How Is Brandy Made?

“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?

Review: Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask Cognac

The latest from Pierre Ferrand is Reserve Double Cask — not to be confused with Pierre Ferrand Reserve Cognac — which is finished for a year in Banyuls wine casks, the fortified wine that is France’s answer to Port. Some additional detail from the distillery:

Long ago, Cognac producers used a variety of casks to create a fascinating range of taste and complexity. Crafted in the innovative but methodical manner that is Alexandre Gabriel’s hallmark, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask single-handedly revives one of the vanished traditions of Cognac: maturing the spirit in different types of casks to enrich flavor and deepen complexity. With this lost tradition in mind, Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask is made of Cognac that has been matured 7 to 10 years in small oak barrels kept in seven different aging cellars (some dry, some humid), which is then blended with 20 year old Cognac. Once blended, the Cognac is placed in rare Banyuls casks and aged in one of Pierre Ferrand’s humid cellars for one year.

The brandy is extremely fruit forward on the nose, with some toasty wood notes alongside classic brandy notes of raisin and incense. The palate continues the theme, with an attack of fresh fruit, apricots, lemon, and green apple. Soon after the initial fruit rush comes the spicier and more savory notes — dusky wood, dried fig, cloves, and some licorice. The finish is heavy on baked apple notes, though there’s a bit of a camphor character that bubbles up here too. While none of this is particularly reminiscent of Banyuls (or any other sweet red dessert wine), it is nonetheless and engaging and approachable spirit that’s definitely worth exploring.

84.6 proof.

B+ / $80 / maisonferrand.com

Review: D’usse Cognac XO

I didn’t find much to love in D’usse’s inaugural Cognac, a VSOP, but this upscale update, an XO, has a whole lot more to recommend. All the eaux de vie in the finished product are at least 10 years old — and the black bottle is arguably even cooler than the one used for the VSOP.

The nose is incredibly sultry and aromatic, offering aromas of dark wood, cinnamon sticks, cloves, currants, and a sharp coffee note that lingers for awhile. Fruit is dialed back in favor of duskier notes, spices and toasty wood being the primary elements. On the palate, the coffee and cinnamon meld into a mocha character, quite chocolate-heavy with overtones of toffee, coconut, and a lingering note of burnt sugar and torched banana.

Well-rounded and full of character, this is a Cognac that plays down fruit in favor of more dessert-focused notes — emphasizing the more exotic elements of brandy instead of the lithe sweetness this spirit can often exhibit. It’s a change of pace from what most Cognac fans will be familiar with, but it’s definitively worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $230 / dusse.com

Review: Martell VS Single Distillery Cognac

Ready for something new in the world of Cognac? Check out this new idea from the House of Martell. Allow them to explain:

The iconic House of Martell unveils Martell VS Single Distillery, a cognac from a sole distillation source, offering an exclusive new profile to the Martell family of expressions.  This innovative blend unites eaux-de-vie from a single distillery, drawing the same sensorial profile and flavor characteristics for a richer expression of the Martell style. The eaux-de-vie come together in perfect harmony, resulting in an even smoother cognac with an elegant, fruitier profile.

So, in a nutshell, it brings the single malt whisky idea to France, with all the brandy in the bottle coming from a single distillery.

I feel like this experiment would be more intriguing if the brandy was allowed to age a bit more. The nose initially shows the hallmarks of youthful brandy — too much alcohol, some granary character, a little too much wood. The palate finds things softening up, with ample fruit — apple and some citrus — showing itself, along with some traditional raisin and gingerbread notes. That said, it still feels rustic, its various flavors never coming together quite perfectly.

That said, there’s still a lot to like here, and as it opens up with air time, its charms start to deepen, revealing some interesting pineapple and gingerbread notes — but only after awhile. It’s a brandy that merits taking the time required to show itself more clearly, though it never approaches the complexity you’ll find in an older Cognac.

Impatient? Give it a try in a brandy julep.

B+ / $32 / martell.com

Review: Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2006 Cognac

Hine’s Bonneuil 2005 was a standout Cognac from 2015. Now the company is back with another expression in this series of single estate, single vintage Cognac: Bonneuil 2006. In case you missed it, these Bonneuil limited-edition releases are named after the Bonneuil Village where Domaines Hine’s 297-acre estate, located in Grande Champagne, can be found. This expression is limited to 19 casks and consists solely of eau-de-vie from ugni blanc grapes.

A pretty, dark gold color opens the door to a lighter, very floral style of Cognac. The nose is lovely with lavender, jasmine, light brown sugar, and golden raisin notes. Light as a feather, it segues into a palate rich with golden syrup, toasty pastry crust, brown butter, vanilla, and a very restrained (plump) raisin character. The finish sees some baking spice, particularly nutmeg, coming to the fore, rounded out with buttery vanilla character.

It’s a gorgeous release on the whole. I loved the 2005 Bonneuil, and the 2006 — while surprisingly different — is equally enchanting.

86 proof.

A / $140 / hinecognac.com

What’s the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Even if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the world of spirits, Cognac can come across as opaque. It can be hard to tell where Cognac fits into the broader spectrum of spirits, and that’s even before you’re introduced to Armagnac, Cognac’s lesser-known sister spirit. So what are you actually getting when you buy a bottle of Cognac or Armagnac, and what’s the difference between the two? Read on.

To start with, both Cognac and Armagnac are both varieties of French brandy. To be reductive, brandy is distilled wine (just like whiskey is distilled beer). Though you can also make brandy out of other fruits, “properly” it’s made from grapes, and this is the case for both Cognac and Armagnac.

Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. Cognac is mostly made from three major varietals of grapes that you rarely see in wine: Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard, as well as smaller percentages of a few other grapes like Sémillon. These grapes, if fermented, would make a wine that is extremely acidic and often unpalatable, but when distilled makes for a spirit that is unparalleled in aging and blending potential. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are regulated in size and shape by the French government. Once distilled, Cognac is stored in French oak barrels to age. All Cognacs are blends of various barrels, and each individual Cognac in a blend is referred to as eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’ The age statement on a bottle of Cognac is an indication of how old the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is, and for really exclusive bottles, the other Cognacs in a blend can be over a hundred years old. Cognac doesn’t usually carry direct age statements like a bottle of whiskey, however; Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.

Armagnac is brandy made in the Armagnac region in Gascony, further south than Cognac. Armagnac uses Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard grapes like Cognac does, with the addition of Baco blanc, a grape that outside of Armagnac isn’t used for much of anything. Instead of Cognac’s copper pot stills, Armagnac is typically distilled in column stills similar to American bourbons,, Armagnac is only distilled once instead of twice in the case of Cognac. The single distillation and the column still combine to make Armagnac generally a more aromatic and brooding spirit than Cognac, perhaps a better entry into French brandies for someone used to bourbons. Armagnac uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages don’t match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight. Also important for the imbiber more conscious about how much they’re spending on alcohol, as Armagnac isn’t as well-known outside of Europe, old Armagnac tends to be cheaper than similarly-aged Cognac.

So to summarize, Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills, and Armagnac is distilled once in column stills, and the grapes used can be a bit different. Ready to go use your new knowledge and pick up a few bottles? Try some of our favorite Cognacs, like Gilles Brisson VSOP or Martell Blue Swift, or Armagnacs like Chateau du Tarquiet or Marquis de Montesquiou!

Review: Bache-Gabrielsen XO Decanter Cognac

Norway’s Bache-Gabrielsen has been doing some rebranding and relaunching of late. Its most recent launch is a third XO expression (not to be confused with its Classic XO or XO Fine Champagne bottlings, which are both separate products and different blends). You’ll immediately notice the difference because the XO Decanter is packaged in a squat decanter and comes in a custom box to hold it.

This XO is a blend of ugni blanc and folle blanche grapes sourced from the Fins Bois, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne regions. The Limousin oak barrels hold spirit from 10 to 30 years, with an average age of 20 years at bottling.

All told, it’s a lovely, well-aged (but not too old) brandy, offering a nose of light wood notes that mingle with brown sugar, golden raisin, ripe banana, and a fistful of crushed red berries. Fresh and light on its feet, the palate is just as elegant and refined, offering gentle notes of raspberry jam, orange marmalade, and cedar box, all melding wonderfully with a supple dried fig and raisin note that is laced throughout the experience. This dried fruit character is what endures the most on the finish, and it hangs on for quite some time as the brandy makes its long, slow fade-out.

As quiet and demure a Cognac as I think I’ve ever encountered, Bache’s XO Decanter drinks beautifully today while serving as a signpost that points the way to a future where these spirits continue to age gloriously. I’m dying to check out what comes next.

80 proof.

A / $100 / bache-gabrielsen.com

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