Brandy is a distilled spirit produced from fermented fruit. Grapes are most common (essentially making brandy distilled wine), though brandies are also derived from apples, apricots, peaches, and other fruits. Brandy can be made anywhere in the world, and there are regional styles like cognac, Armagnac, grappa, and pisco. Often enjoyed straight, brandy is the foundation of several classic cocktails, and drinkers in Brazil, Germany, India, Russia, and the Philippines drink the most brandy today.
- Ingredients: Grapes or other fruit
- Proof: 80–100
- ABV: 40–50%
- Calories in a 1 1/2-ounce shot: 97
- 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 fermented fruit juice, pulp, or pomace (the remnants of grape wine production). Traditional brandy is made from grapes. Other fruits fall into two categories: pome brandy comes from fruits like apples and pears, while stone fruit brandies use apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums.
There are no global regulations regarding brandy production, though some regions are known for a specific style that must meet certain standards. While the process to make brandy varies from one variety and distillery to another, there are four basic steps in its production:
- The fruit is fermented into wine by introducing yeast to the fruit mash, which converts the natural sugars into alcohol.
- The wine is distilled into a strong, concentrated alcohol. Copper pot stills are traditional and very common, though some distillers use continuous column stills.
- Brandy's often aged in wood barrels (French and American oak are typical) for at least a few years or up to 30 years. In the barrels, the clear distillate mellows, picks up oak flavors, and develops an amber color. Unaged brandies are typically classified as eau-de-vie; some may rest in stainless steel tanks or a similar vessel for a short time to mellow.
- The final step is to blend several barrels of brandy and water to reach the desired taste and bottling strength.
The majority of brandies are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof).
What Does Brandy Taste Like?
In general, brandy is sweet and fruity. It has the alcohol punch and oak nuances of whiskey mixed with the softness of sweet wine. The longer a brandy is aged, the more mellow and oaky its flavor becomes. Additionally, other fruit brandies and particular styles will have different flavors from standard grape-based brandy.
Beyond those that are simply brandy (made from grapes), there are several styles of brandy. These special designations are based on where it's produced and particular methods employed to make the brandy.
- Cognac: Among the finest brandies, cognac 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 from particular grape varietals, 90 percent of which must be ugni blanc, folle blanche, and/or colombard grapes. Among other standards, cognac is distilled twice in small copper pots and aged in wood barrels for at least two years, with designations (e.g., VS, VSOP, etc.) indicating a particular cognac's age.
- Armagnac: The other high-end French brandy, Armagnac is also protected by an AOC that limits production to the Armagnac region of Gascony in southwest France. The guidelines restrict it to 10 grape varietals from vineyards in three terroirs. It is distilled at a low strength that produces rich flavor compounds, most often in a continuous alambic Armagnacais still, though some are distilled twice in pot stills. Like cognac, an Armagnac's label has ratings that denote its age.
- Brandy de Jerez: This particular style of Spanish brandy can be distilled anywhere in Spain but must be aged in the southern Jerez region. Most use the solera system during aging; younger spirits are added to older barrels, and a portion is drained off before more brandy is added. This process results in sweeter brandy with a more complex flavor.
- Pisco: A style of South American brandy, pisco is primarily made in Peru and Chile. There are four styles of pisco, determined by the grapes used. Peruvian pisco is unaged, and Chilean pisco is often aged. It also tends to be stronger than other brandies, ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent ABV (60 to 100 proof).
- American Brandy: Often simply called "brandy," the United States has no special brandy designations or regulations. It's common for American brandy to be made by wineries or in winemaking regions. For years, production was centered on the West Coast, though more craft distillers throughout the country are also taking on brandy, quite often from locally grown grapes.
- Eau-de-vie: This French term for fruit brandy translates to "water of life." The fruit flavor is typically very light, and the spirit is clear and unaged. It's often compared to traditional German schnapps and can be made from a variety of fruit. The most common are apple (de pomme), pear (de poire), peach (de peche), pomace (de marc), and yellow plum (de mirabelle). It is also used as a base spirit to create sweet, flavored liqueurs.
- Grappa: Similar to the French eau-de-vie de marc, Italy's grappa (literally "grape stalk") originated as a way to reduce the 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 red hue, depending on the type of barrel used.
- Flavored Brandy: This is a broad category because brandy can be made from any fermentable fruit. Globally, apple, apricot, cherry, and peach brandies are the most popular. Other flavored varieties include ouzo (a Greek anise-flavored brandy), kirschwasser (a German cherry brandy), and Calvados (an apple specialty from Normandy, France). Applejack is often a blend of neutral spirit and apple brandy; Laird's Applejack is one of the top brands.
A Word About Flavored Brandies
There are two types of flavored brandy on the market today. A true brandy is distilled directly from the fruit and contains no sweeteners. It's also common for some brands to add sweeteners and other additives to flavored brandy, making them more like a liqueur. The sweetened options are typically bottled around 35 percent ABV (70 proof), and they are good substitutes for liqueurs (i.e., use peach brandy rather than peach schnapps). When shopping, read the labels and look for extra ingredients to know what you're buying and how to use them in mixed drinks. With older cocktail recipes designed for true apple or apricot brandy, for instance, you may need to reduce the drink's sweetener.
How to Drink Brandy
Brandy is often enjoyed straight. Well-aged and higher-end brandies, cognac, and Armagnac are particularly well-suited to sipping from a brandy snifter. The specialized glass with an oversized bowl wonderfully captures the aroma of room-temperature brandy and makes the experience more enjoyable. Nearly all brandies, including chilled eau-de-vie and room-temp grappa, make a nice digestif to enjoy after dinner. Grappa is also commonly served in or alongside hot espresso in Italy.
Brandy is an excellent cocktail ingredient. It is one of the most common base spirits for classic cocktails and it's often lightly enhanced with just a few other ingredients. Sangria and mulled wines are some of the more elaborate mixes that traditionally include brandy. You'll find many old recipes that feature apple, apricot, cherry, and peach brandies as well. Spanish brandy works well in mixed drinks, and pisco is famously used in a pisco sour but finding its way into a number of modern drink recipes as well.
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.
Brandy is an expansive liquor category, and you can find an unlimited number of brands to explore at all price ranges. Many brands offer multiple expressions, from relatively young to very well-aged brandies and various fruit brandies. A few big names stand out from the crowd and should be fairly easy to find at liquor stores.
Reading Brandy Labels
Traditional brandy has a rating system to describe its quality and age. These indicators are most often used for French brandies and typically near the brand name on the label. The star rating is older and generally no longer used but sometimes referenced for comparisons. American brandy can carry these designations without minimum requirements.
- VS: "Very Special" or 3-star. For cognac, the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least three years in wood; for Armagnac, the minimum is one year.
- VSOP: "Very Superior Old Pale" or 5-star. Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados must be aged at least four years in oak.
- Napoleon: Used for some French brandies aged in wood for at least six years.
- XO: "Extra Old." Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados must be aged at least ten years.
- Hors d'age: Traditionally used for brandy too old to determine the age. Today, it's used for cognac and Calvados at least six years old, and Armagnac that's 10 years old. Brandies with this label typically exceed the minimum by several years.
- Vintage: Designates brandy stored in the cask until it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date.
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.