than the previous one beside it. When brandy is drawn off (racked) from the last butt (no more than a third of the volume is removed) it is replenished with brandy drawn from the next butt in line all the way down the solera line to the first butt, where newly distilled brandy is added. This system of racking the brandy through a series of casks blends together a variety of vintages (some soleras have over 30 stages) and results in a speeding up of the maturation process.

Basic Brandy de Jerez Solera must age for a minimum of six months, Reserva for one year and Gran Reserva for a minimum of three years. In practice, the best Reservas and Gran Reservas are frequently aged for 12 to 15 years. The lush, slightly sweet and fruity notes to be found in Brandy de Jerez come not only from aging in Sherry casks, but also from the judicious use of fruit-based flavor concentrates and oak essence (boise).

Penedès Brandy comes from the Penedès region of Catalonia in the northeast corner of Spain near Barcelona. Modeled after the Cognacs of France and made from a mix of regional grapes and locally-grown Ugni Blanc of Cognac, it is distilled in pot stills. One of the two local producers (Torres) ages in soleras consisting of butts made from French Limousin oak, whereas the other (Mascaro) ages in the standard non-solera manner, but also in Limousin oak. The resulting Brandy is heartier than Cognac, but leaner and drier than Brandy de Jerez.

Italian Brandies

Italy has a long history of Brandy production dating back to at least the 16th century, but unlike Spain or France there are no specific Brandy-producing regions. Italian Brandies are made from regional wine grapes, and most are produced in column stills, although there are now a number of small artisanal producers using pot stills. They are aged in oak for a minimum of one to two years, with six to eight years being the industry average. Italian Brandies tend to be on the light and delicate side with a touch of residual sweetness.

 

Pomace Brandies: Getting to grips with Grappa

Italy produces a substantial amount of Grappa, both of the raw, firewater variety and the more elegant, artisanal efforts that are made from one designated grape type and frequently packaged in hand-blown bottles. Both types of Grappa can be unaged or aged for a few years in old casks that will tame the hard edge of the spirit without imparting much flavor or color. Marc from France is produced in all of the nations wine-producing regions, but is mostly consumed locally. Marc de gewürztraminer from Alsace is particularly noteworthy because it retains some of the distinctive perfumed nose and spicy character of the grape. California pomace Brandies from the United States are broadly in the Italian style and are usually called Grappas, even when they are made from non-Italian grape varieties. This is also true of the pomace Brandies from Canada.

German Brandies

German monks were distilling Brandy by the 14th century and the German distillers had organized their own guild as early as 1588. Yet almost from the start, German Brandy (called weinbrand ) has been made from imported wine rather than the more valuable local varieties. Most German Brandies are produced in pot stills and must be aged for a minimum of six months in oak. Brandies that have been aged in oak for at least one year are called uralt or alter (meaning "older"). The best German Brandies are smooth, somewhat lighter than Cognac, and finish with a touch of sweetness.

United States Brandies

Brandy production in California dates back to the Spanish missions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the years following the Civil War, Brandy became a major industry, with a substantial export trade to Europe by the end of the century. For a time Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, was the worlds largest brandy producer. Phylloxera and National Prohibition almost shut down the industry in the 1920s.

Repeal started things up again, but as with the bourbon industry, the advent of World War II resulted in the brandy producers further marking time. Soon after the end of the war the industry commissioned the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of California at Davis to develop a prototype "California-style" brandy. It had a clean palate, was lighter in style than most European Brandies, and had a flavor profile that made it a good mixer. Starting in the late 1940s, the California brandy producers began to change over to this new style.

Contemporary California Brandies are made primarily in column stills from table grape varieties such as the Thompson Seedless and Flame Tokay, although a handful of small new-generation Cognac-inspired pot distillers, such as Jepson and RMS, are using the classic Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche grapes. California Brandies are aged for two to 12 years in used American oak (both Brandy and Bourbon casks) to limit woodiness in the palate, although the pot distillers also use French oak. Several California distillers, most notably Korbel, have utilized the Spanish solera method of maturing their Brandy. California Brandies do not use quality designations such as V.S.O.P. or stars. The more expensive brands will usually contain a percentage of older vintages and pot-distilled Brandies in the blend.

Latin American Brandies

In Mexico a surprising amount of wine is made, but it is little known outside of the country because most of it is used for Brandy production. Mexican Brandies are made from a mix of grapes, including Thompson Seedless, Palomino, and Ugni Blanc. Both column and pot stills are used in production whereas the solera system is generally used for aging. Brandy now outsells tequila and rum in Mexico.

South American Brandies are generally confined to their domestic markets. The best known type is Pisco, a clear, raw Brandy from Peru and Chile that is made from Muscat grapes and double-distilled in pot stills. The resulting Brandy has a perfumed fragrance and serves as the base for a variety of mixed drinks, including the famous Pisco Sour.

Other Brandies from around the world

Greece produces pot-distilled Brandies, many of which, such as the well-known Metaxa, are flavored with Muscat wine, anise, or other spices. Winemaking in Israel is a well-established tradition dating back thousands of years. But Brandy production dates back only to the 1880s when the French Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild established what has become the modern Israeli wine industry along French lines. Israeli brandy is made in the manner of Cognac from Colombard grapes, with distillation in both pot and column stills and maturation in French Limousin oak casks. In the Caucasus region, along the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the ancient nations of Georgia and Armenia draw on monastic traditions to produce rich, intensely flavored pot still Brandies both from local grapes and from such imported varieties as Muscadine (from France), Sercial and Verdelho (most famously from Madeira). South Africa has produced Brandies since the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in the 17th century, but these early spirits from the Cape Colony earned a reputation for being harsh firewater (witblits, white lightning, was a typical nickname). The introduction of modern production techniques and government regulations in the early 20th century gradually led to an improvement in the quality of local Brandies. Modern South African Brandies are made from Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Chenin Blanc, and Palomino grapes, produced in both pot and column stills, and aged for a minimum of three years in oak.

Apple and Other Fruit Brandies

Normandy is one of the few regions in France that does not have a substantial grape wine industry. Instead it is apple country, with a substantial tradition of producing hard and sweet cider that in turn can be distilled into an Apple Brandy known as Calvados. The local cider apples, which tend to be small and tart, are closer in type to crab apples than to modern table apples. This spirit has its own appellations, with the best brands coming from Appellation Controlee Pays dAuge near the Atlantic seaport of Deauville, and the rest in 10 adjacent regions that are designated Appellation Reglementee. Most Pays dAuge and some of the better Appellation Reglementee are produced in pot stills. All varieties of Calvados are aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years. Cognac-style quality and age terms such as V.S.O.P. and Hors dAge are frequently used on labels, but have no legal meaning. In the United States, Applejack, as Apple Brandy is called locally, is thought by many to be the first spirit produced in the British colonies. This colonial tradition has continued on the East Coast with the Lairds Distillery in New Jersey (established in 1780 and the oldest distillery in America). Apple Brandies that are more like eau-de-vie are produced in California and Oregon.

The fruit-growing regions of the upper Rhine River are the prime eau-de-vie production areas of Europe. The Black Forest region of Baden in Germany, and Alsace in France, are known for their Cherry Brandies (Kirsch in France, Kirschwasser in Germany), Raspberry Brandies (Framboise and Himbeergeist), and Pear Brandies (Poire). Similar eaux-de-vies are now being produced in the United States in California and Oregon. Some Plum Brandy is also made in these regions (Mirabelle from France is an example), but the best known type of Plum Brandy is Slivovitz, which is made from the small blue Sljiva plum throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

 

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