“Claret is liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” – Samuel Johnson
So you understand what different kinds of whiskey are called and why, and you can name the aromatics used in gin without a second thought, but brandy is still a spirit that eludes you. You know that there are brandy-based cocktails, like a sidecar, but if asked you couldn’t tell someone what brandy exactly is, let alone what it’s made out of. If you’re a brandy novice, please follow along, as we drink deep of this lesser-understood spirit, and attempt to suss out just what makes brandy, brandy.
To start: What exactly is brandy? The term can be traced back to our old friends the Dutch, who started making brandewijn, or “burnt wine,” in the 12th century. Distillation, instead of fermentation, had just began to take off as an industry, and so the Dutch began making liquor distilled from wine. Like India Pale Ale, this wine liquor was originally created to better survive the Dutch merchant ship voyages to the many colonies under the country’s control, and it was only with time that liquor began to be appreciated on its own merits. So as we can see, wine or grape brandy was the first form that brandy took. The most famous brandies in the world, like Cognac and Armagnac, are distilled from wine, and there are many traditionalists that would scoff at the notion of brandy being made from anything else. Napoleon was a famous advocate for Cognac; the legend goes that in 1811, the then-Emperor Napoleon I visited the Courvoisier warehouses and was so taken with the product that he decreed French troops would receive a measure of Cognac in their field rations. Another grape brandy you might recognize is pisco, a South American product made in Peru and Chile that has carved out its own little niche of late in the world of cocktails. But most brandy cocktails are made with grape brandy: famous examples include the Sidecar and the Brandy Alexander, and adding a half ounce of Cognac to a glass of Champagne is a painless and delicious,= simple drink.
Another, much lesser-known, style of brandy is pomace brandy. Unlike grape brandy, which is made from wine, pomace brandy is perhaps best described as brandy made from every part of the grape except for the fruit itself. Pomace brandy is typically made with the grape’s skins and seeds, and sometimes they even include the stems. As you can imagine, pomace brandy is a very different beast than grape brandy is, having a more bitter, vegetal, and funky quality that is probably a more acquired taste. You won’t see any pomace brandies being advertised as such; the most famous brandy in this style is undoubtedly Italian grappa, and since there’s a chance you’ve never even heard of grappa, it shows how much smaller of a market there is for pomace brandy.
Outside of grape and pomace brandies, there is the general, broad term fruit brandy to denotate brandy made with pretty much anything else. Fruit brandies are wide-ranging and come in many different styles all over the world: some of the most famous are French apple brandy called Calvados, German cherry brandy called Kirschwasser, American apple brandy called Applejack, and Slivovitz, a plum brandy made in many Eastern European countries like Croatia and Slovakia. This is only a small sampling of the fruit brandies of the world, of course, and you can make brandy out of pretty much anything that ferments, including apricots, raspberries, pears, even unexpected items like walnuts or juniper berries.
As you can see, brandy has a long and storied history, and though these days it’s not as popular as, say, bourbon or rum, it’s an incredibly versatile liquor that can find a place in almost any situation. Let us know in the comments how you like your brandy! Grape or fruit? Are you a grappa aficionado? What brandy cocktails do you prefer?