Whether you sip it in a snifter or mix it into cocktails, brandy is a great distilled spirit to have in your bar. It's produced around the world as Cognac, Armagnac, pisco, and eau-de-vie, from grapes or other types of fruit. Brandy was also one of the most popular spirits used in the first bars, which is why it dominates lists of the best classic cocktails.
The world of brandy is certainly diverse, so let's learn about how it's made and what makes each style of brandy unique.
What Is Brandy?
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. We typically classify these as "flavored brandies" or eau-de-vie.
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 to taste and bottling strength.
The majority of brandies are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof).
Cognac is one of the most famous types of brandy. It is protected by the "Cognac AOC" (appellation d'origine contrôlée, or appellation of origin). 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, or 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 remaining 10 percent. The wine produced from these grapes is high in acid and low in alcohol, which helps give Cognac its attractive flavor.
Cognac is often considered a high-end style of brandy and it can be quite expensive, though there are reasonably priced bottles available. It is most often sipped straight, but it can also be used to create some very impressive cocktails. Try it in a "beautiful" cocktail with Grand Marnier or in the classic Japanese cocktail with orgeat and lime.
Armagnac is another French brandy that is also 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 that must be used to make this style of brandy.
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.
Most people find that Armagnac is too strongly flavored for cocktails. It also tends to be quite pricey, though you can find some decent $40 bottles.
For these reasons, it's most often enjoyed straight. However, that doesn't mean you can't mix Armagnac; you simply want to find cocktail recipes that do this elegant brandy justice. One of those is the classic D'Artagnan cocktail, which mixes it with Grand Marnier, orange juice, simple syrup, and champagne.
From the Andalusian region of Spain, Spanish brandy was originally developed for medicinal purposes. Spanish brandy 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. They're perfect for mixing into your favorite brandy cocktails.
Pisco is a brandy from South America that is primarily made in Peru and Chile. It has gained a new popularity as it recently expanded to a worldwide market. If you have not tried a cocktail made with this brandy, you're missing out on some fabulous drinks. The pisco sour is the best known, though bartenders are exploring it in modern recipes, such as the autumn leaves.
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 to 50 percent alcohol by volume (60 to 100 proof).
A number of brandies are produced in the United States and other countries in the world. These are simply called "brandy" because there are no designations like the French or Spanish brandies.
Traditionally, most American brandies were produced on the West Coast from the grapes grown in the famous winemaking regions. This is changing, however, as more craft distillers begin producing some great brandies, often from locally grown grapes. Just as local wineries have expanded over the last decades, so has American-made brandy.
While less expensive brands tend to be overly sweet, there are many quality American brands available. There are no regulations as to the grapes used in these brandies so the differences between brands can vary greatly. The one thing they have in common is that they can be used in any cocktail that calls for brandy.
As mentioned, brandy can be made from any fermented fruit juice. Each of these "flavored brandies" has their own unique taste. Apple, apricot, cherry, and peach brandies are popular for many classic cocktails like the star cocktail and Charlie Chaplin cocktail.
You do need to be careful with these flavored brandies, however. It has been common practice for brands to add sweeteners and other additives to these brandies. This makes them more like a liqueur rather than a true brandy, which would be distilled directly from the fruit and contain no sweeteners. They're not necessarily bad, but it is good to read the labels so you know what you're buying.
Other flavored varieties include ouzo (a Greek brandy with an anise base), kirschwasser (a delicious cherry brandy), and Calvados (an apple specialty from Normandy). Applejack is often made with a blend of apple brandy, and Laird's Applejack is one of the top brands.
Eau-de-vie is a French term for fruit brandy and 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 schnapps and, technically, most of the 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 typically served chilled as a digestif and is used as a base spirit for liqueurs such as Domaine de Canton and St. Germain.
Grappa literally means "grape stalk." It originated in Italy as a way to reduce the amount of waste produced when making wine.
It is made by fermenting and distilling the pomace, or left-over grape skins, stems, and seeds, and is typically unaged. Grappa is often clear, but some distillers will age it, which will give it a yellow or reddish hue (depending on the type of barrel used).
Reading Brandy Labels
Traditional brandy has a rating system to describe its quality and condition. 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: These are too old to determine the age.