Brandy (from brandywine, derived from Dutch brandewijn—”burnt wine”) is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Brandy generally contains 35–60% alcohol by volume (70–120 US proof) and is typically taken as an after-dinner drink. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, while some are simply coloured with caramel colouring to imitate the effect of such aging (and some brandies are produced using a combination of both aging and colouring).
Brandy is also produced from fermented fruits other than grapes, but these products are typically named eaux-de-vie.
In some countries, fruit flavouring or some other flavouring may be added to a spirit that is called “brandy”.
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.
It is unknown when people discovered that food could be converted to alcohol through fermentation. It appears that the discovery of fermentation occurred simultaneously with the rise of the first civilizations, which may not be a coincidence. At about the same time that people in Europe discovered that apple and grape juice—both containing fructose—would ferment into hard cider and wine, people in the Middle East discovered that grains—which contain maltose—would naturally ferment into beer, and people in Asia discovered that horse milk—containing lactose—would naturally ferment into airag. The first distilled liquor may in fact have been horse milk brandy, with the alcohol separated from fermented horses’ milk by freezing out the water during the harsh Mongolian winter.
It is also not known when it was discovered that the alcohol in fermented liquids could be concentrated by heat distillation. Distilled spirits were made in India as long ago as 800 B.C. The Arabic scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as Geber in the West, described distillation in detail in the eighth century. Regardless of its origin, alcohol was immensely important in the ancient world. In Latin, brandy is known as aqua vitae, which translates as “water of life.” The French still refer to brandy as eau de vie meaning exactly the same thing. The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic phrase uisge beatha also meaning water of life. People in the Middle Ages attributed magical, medicinal properties to distilled spirits, recommending it as a cure for almost every health problem.
The raw materials used in brandy production are liquids that contain any form of sugar. French brandies are made from the wine of the St. Émillion, Colombard (or Folle Blanche) grapes. However, anything that will ferment can be distilled and turned into a brandy. Grapes, apples, blackberries, sugar cane, honey, milk, rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, and rye are all commonly fermented and distilled. In a time of shortage, desperate people will substitute anything to have access to alcohol. During World War II, people in London made wine out of cabbage leaves and carrot peels, which they subsequently distilled to produce what must have been a truly vile form of brandy.
Heat, used to warm the stills, is the other main raw material required for brandy production. In France, the stills are usually heated with natural gas. During the Middle Ages it would have required about 20 ft 4 of wood (0.6 m 4 ) to produce 25 gal (100 l) of brandy.
The Manufacturing Process
The fine brandy maker’s objective is to capture the alcohol and agreeable aromas of the underlying fruit, and leave all of the off-tastes and bitter chemicals behind in the waste water. Making fine brandy is an art that balances the requirement to remove the undesirable flavors with the necessity of preserving the character of the underlying fruit. Mass-produced brandies can be made out of anything as the intent of the people is to remove all of the flavors, both good or bad, and produce nothing but alcohol—taste is added later. Fine brandies are required to retain the concentrated flavor of the underlying fruit.
The Eighteenth Amendment made it a crime to make, sell, transport, import, or export liquor. It is the only amendment to be repealed by another (the Twenty-first). The Prohibition era (1920-1933) had been a long time in coming. From the mid-nineteenth century through the beginning of World War I, a growing movement demanded a prohibition on alcohol. When members of Congress finally bowed to pressure from prohibition supporters and passed a constitutional amendment, many did so under the belief that it would not be endorsed by the states. In fact, a clause was added to make it more likely not be sanctioned: if three-quarters of the states did not ratify the amendment before seven years had expired, it would be deemed inoperative.
The amendment was passed by Congress in December 1917 and ratified by three-quarters of the states by January 1919. The popularity of the amendment disappeared soon after it was put into effect. The Volstead Act of 1919 banned beer and wine, something few people had anticipated, and in the minds of many Prohibition became a mistake. Crime rose as gangsters took advantage of the ban on alcohol by making huge profits in bootlegging and smuggling. When Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for president in 1932, he called for the repeal of Prohibition. His opponent, President Herbert Hoover, called it “an experiment noble in motive.” Roosevelt won the election and his Democratic party won control of the government. Within months the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.
- The first step in making fine brandies is to allow the fruit juice (typically grape) to ferment. This usually means placing the juice, or must as it is known in the distilling trade, in a large vat at 68-77°F (20-25°C) and leaving it for five days. During this period, natural yeast present in the distillery environment will ferment the sugar present in the must into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The white wine grapes used for most fine brandy usually ferment to an alcohol content of around 10%.
- Fine brandies are always made in small batches using pot stills. A pot still is simply a large pot, usually made out of copper, with a bulbous top.
- The pot still is heated to the point where the fermented liquid reaches the boiling point of alcohol. The alcohol vapors, which contain a large amount of water vapor, rise in the still into the bulbous top.
- The vapors are funneled from the pot still through a bent pipe to a condenser where the vapors are chilled, condensing the vapors back to a liquid with a much higher alcohol content. The purpose of the bulbous top and bent pipe is to allow undesirable compounds to condense and fall back into the still. Thus, these elements do not end up in the final product.
- Most fine brandy makers double distill their brandy, meaning they concentrate the alcohol twice. It takes about 9 gal (34 1) of wine to make I gal (3.8 1) of brandy. After the first distillation, which takes about eight hours, 3,500 gal (13,249 1) of wine have been converted to about 1,200 gal (4,542 1) of concentrated liquid (not yet brandy) with an alcohol content of 26-32%. The French limit the second distillation (la bonne chauffe) to batches of 660 gal (2,498 1). The product of the second distillation has an alcohol content of around 72%. The higher the alcohol content the more neutral (tasteless) the brandy will be. The lower the alcohol content, the more of the underlying flavors will remain in the brandy, but there is a much greater chance that off flavors will also make their way into the final product.
- The brandy is not yet ready to drink after the second distillation. It must first be placed in oak casks and allowed to age, an important step in the production process. Most brandy consumed today, even fine brandy, is less than six years old. However, some fine brandies are more than 50 years old. As the brandy ages, it absorbs flavors from the oak while its own structure softens, becoming less astringent. Through evaporation, brandy will lose about 1% of its alcohol per year for the first 50 years or so it is “on oak.”
- Fine brandy can be ready for bottling after two years, some after six years, and some not for decades. Some French cognacs are alleged to be from the time of Napoleon. However, these claims are unlikely to be true. A ploy used by the cognac makers is to continually remove 90% of the cognac from an old barrel and then refill it with younger brandy. It does not take many repetitions of this tactic to dilute any trace of the Napoleonic-age brandy.
- Fine brandies are usually blended from many different barrels over a number of vintages. Some cognacs can contain brandy from up to a 100 different barrels. Because most brandies have not spent 50 years in the barrel, which would naturally reduce their alcohol contents to the traditional 40%, the blends are diluted with distilled water until they reach the proper alcohol content. Sugar, to simulate age in young brandies, is added along with a little caramel to obtain a uniform color consistency across the entire production run. The resulting product can cost anywhere from $25 to $500 or even more for very rare brandy.
- Mass-produced brandy, other than having the same alcohol content, has very little in common with fine brandy. Both start with wine, though the mass-produced brandies are likely to be made from table grape varieties like the Thompson Seedless rather than from fine wine grapes. Instead of the painstaking double distillation in small batches, mass-produced brandies are made via fractional distillation in column stills. Column stills are sometimes called continuous stills as raw material is continuously poured into the top while the final product and wastes continuously come out of the side and bottom.
- A column still is about 30-ft (9-m) high and contains a series of horizontal, hollow baffles that are interconnected. Hot wine is poured into the top of the column while steam is run through the hollow baffles; the steam and wine do not mix directly. The alcohol and other low boiling point liquids in the wine evaporate. The vapors rise while the non-alcoholic liquids fall. As the still is cooler at the top, the rising vapors eventually get to a part of the still where they will condense, each type of vapor at a temperature just above its own boiling point.
- Once they have recondensed, the liquids begin to move downward in the still. As they fall, they boil again. This process of boiling and condensing, rising and falling, happens over and over again in the column. The various components of the wine fraction and collect in the column where the temperature is just below the boiling point of that component. This allows the ethyl alcohol condensate to be bled out of the column at the height where it collects. The resulting product is a pure spirit, colorless, odorless, and tasteless, with an alcohol content of about 96.5%. At 96.5% alcohol, it can be used to fuel automobiles. It can be diluted and called vodka or diluted and flavored with juniper berries and called gin.
- Mass-produced brandies are also aged in oak casks and pick up some flavors from them. Like its fine counterpart, the brandies are blended, diluted to around 40% alcohol, and bottled.
The quality control process for fine brandies involves trained tasters with years of experience sampling brandy. A large cognac house might have 10,000 barrels of brandy in its cellars, each of which must be tasted annually. Hence, most of the brandy “tasting” involves only smelling, as tasting several hundred barrels of brandy in a day would result in alcohol poisoning. The tasters usually “taste” each of the barrels at least once a year to assess how it is aging and to evaluate it for its blending qualities. Brandies that pick up off-flavors during distillation are discarded.
As mass-produced brandies are manufactured to be odorless and tasteless, the only real quality control required is to check their alcohol content. Because alcohol is less dense than water, the alcohol content of brandy can be checked with a hydrometer. A hydrometer is a glass float with a rod sticking out the top of it. The rod is calibrated so that a line on the rod will be exactly at the liquid surface if the hydrometer is floating in water. As alcohol is less dense than water, the hydrometer will sink deeper in alcohol than it will in water. By calibrating the rod scale with different blends of known alcohol content, it can be used to determine the percentage of alcohol in a water/alcohol mixture.
The waste products from brandy production include the solids from the wine production and the liquids left over from the still. The solids from brandy production can be used for animal feed or be composted. The liquid wastes are usually allowed to evaporate in shallow ponds. This allows the residual alcohol in the waste to go into the atmosphere, but the United States Environmental Protection Agency does not consider this to be a major pollutant source.
For the foreseeable future, the vast bulk of all the brandies will be produced in column stills. However, there is an increasing interest in luxury goods throughout the world. Not just fine brandies, but Calvados (fine apple brandy) and slivovitz (fine plum brandy) are getting increasing amounts of attention from collectors and ordinary citizens.
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.
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.
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 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 Bavaria in Germany, and Alsace in France, are known for their Cherry Brandies (Kir 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.
Types of Brandy
There are three main types of brandy. The term “brandy” denotes grape brandy if the type is not otherwise specified.
Grape brandy is produced by the distillation of fermented grapes.
- Albanian grape brandy (Rakı e Rushi) is the most popular and traditional alcoholic beverage in Albania and the Albanian regions of Eastern Montenegro.
- American grape brandy is almost always from California. Popular brands include Christian Brothers and Korbel.
- Armenian brandy has been produced since the 1880s and comes from the Ararat plain in the southern part of Armenia. Bottles on the market are aged anywhere from 3 to 20 years.
- Armagnac is made from grapes of the Armagnac region in Southwest of France (Gers, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne). It is single-continuous distilled in a copper still and aged in oak casks from Gascony or Limousin. Armagnac was the first distilled spirit in France. Armagnacs have a specificity: they offer vintage qualities. Popular brands are Darroze, Baron de Sigognac, Larressingle, Delord, Laubade, Gélas and Janneau.
- Metaxa, the first alcoholic drink consumed in space, is a Greek distilled spirit invented by Spyros Metaxas in 1888, continuing the tradition of making distilled wines since the Classical antiquity. Mature distillates (of 3 to up to 80 years old) made from sun-dried Savatiano, Sultana and Black Corinth grape varieties are blended with an aged Muscat wine from the Greek islands of Samos and Lemnos. In its “12 stars dry” and “Grand Reserve” varieties, there is no addition of Muscat wine. Metaxa range include the 3 stars, 5 stars, 7 stars, 12 stars, 12 stars Grand Olympian Reserve (dry), Private Reserve (with distillates aged for at least 30 years) varieties and METAXA AEN, with distillates aged for 80 years from the cask No1 of Spyros Metaxas. The number of stars represents the number of years the blend is matured. Metaxa cellars are in Kifissia, an affluent suburb of Athens, Greece. Metaxa was considered in the past a ‘cognac’, however only brandies from the Cognac region in France can be called cognacs. Metaxa was a sponsor of major sports events in the past including the World Cup and FA Cup. Metaxa is exported to over 60 countries and is the most popular brandy in travel retail worldwide.
- Cognac comes from the Cognac region in France, and is double distilled using pot stills. Popular brands include Hine, Martell, Camus, Otard, Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Frapin, Delamain and Courvoisier.
- Brandy de Jerez is a brandy that originates from vineyards around Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. It is used in some sherries and is also available as a separate product. It has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The traditional production method has three characteristics:
- Aged in European oak casks with a capacity of 500 litres (132 US gal; 110 imp gal), previously having contained sherry.
- The use of the traditional aging system of Criaderas and Soleras.
- Aged exclusively within the municipal boundaries of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the province of Cádiz.
- Pisco is a strong, colorless brandy that comes from Ica Region in Perumade of aromatic and non-aromatic grapes. Chile produces Chilean Pisco which is yellowish-to-amber colored brandy.
- Portugal: Lourinhã, located in western Portugal, is one of the few brandy-making areas, besides Cognac, Armagnac and Jerez, that have received appellation status.
- South African grape brandies are, by law, made almost exactly as in Cognac, using a double-distillation process in copper pot stills followed by aging in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Because of this, South African brandies are of a very high quality.
- Cyprus brandy differs from other varieties in that its alcohol concentration is only 32% ABV (64 US proof).
- Bejois Brandy is a make of grape brandy produced in India and most popular in the southern states.
- Other countries: Grape brandy is also produced in many other countries, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine.
The European Union and some other countries legally enforce the use of the name Cognac as the exclusive name for brandy produced and distilled in the Cognac area of France and the name Armagnac for brandy from the Gascony area of France, made using traditional techniques. Since these are considered PDO, they refer not just to styles of brandy but brandies from a specific region, i.e. a brandy made in California in a manner identical to the method used to make Cognac and which tastes similar to Cognac, cannot be called Cognac in places that restrict the use of that term to products made in the Cognac region of France (such places include Europe, the United States and Canada).
Fruit brandies are distilled from fruits other than grapes. Apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, elderberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are the most commonly used fruits. Fruit brandy usually contains 40% to 45% ABV (80 to 90 US proof). It is often colourless. Fruit brandy is customarily drunk chilled or over ice, but is occasionally mixed (for example, blackberry brandy and Coca-Cola are mixed to make a popular New England drink called “the blackbird”).
- Applejack is an American apple brandy, made from the distillation of hard cider. It was once made by fractional freezing, which would disqualify it as a proper brandy.
- Buchu brandy is South African and flavoured with extracts from Agathosma species.
- Calvados is an apple brandy from the French region of Lower Normandy. It is double distilled from fermented apples.
- Damassine is a prune (the fruit of the Damassinier tree) brandy from the Jura Mountains of Switzerland
- Coconut brandy is a brandy made from the sap of coconut flowers.
- Eau de vie is a French term for colorless fruit brandy. However, this term is also applied to grape-based brandy other than armagnac and cognac.
- German Schnaps is fruit brandy produced in Germany or Austria.
- Kirschwasser is a fruit brandy made from cherries.
- Kukumakranka brandy is South African and flavoured with the ripe fruit of the Kukumakranka.
- Pálenka or “Pálené” made with and fruit whose native name ends in -ica, is a common traditional description for Slovak brandy. It only can be distilled from fruits (wild or domestic) from Slovakia.
- Pálinka is a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. It can only be made of fruits from Hungary, such as plums, apricots, peaches, elderberries, pears, apples or cherries.
- Poire Williams is made from the Williams pear (also known as the Bartlett pear).
- Rakia is a type of fruit brandy produced in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia; it may be made from plums, apples, quinces, pears, apricots, cherries, mulberries, grapes, or walnuts.
- Slivovice is a strong fruit brandy made from plums. It is produced in Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
- Țuică is a clear Romanian fruit brandy made from plums, apples, pears, apricots, mulberries, peaches, quinces, or mixtures of these. Romania and Moldova also produce a grape brandy called vinars (burnt wine) or divin.
Pomace brandy (also called marc in both English and French) is produced by fermentation and distillation of the grape skins, seeds, and stems that remain after grapes have been pressed to extract their juice (which is then used to make wine). Most pomace brandies are neither aged nor coloured.
Brandy has a traditional quality rating system, although its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac. These indicators can usually be found on the label near the brand name:
- 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, although ten years plus is typical, and are usually of great quality.
In the case of Brandy de Jerez, the ConsejoRegulador de la Denominacion Brandy de Jerez classifies it according to:
- Brandy de Jerez Solera – 1 year old.
- Brandy de Jerez SoleraReserva – 3 years old.
- Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva – 10 years old.