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?

Tasting Report: Tre Bicchieri Italian Wines 2017

It’s hard to believe but it’s been a long four years since I’ve attended Tre Bicchieri, a celebration of the best Italian wines as judged by Gambero Rosso, a massive trade group that is pretty much the final word in fine Italian wine.

Tre Bicchieri, or “three glasses,” is the highest rating the group offers in its annual judging, after which the winners hit the road and us lucky Americans get to try the wines — some of which are not even imported here. Thoughts from the San Francisco tasting follow, along with some mini reviews of wines tasted at Henry Wine Group’s pre-Tre Bicchieri event, which included both winners and non-winners, as well as some Italian spirits, which are not part of the Tre Bicchieri program.

Quick thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: Tre Bicchieri 2017

2012 Vite Colte Barolo del Comune di Barolo Essenze / A- / approachable, with clear vanilla notes
2013 Tenuta Il Falchetto Barbera d’Asti Sup. Bricco Paradiso / A- / well-rounded, strawberry and spice notes
2015 Tenuta Il Falchetto Barbera d’Asti Pian Scorrone / B / very fruity, heavily extracted berry notes
2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli / B+ / more fruit than a typical Amarone; fades to notes of vanilla and ginger
2012 Brandini Barolo Resa 56 / A- / classic structure, dense fruit and spice
2011 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Liste / A / a powerhouse of dense tannin, licorice and spice; dark chocolate; very long finish
2012 Casa E. di Mirafiore Barolo Paiagallo Casa E. di Mirafiore / B+ / earthier, with tannic grip; approachable but at the expense of longevity
2012 Velenosi Rosso Piceno Sup. Roggio del Filare / A- / heavy barnyard nose; dense fruit beneath
2012 Velenosi Offida Rosso Ludi / B+ / very fresh fruit; some light vegetal notes on the finish
2013 Colle Massari Bolgheri Rosso Sup. Grattamacco   / B / somewhat astringent
2011 Colle Massari Brunello di Montalcino  / B+ / similar to the above; meaty and extracted
2013 Poggio al Tesoro Bolgheri Sup. Sondraia / A- / hugely tannic, dense and powerful; a slow emergence of fruit
2012 Poggio al Tesoro Dedicato a Walter / B+ / cabernet franc; traditional and chewy, with lingering tannin
2012 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. / A- / bold and heavy with cherry; chewy with lightly dried fruit
2013 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre / B+ / bold fruit, raisin, and cherry notes
2013 Allegrini La Grola / B+ / heavy corvina here; workaday bottling that works well
2011 Donnafugata Contessa Entellina Milleunanotte / A- / punchy, with lots of earthy tannins
2013 Ornellaia Bolgheri Sup. Ornellaia / A- / lush and unctuous, loaded with layers of depth
2014 Ornellaia Bolgheri Rosso Le Serre Nuove / A / this second label is drinking better than its big brother today, balancing fruit and tannin with a focus on fresh berries
2013 Giulio Accornero e Figli Barbera del M.to Sup. Bricco Battista / A- / very bright, nice acidity and fruit
2013 Donna Olimpia 1898 Bolgheri Rosso Sup. Millepassi / A / outstanding – chocolate and spice in a lush body that’s ready to go but will drink well for years
2011 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. Vaio Armaron Serego Alighieri / A- / aged in cherry wood casks, and you can taste it along with vanilla, spices, and baked fruits
2011 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. Costasera Riserva / A / a beauty – layers of fruit and dark spices abound
2012 Masi Fojaneghe Rosso Bossi Fedrigotti / A- / a new wine from Masi; bold and spicy, with cinnamon notes
2013 Podere Sapaio Bolgheri Rosso Sup. / A- / menthol and mint up front, then tannins; chocolate and vanilla on the finish; lots of longevity here
2014 Settesoli Sicilia Mandrarossa Cartagho / B+ / very concentrated; black and blueberry notes meet chocolate and vanilla
2012 G. D. Varja Barolo Bricco delle Viole / A- / huge fruit, some bacon notes, finish of drying spices
2012 G. D. Varja Barolo Baudana / A- / similar notes, light on its feet; dustier finish
2015 G. D. Varja Langhe Riesling / B+ / quite refreshing, honey and lemon notes are heavy
2013 Marchesi Antinori Tignanello / A- / earthy nose, bold fruit underneath
2013 Marchesi Antinori Chianti Cl. Marchese Antinori Ris. / B+ / drinking tight today; some astringency
2014 Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana Baffo Nero / A- / pretty florals, lush fruit
2011 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano / B+ / bold and chewy with heavy licorice notes
2011 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino 25 Anni / B / overwhelming tannin, core of cocoa and prune
2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino 25 Anni / B- / similar, with a funkier edge to it
2015 Pala I Flori Verminton di Sardegna DOC / B / very dry, quite herbal; some dialed-back blackberry notes in time (95% cab franc)
2015 Cantina Terlano Classico DOC / A- / fresh, with lots of fruit and herbs
2015 San Salvatore Falanghina Campania IGP / A- / nice acidity, fresh citrus notes
2006 Movia Puro Rose / B+ / 100% sparkling rose of pinot noir; made completely naturally and bottled on the lees; disgorged underwater, upside down, to remove the cap; a wild ride of sour fruit with a touch of mushroom [see photo at right]
2008 Movia Lunar 8 Ribolla / A- / slightly sour, some funkiness
2014 Movia Ribolla / A- / fresh and tropical
2013 Movia Pinot Grigio / B / light on its feet, lots of honey notes
2015 Cos Pithos Bianco / B+ / new world in style, green apple is strong
2014 Movia Sauvignon Blanc / A- / a real eye-opener, with notes of gunpowder, mint, and grapefruit peel
2014 Suavia Monte Carbonare Soave Classico / A / super fresh tropical notes; mango, slightly sweet
2010 Castellare I Sodi San Niccolo / A / fresh and floral, lots of berries with immense depth
2011 Castellare I Sodi San Niccolo / A+ / gorgeous with its supple fruit, layers of earthiness lending beautiful balance
2011 Il Marroneto Brunello di Mont Selezione Madonna / A / soft and pretty, velvety tannins
2013 Orma / B+ / more fruit focused, a bit jammy
2012 Monchiero Carbone Roero Riserva Printi / B / a bruiser, quite tart and overpowering
2009 Ceretto Barolo Bricco Rocche / B+ / softer than I expected, with fading tannin
2015 Fattoria Del Cerro Chianti Colli Sensei / B / very simple
2015 Fattoria Del Cerro Rosso di Montepulciano / B / notes of tea leaf and coffee
2013 Fattoria Del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano / B / classically structured
2012 Fattoria Del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva / A- / a solid upgrade to the standard bottling; powerful
2011 Colpetrone Rosso di Montefalco / C /
2010 Colpetrone Sagrantino Montefalco / B /
2014 La Poderina Rosso di Montefalco / A- / clear earthy notes, bold and powerful
2011 La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino  / A- / licorice, cloves, dark fruits galore
2010 La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino “Poggio Abate” / A / mint, intense cocoa, gunpowder, and leather; long finish
2013 Tenuta San Leonardo Terre di San Leonardo / B+ / soft, easygoing, nice grip with some leather notes
2009 Tenuta San Leonardo “Vila Gresti” Merlot / A- / fresh violets, raspberry notes
2010 Tenuta San Leonardo Carmenere / A- / expressive, loaded with tart fruit
2010 Tenuta San Leonardo “San Leonardo” / A / bold and subtly earthy, with tobacco notes; epic length
2008 Tenuta San Leonardo “San Leonardo” / A / barely softening up; on point

Spirits/Vermouth

Sibona Barolo Grappa / B+ / 2 years in barrel; lots of grip, quite spicy, with black pepper notes
Sibona Port Aged Grappa / B / a letdown, quite flowery
Santa Maria Amaro / B+ / unctuous and bittersweet with cocoa and caramel notes
Poli Cleopatra / B+ / grappa of moscato, aged one year; perfumed with peaches and lingering florals
Del Professore Vermouth / A- / great citrus tones, spicy with cola and wonderful depth
Varnelli Amaro Dell Erborista / A- / unfiltered; all estate-made, sweetened with honey; unique and worthwhile
Varnelli Amaro Sibilla / A- / very fruity; bit bitter finish with lingering chocolate

Review: Candolini Grappa Bianca

This pure, clear grappa — a distillate of the leftovers from wine production — is made from a blend of the pomace of several grapes: sangiovese, trebbiano, cabernet, aglianico, and falanghina.

As grappas go, Candolini Bianca — made by Fratelli Branca and a top seller in its homeland of Italy — is as light on its feet as they get. That pungency that unaged grappa unilaterally shows is front and center on the nose, but those typically musty notes here instead come across with aromas of roasted mushrooms, rosemary and sage, and burning underbrush. Time in glass helps things to meld, revealing a complex — yet intensely earthy — character.

On the palate the grappa shows off an interesting floral character — honeysuckle blended with toasted almonds, brown butter, and more of that lingering mushroom character, though this time it’s more akin to mushrooms sauteed in butter with a spray of fresh herbs on top. The lengthy finish offers hints of lemongrass, marzipan, and more sage notes.

Grappa is definitely an acquired taste, but Candolini’s expression is an interesting and expressive entry to the category.

80 proof.

B / $40 (1 liter) / branca.it

Review: Stoney Honey Infused Grappa

stoney grappa

Is it a rarity or an oddity? Stoney Honey Infused Grappa is both. Distilled and bottled by St. George Spirits, this unique and very small batch project flavors grappa (no word on what grape varietals) with sage honey for Riverbench Winery.

The nose offers lavender, eucalyptus, and light citrus. I’m immediately reminded of spa oils, in a perverse yet delicious sort of way. The body is lightly oily, revealing well the honey which infuses the grappa. Again, plenty of eucalyptus on the palate, too, with big floral aromatics that stick with you for days. Then comes the sweeter aspects of the honey. Nice and sweet, but not overdone, it’s all orange blossoms with a silky, classic honey finish.

This is wild stuff. I wouldn’t have likely pegged it as grappa — that spirit’s classic funk is well obscured by the sweetness of honey and that light burn of menthol… here it actually soothes the throat, it’s so strong. The use of sage honey really opens up some unusual and unexpected flavors in this spirit. Color me intrigued, and good luck in your search for a bottle.

70 proof. 40 cases made.

B+ / $NA / stgeorgespirits.com

Tasting Report: Vini d’Italia Tour 2013

Our friends at Winebow, a major wine importer, host this event on a fairly annual basis, bringing some of the biggest names in Italian wine (and a little grappa) to the States for tasting and consideration. In addition, some virtually unknown brands, looking for distribution in the U.S., are made available, too. Prices below are wholesale. As always, thoughts follow on everything tasted.

Tasting Report: Vini d’Italia Tour 2013

2009 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Veronese IGT / $17 / B+ / slightly green
2009 Allegrini La Grola Veronese IGT / $23 / A- / fresh, nice body
2007 Allegrini La Poja Corvina Veronese IGT / $68 / A / gorgeous nose, brilliant minerals
2008 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC / $67 / A / dense, cocoa, cofee, complex
2010 Altesino Rosso di Altesino Toscana IGT / $16 / B / fresh, earth meets fruit
2010 Altesino Rosso di Montalcino DOC / $24 / B / similar, some green notes, bitter finish
2008 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino DOCG / $55 / B / nose is off, heavy herbs and olive
2011 Fattoria Le Pupille Morellino di Scansano DOCG / $17 / A- / lively, pretty fruit, light herbs
2008 Fattoria Le Pupille Poggio Valente Morellino di Scansano Riserva DOCG / $43 / A- / licorice, chunky chocolate notes
2009 Fattoria Le Pupille Saffredi Maremma IGT / $103 / A / classic Super Tuscan, no complaints
2010 Leono de Castris Malana Salice Salentino Rosso DOC / $11 / A- / complex for a young wine, some jam, herbal touches,
2008 Leono de Castris Malana Salice Salentino Rosso DOC 50th Vendemmia / $13 / B+ / much more wood here, clinging to a fruity core
2010 Maculan Brentino Veneto IGT / $16 / B / light, enjoyable, fresh herbs
2010 Maculan Palazzotto Cabernet Sauvignon Breganze DOC / $26 / A- / nice balance, great everyday drinker, versatile
2009 Montevetrano Colli di Salerno IGT / $73 / A- / elegant, beautiful structure, fruit meets charcoal, roasted meats
2010 San Polo Rubio Toscana IGT / $13 / B- / heavy earth, tannic
2010 San Polo Rosso di Montalcino DOC / $20 / B- / similar, unripe
2008 San Polo Brunello di Montalcino DOCG / $65 / B- / green and tough
2010 Tenimenti Luigi d’Allesandro Borgo Syrah Cortona DOC / $18 / A- / lovely, fresh fruit and berry notes
2009 Tenimenti Luigi d’Allesandro Il Bosco Syrah Cortona DOC / $50 / A- / old vines; some licorice and chocolate
2009 Tenimenti Luigi d’Allesandro Migliara Syrah Cortona DOC / $74 / B+ / inky, almost like an Australian Shiraz in style
2011 Tua Rita Rosso dei Notri Toscana IGT / $20 / B / slight tannin, raspberries, plummy core
2009 Tua Rita Giusto di Notri Toscana IGT / $67 / A- / intense, fennel and cedar, tar, herbs follow

Spirits

Nardini Grappa Aquavite di Vinaccia Bianca / $41 / A- / powerful nose, surprisingly fruity body, lemon and citrus, 100 proof
Nardini Grappa Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva / $49 / B+ / wood doesn’t add much to this grappa, a touch of vanilla, 100 proof
Nardini Grappa Tagliatella / $41 / B / strong cherry, bittersweet; marketed as an alternative to Campari, 70 proof
Nardini Grappa Acqua di Cedro Liqueur / $41 / B+ / like limoncello without the color, light herbal notes
Nardini Grappa Amaro / $34 / A- / slight mint, almonds, licorice touches; bitter finish, good balance

Review: Van Brunt Stillhouse Whiskey, Rum, and Grappa

van brunt stillhouse whiskeyVan Brunt Stillhouse is a craft distillery based in Brooklyn — arguably the epicenter of microdistillery activity in America, if not the world. (The company is named after Cornelius Van Brunt, one of the founding fathers of Brooklyn.)

The distillery produces whiskey, rum, and — unusually — grappa. We tasted all three spirits. All are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Van Brunt Stillhouse American Whiskey – Made from New York grains, “made primarily from malted barley and wheat, with a little bit of corn and a touch of rye.” No age statement, but it spends just five months in American oak barrels. Incredibly young on the nose, it’s loaded with grain, funky and skunky. The palate doesn’t really alter course. Here the grain has a more malty character, but the finish is lengthy with grain husks, bean sprouts, and lumberyard remnants. Not my bag, though the mashbill sounds intriguing. C- / $36 (375ml)  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Van Brunt Stillhouse “Due North” Rum – Made from organic Himalayan sugar. Aged an indeterminate amount of time, but it’s hitting the spot reasonably well. It’s young, for sure, but the rum is full of brown sugar and molasses notes that hold down some of the more husky notes from distillation. Touches of apple, pumpkin pie spices, and a moderate finish. Lots going on here, and it’s coming together. A couple more years in barrel would probably seal the deal. B / $23 (375ml)

Van Brunt Stillhouse “Red Hook” Grappa – Made from grape skins used for the 2012 vintage of Leib Cellars Pinot Blanc, a Long Island wine. Per the company, “While not everyone likes Grappa, for those that do, Van Brunt Stillhouse’s Grappa is a delicacy.” Well, I like good grappa, and Van Brunt’s is mostly of the harmless variety. Big, hoary funk on the nose, more modest on the tongue. Interesting and surprising sweetness here, with vanilla and custard notes that counterbalance, to some degree, the fuel-powered aroma. Could stand some barrel aging to see what it might do with some mellowing. B- / $36 (375ml)

vanbruntstillhouse.com

Review: Dimmi Liquore di Milano

The Italian answer to gin and absinthe, Dimmi is an old (1930s) product now making a resurgence. Distilled in the Lombardy region in Italy’s north, Dimmi is distilled from organic wheat (like a vodka) and infused with licorice, orange peel, rhubarb, ginseng, and vanilla. Following this infusion, peach and apricot blossoms are infused into the mix, and Nebbiolo-based grappa is added to top it all off along with a touch of organic beet sugar, for sweetness.

Very pale yellow in color, Dimmi is a pretty enticing liqueur that, based on the above description, tastes nothing like you are probably expecting. The nose hints at lemon, but on the tongue it comes across with grapefruit character backed up with vanilla custard. This sounds like an odd combination, but imagine candied fruit garnishing a creme brulee and you’re in the ball park. (Strega is also a distant, yellower cousin.) But still, there is plenty of bitterness and sourness to balance out the sweetness here, and more than enough complexity to keep you sipping if you’re drinking it neat.

Lots of cocktail possibilities. Consider it in lieu of vermouth in your favorite drink if you’re looking for a way to get started, experimentally speaking.

70 proof.

A- / $40 / domaineselect.com

dimmi liquore di milano

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