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: Singani 63

singani 63The story goes that when Steven Soderbergh was shooting the movie Che in Bolivia, he tasted a traditional Bolivian spirit and fell in love with it. So much so that he decided to import it into the U.S. and market it on our shores.

What’s Singani 63? Distilled from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, it is classified as a brandy by the U.S. but it more closely resembles Pisco, which is common right next door in Peru and Chile. (Also of note, it is bottled at 80 proof, not 63.) What did Soderbergh see in all of this? Let’s find out.

If you’re familiar with quality Pisco, you’ve got a head start on everyone else. The nose is fragrant and aromatic, racy with heady perfume notes, lemongrass, a touch of almond, and incense character. On the palate, again it’s quite brisk with buzzy perfume character, a squeeze of citrus, and some sandalwood. The finish features just a touch of mushroom and a wisp of menthol, but otherwise winds things up nice and clean, with a surprisingly refreshing finish.

Pisco isn’t something I use with any regularity, and Singani 63 will likely meet the same fate in my home bar. That said, if Pisco’s your bag, this is a fun spin on a spirit that’s rising in popularity as an alternative to vodka and gin. Wholly affordable, too.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / singani63.com

Review: La Caravedo Pisco Puro Quebranta

La Caravedo btlLa Caravedo is a new pisco from Pisco Porton, a puro bottling made only from quebranta grapes.

The nose is classic pisco, offering a restrained take on the spirit that brings forth notes of quince, evergreen, and modest underpinnings of rubber and petrol (again, classic pisco stuff).

The palate offers a nice balance of flavors — strong floral notes (perhaps inspiring the graphic etched on the bottle), pear notes, more of that evergreen/pine character (later on in the experience), and a finish evoking lightly sweet butterscotch character — alongside an herbal, almost tar-like edge. There’s ample complexity here, but also a nice balance of flavors and aromas that come together to form a nicely realized package.

On the whole, it’s rather gentle as far as pisco goes, a spirit category that is rarely known for its restraint and nuance. I wouldn’t hesitate to try to work it into a pisco sour, a cuzco, or any other classic pisco cocktail.

80 proof.

B+ / $25 / via Facebook

Recipe: National Pisco Sour Day 2015

Did you know that America has a national day dedicated to the national cocktail of… Peru? We do, and it’s this Saturday (February 7)! For anyone here not Pisco savvy or Peruvian, we’ve got a whole backlog of Pisco profiles for your perusal, but here’s a recipe to get you started on your way to celebrating. Got a favorite Pisco cocktail? Share it with us!

PiscoPorton Pisco Sour
2 oz. Pisco Portón
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. egg whites
Dash of Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients in a blender. Blend on high for 15 seconds, add 5 cubes of ice, and then pulse in the blender 5 times. Strain up into a glass. Garnish with 3 drops of Angostura bitters.

Review: Pisco Waqar

waqar pisco

Waqar! Waqoff!

Sorry.

Pisco, essentially an unaged brandy, has been fueled by the revival of the Pisco Sour and a few other piscoriffic cocktails. But Chilean pisco is something of a rarity in a day and age where Peruvian pisco rules the market. Waqar is produced from muscat grapes grown at the foot of the Andes in Tulahuen, in northern Chile; in Peru that would make this an aromaticas-style pisco.

Muscat makes for a distinctive brandy, and Pisco Waqar is no exception. The nose is heavily perfumed and infused with aromas of rose petals, honeysuckle, lemongrass, and some hospital notes. The body is typical of pisco — a pungent, exuberant spirit with notes of lemon oil, crushed flowers, a touch of pears, and more perfume (or rather, what I imagine it would be like to drink perfume). The finish is a bit spicy — not just racy the way white brandies can be, but fiery on the tongue.

Initially a bit daunting, Waqar grew on me over time, winning me over in the end.

80 proof.

B+ / $50 / piscowaqar.cl

Review: BarSol Perfecto Amor

barsol perfecto amor“A Peruvian tradition revived.” That tradition: An aperitif wine made from fermenting grape juice, fortified with Pisco. The grapes used for both the juice and the Pisco are Quebranta (50%), Italia (25%), and Torontel (25%) — the classic grapes that are used in Peruvian Pisco.

Sherry and Madeira fans will probably eat this right up. The nose (and color, too) is typical of oxidized wines, pungent, but with raisin and citrus overtones. On the body, it’s lighter than you might expect, with ample sweetness from the juice offset by notes of spiced apples, cloves, and light sherry character. It finishes slightly sweet, finishing with a slight raisin character. I expect most poeple who were served this spirit blind would expect, based on the color, body, alcohol level, and flavor components, that they were actually drinking sherry.

After you tell them what it is, they may very well wonder why they weren’t.

34 proof.

B / $18 / barsolpisco.com

Review: BarSol Pisco – Quebranta & Italia

barsol piscoPisco is a spirit on the rise, and Peru’s BarSol makes a huge range of them — seven varieties at present. Below we look at two single-grape varieties, a quebranta and an italia, which are probably the two most common pisco grapes grown. Thoughts on each follow. Both are 80 proof.

BarSol Primero Quebranta Pisco – 100% quebranta grapes, BarSol’s entry-level Pisco. Fresh nose, with notes of powdered milk, and some pine needles. Piney on the tongue, with some lemon notes in the mid-palate. Altogether this is mild on the pisco spectrum, with a short finish that is reminiscent of pear. Overall it’s a solid choice for a mixing pisco, offering classic pisco character without being overwhelming with the brash and young funkiness that’s typical of this spirit. B+ / $20

BarSol Selecto Italia Pisco – 100% italia grapes, a step up in price. Much bigger on the nose. Big citrus notes, some evergreen aromas, but more of it than the quebranta. On the palate, the body is much more viscous than the quebranta, with a honey bent to it. Racier all around, spicy, with a longer finish and a certain chewiness to it. A good choice if you’re looking for less neutrality in your spirit and more indigenous character, without a whole lot of funk. A- / $35

barsolpisco.com

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