What Is Brandy?

Production, Types, and Recipes

Snifters of brandy

A_Pobedimskiy / Getty Images

Brandy is a distilled spirit produced from fermented fruit juice. Most often, the fruit is grapes—making brandy distilled wine—though apple, apricot, peach, and other fruits can be used to make brandy. It's produced around the world as Cognac, Armagnac, pisco, eau-de-vie, and other styles. Brandy was also one of the most popular spirits used in the first bars, which is why it's found in the best classic cocktails. Today, drinkers in Brazil, Germany, India, Russia, and the Philippines drink the most brandy, though it's enjoyed worldwide.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Grapes (or other fruit)
  • Proof: 80–100
  • ABV: 40–50%
  • Calories in a shot: 69
  • Origin: France, Spain, Italy, U.S., South America
  • Taste: Fruity, semi-sweet
  • Aged: Unaged or from 2 to 30 years
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, cocktails, shots

What Is Brandy Made From?

Brandy derives its name from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning "burned wine." It is a liquor distilled from wine or other fermented fruit juices. Standard brandy is made from grapes, just like wine. However, it can be made with other fruits, including apples, apricots, and cherries. These are typically classified as "flavored brandies" or eau-de-vie. Brandy is produced throughout the world and some regions are known for producing specific styles of brandy.

While the process to make brandy varies from one variety and distillery to another, there are four basic steps in its production. First, the fruit is fermented into wine, which is then distilled into alcohol. Once the distillation process is complete, the aging process begins. This step is the key to differentiating both the quality and variety of the brandy. The final step is to blend the liquor with other barrels of brandy and water to taste and bottling strength. The majority of brandies are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof).

Brandy
The Spruce / Marina Li

What Does Brandy Taste Like?

In general, brandy is sweet and fruity. It's not a syrupy sweetness but is instead subtly sweet. Brandy has the alcohol punch and oak nuances of whiskey mixed with the softness of sweet wine. The more age a brandy is, the more mellow and oaky its flavor. Additionally, fruit brandies and particular styles will have different flavors from standard grape-based brandy.

Types

There are a variety of brandy styles. Beyond those that are simply brandy (made from grapes), there are special designations based on where it's produced and particular methods employed to make the brandy.

Cognac is often considered a high-end style and it can be quite expensive, though there are reasonably priced bottles available. It is protected by the Cognac AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée, or appellation of origin) and, by law, it can only be produced in the Cognac region of France. Cognac's AOC mimics that of famous French wines, such as Champagne and Bordeaux. It was first established in 1909 and modified twice in the 1930s until it reached its current form in 1938. This further refined the area of production and the terroir (growing areas for the grapes), as well as the distinct two-stage distillation method.

Cognac must be made of 90 percent ugni blanc, folle blanche, and/or colombard grapes. Another list of approved grapes can make up the remainder. The wine produced from these grapes is high in acid and low in alcohol, which helps give Cognac its attractive flavor.

Armagnac is another French brandy that is protected by an AOC. It is produced in the Armagnac region of Gascony in the southwest of France. Just like Cognac, there are guidelines for grape varietals and production methods. For example, Limousin and Troncais oak are used for the casks in which Armagnac is aged. These types of wood are essential to the spirit's strong flavor and, other than the region, help distinguish it from Cognac. Some Armagnac spends up to 30 years in the barrel, though the minimum is one year.

Spanish Brandy comes from the Andalusian region of Spain and was originally developed for medicinal purposes. It is more often called brandy de Jerez and it uses the solera system of adding young spirits to older barrels during aging. These brandies tend to be sweeter and have a fuller flavor than other brandies.

Pisco is a brandy from South America and is primarily made in Peru and Chile. There are four styles of pisco, determined by the grapes used: pisco puro, pisco aromatico, pisco acholado, and pisco mosto verde. It tends to be bottled at a higher proof than other brandies, ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent ABV (60 to 100 proof).

American brandy is most often simply called "brandy." Like other countries in the world, a number of brandies are produced in the United States and there are no special designations like the French and Spanish brandies.

Traditionally, most American brandies were produced on the West Coast from the grapes grown in the famous winemaking regions. This is changing as more craft distillers are producing some great brandies, often from locally grown grapes. Just as local wineries have expanded over the last decades, so has American-made brandy.

Eau-de-vie is a French term for fruit brandy that translates to "water of life." The fruit flavor is typically very light and the spirit is clear, colorless, and unaged. It's often compared to a traditional German schnapps and, technically, most flavored brandies are eau-de-vie.

Eau-de-vie can be made from a variety of fruit. The most common are apple (de pomme), pear (de poire), peach (de peche), pomace (marc), and yellow plum (de mirabelle). It is also used as a base spirit to create sweet, flavored liqueurs.

Flavored brandy is a broad category because brandy can be made from any fermented fruit juice. Apple, apricot, cherry, and peach brandies are the most popular and are made throughout the world. Other flavored varieties include ouzo (a Greek brandy with an anise base), kirschwasser (a German cherry brandy), and calvados (an apple specialty from Normandy). Applejack is often made with a blend of apple brandy; Laird's Applejack is one of the top brands.

You need to be careful with flavored brandies. It has been common practice for brands to add sweeteners and other additives, making them more like a liqueur. A true brandy is distilled directly from the fruit and contains no sweeteners. The sweetened options are not necessarily bad, but it is good to read the labels so you know what you're buying.

Grappa literally means "grape stalk." It originated in Italy as a way to reduce the amount of waste produced when making wine. Grappa is made by fermenting and distilling the pomace (left-over grape skins, stems, and seeds) and is typically clear and unaged. Some distillers will age it, which gives it a yellow or reddish hue, depending on the type of barrel used.

How to Drink Brandy

Most brandy can be enjoyed straight or on the rocks. It's common to enjoy it in a brandy snifter, a specialized glass with an oversized bowl that captures the aroma above a shot of room temperature brandy. Well-aged and higher-end brandies, Cognac, and Armagnac are particularly suited to sipping straight in that manner. Nearly all brandies, including eau-de-vie (chilled) and grappa, make a nice digestif to enjoy after dinner. Grappa is also commonly served in or alongside hot espresso in Italy.

Brandy is also an excellent cocktail ingredient. It is one of the most common base spirits for classic cocktails in which it's often dressed up lightly with just a few other ingredients. Sangria and mulled wines are some of the more elaborate mixes that may include brandy. You'll find many old recipes that feature apple, apricot, cherry, and peach brandies as well. Spanish brandy is a great cocktail ingredient and pisco is finding its way into a number of drink recipes as well.

Cocktail Recipes

Brandy cocktails are plentiful. From classic recipes to modern creations, stocking a good bottle of brandy in your bar means you'll have many elegant and intriguing drinks to enjoy.

Popular Brands

Brandy is such an expansive category of liquor that you can find an unlimited number of brands to explore. It can be quite expensive or reasonably priced. Many brands offer multiple expressions, from rather young to very well-aged brandies as well as various fruit brandies. There are a few big names that stand out from the crowd and should be relatively easy to find at liquor stores.

  • Christian Brothers
  • Courvoisier
  • Hennessy
  • Korbel
  • Martell
  • Paul Masson
  • Rémy Martin
  • Torres

Reading Brandy Labels

Traditional brandy has a rating system to describe its quality and age. These indicators can usually be found near the brand name on the label.

  • A.C.: Aged two years in wood
  • V.S.: "Very Special" or 3-star; aged at least three years in wood
  • V.S.O.P.: "Very Superior Old Pale" or 5-star; aged at least five years in wood
  • X.O.: "Extra Old," Napoleon, or Vieille Reserve; aged at least six years, Napoleon at least four years
  • Vintage: Stored in the cask until the time it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date
  • Hors D'age: Too old to determine the age

Cooking With Brandy

In food, brandy is often used similar to a cooking wine. Brandy is added to savory and sweet sauces and incorporated into desserts. It's also used to make brandied fruit.