What is Brandy?
Brandy began to be distilled in France circa 1313, but it was prepared only as a medicine and was considered as possessing such marvelous strengthening and sanitary powers that the physicians named it “the water of life,” (l’eau de vie) a name it still retains.
In the young America Colonies, George Washington began commercial distilling in 1797 at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland. With this experienced help, Washington became one of the largest distillers in young America with five copper stills operating 12 months a year. However, a few years earlier, Laird’s America had opened (making it the oldest apple brandy producer) and began distilling applejack and brandy in 1780. The abundance of naturally available fruits for processing as compared to the labor-intensive planting and harvesting of grains resulted in young America’s practical adaptation of the readily available harvest of local fruits.
The clear fruit brandies are traditionally un-aged to maintain the wonderful intensity of the fruit. Usually bottled at around 80 proof or higher, these spirits are typically served at the end of a meal, or between courses. In Normandy, the spiritual home of apple brandy, food-sated diners are revived with a bracing shot of Calvados at mid-meal. In theory, this creates a ”trou,” or hole, in the stomach, making room for the courses to follow.
Apple and grape brandies are the exception to the un-aged rule. They mature in oak barrels, which gives them additional depth and complexity. Both eau de vie and aged brandies have fruits that are crushed at their absolute peak of ripeness. The whole fruit mash is carefully fermented and the spirit is distilled in copper stills.
Before the means of determining the true quantity of alcohol in spirits were known, the dealers were in the habit of employing a very rude method of forming a notion of the strength or “proof” of the spirits. A given quantity of the spirits was poured upon a quantity of gunpowder in a dish and set on fire. If at the end of the combustion the gunpowder continued dry enough it exploded, but if it had been wetted by the water in the spirits, the flame of the alcohol went out without setting the powder on fire. This was called the proof. Spirits which kindled gunpowder were said to be above proof.
Later, Clarke, in his hydrometer, which was invented circa 1730, fixed the strength of proof spirits on the stem at the specific gravity of 0.920 at the temperature of 68 degrees. This is the strength at which proof spirit is fixed in Great Britain by an act of Parliament, and at this strength, it is no more than a mixture of 49 pounds of pure alcohol with 51 pounds of water. Brandy, rum, gin, and whiskey contain nearly similar proportions.
- V.S. (“very special”) or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in a cask.
- V.S.O.P. (“very superior old pale”), Reserve or ✯✯✯✯✯ (five stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.
- XO (“extra old”) or Napoléon designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years.
- Hors d’âge (“beyond age”) is a designation which is formally equal to XO for Cognac, but for Armagnac designates brandy that is at least ten years old. In practice, the term is used by producers to market a high-quality product beyond the official age scale.
Brandies From Around the World
Brandy de Jerez is a Spanish brandy made in the Jerez region of Andalusia with age as follows:
- Brandy de Jerez Solera: one year old.
- Brandy de Jerez Solera Reserva: three years old.
- Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva: ten years old.
Calvados hails from France, however, it’s an apple brandy and must come from the Normandy region.
Grappa is an Italian pomace brandy, made from the pomace left over after winemaking.
Palinka is a Hungarian fruit brandy which dates back to the 14th century. Palenka, meanwhile, comes from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Pisco is a Peruvian brandy, although Chile makes it to under different classifications and the two nations battle over the term. As opposed to Cognac, with mandatory oak barrel aging, Peruvian pisco cannot be aged in wood. Pisco is not a liqueur (liqueur’s normally being a “sweet” product, like crème de menthe), but instead is a liquor. It is technically a brandy since it is distilled from fruit, but it is slightly different. First, it is distilled at bottling strength instead of being distilled at a higher proof and then adding water to bring it down to about 40 proof. The other difference is that it usually isn’t aged in wooden barrels, but in clay pots instead.
Rakia is a Balkan fruit brandy, but it’s not to be confused with Raki, a Turkish anise-flavored spirit distilled from grape pomace à la Ouzo.
Schnapps is a broad classification of fruit brandies from Germany.
Armagnac an aged French brandy hailing from a region south of Cognac, Three sub-regions exist within Armagnac and, as opposed to Cognac’s double alembic still distillation, brandy production in the area typically involves a single distillation using column stills. Armagnac’s spirit classification system is similar to Cognac’s. Here though, V.S.O.P. indicates a minimum age of five years, rather than four, X.O. stays put at six years, and Hors d’Age indicates a minimum of 10 years.
Slignac a young cognac, aged only 2 years but gives a fresh crisp touch of taste to the traditionally aged cognac.
“Those trees good ol’ Johnny Appleseed we were planting weren’t to keep the doctor away,” jokes Chad Robinson, an all-around brandy enthusiast, and brand ambassador for Catoctin Creek, a Virginia distillery which produces a range of brandies, “he was making cider and Applejack!”