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Brandy – Wine’s Old Uncle

There are countless types of wine out there, let alone the multiplication that happens when you incorporate all of the many permutations and directions brandy can take. Yes… getting into it this early, brandy and wine may be related.

The name comes from the Dutch brandewijn (“burnt wine”), referring to the application of heat in distillation. Commercial distillation of brandy from wine originated in the 16th century. According to one story, a Dutch shipmaster began the practice by concentrating wine for shipment, intending to add water upon reaching home port. In the slow-moving era of motor-less sea travel, the distillation became popular as a means of concentrating the liquid, which was taxed. Producers worked rather cleverly around the system by distilling wines with the intention of adding water back after the assessment. However, the concentrated beverage immediately found acceptance.

Old Barrels of Brandy ready to be loaded in a ship,16th Century.

The Process

Brandy is distilled from wine or a fermented fruit mash. With the exception of certain fruit types, known as white types, brandies are usually aged. Aging in wooden barrels deepens the colour of the liquid to amber, the use of paraffin-lined casks or earthenware maintains the original clear colour, and the addition of a caramel solution darkens colour. 

Traditionally, wine is usually boiled in a still pot, and the water and vapors of alcohol, as well as the aromatic properties rise and are caught in a condenser coil, where they are cooled and turned back into liquid. The alcohol and aromatic components vaporize at a lower temperature than does the water, so the distillate is usually of a much higher concentration of alcohol by volume. The wine only has about 8 to 12% ABV, and after the first distillation, the liquid will have about 30% ABV. Then it is distilled a second time, when it will become a distillate of about 70% ABV.

Cognac is usually made in a pot still, while most American brandies are made with fractional distillation in a column still. Some brandies are not aged at all, while others are aged in oak casks, and some have caramel coloring added to simulate the appearance of aging. In Spain, the brandy is aged with the solera system, which involves mixing various ages together, to obtain a desired result.

An Illustration of the traditional method of making brandy.

Types of Brandy

Cognac

This is arguably the world’s best known form of brandy. Cognac takes its name from the town in the country’s South West. Just like champagne, the spirits are protected by a ‘geographical appellation’ with strict norms on production – the grapes have to originate from one of the six zones/districts within the Cognac region and must be stored in Limousin casks for a minimum of 2 years. You might be familiar with some of the grades of Cognac from VS – Very Special (the youngest brandy in the blend has to be stored for at least two years) to VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) stored for at least four years and XO in which the youngest brandy in the blend has to be at least six years old. The best way to enjoy this distinctive drink is in a classical Cognac Balloon Snifter at room temperature which gradually transfers the warmth from your hands into the contents of your glass.

A unique trademark bottle of Clés des Ducs Armagnacs, a brandy with a tradition of nobility and elegance.

Armagnac
The oldest brandy distilled in France but not as popular as Cognac given its small production volumes. The Armagnac Geographic Appellation is further South from Cognac and the spirit became popular around the 14th and 15th centuries for its therapeutic benefits.

Calvados

A special type of apple brandy from the Normandy region of France. The market is much smaller than either Armagnac or Cognac. Some Calvados distillers can combine as many as 100 different types of apples in production, ranging from sweet to sharp, tart and bitter. The longer that Calvados is aged in oak barrels (minimum two years) the smoother it tastes.

Spanish brandy

Most of Spain’s brandy is consumed in-country. If you’re ever in an original Spanish festival, you will understand how and why it is consumed in secrecy. The production is centred in the regions of Jerez and Andalucia, where the production technique was derived from the 8th century Moors. Alcohol must be aged in casks used for sherry and matured through a solera process (aged over time by fractional increments of blending).

In your quest for this special, you will come across the names brandy de Jerez: Solera, Solera Reserva, and Solera Gran Reserva, which is considered the best of the three types.

South American Pisco

Then there is Pisco, a brandy, made with up to eight varietals of grape, and is a much sweeter product than the sherry or oak cask softened Euro brandies. Pisco is not aged in wood ; the wine makers prefer using glass bottles or stainless steel to mature the drink.

If you liked this article, you may also like this one: Tasty Pairings for Dessert Wine

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