The word Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, ("burnt wine"). Brandy, in
its broadest definition, is a spirit made from fruit juice or fruit pulp and skin.
More specifically, it is broken down into three basic groupings.
Grape Brandy is Brandy distilled from fermented grape juice or crushed but not pressed
grape pulp and skin. This spirit is aged in wooden casks (usually oak) which colours
it, mellows the palate, and adds additional aromas and flavours.
Pomace Brandy (Italian Grappa and French Marc are the best-known examples) is Brandy
made from the pressed grape pulp, skins, and stems that remain after the grapes are
crushed and pressed to extract most of the juice for wine. Pomace Brandies, which
are usually minimally aged and seldom see wood, are an acquired taste. They often
tend to be rather raw, although they can offer a fresh, fruity aroma of the type
of grape used, a characteristic that is lost in regular oak-aged Brandy.
Fruit Brandy is the default term for all Brandies that are made from fermenting fruit
other than grapes. It should not be confused with Fruit-Flavoured Brandy, which is
grape Brandy that has been flavoured with the extract of another fruit. Fruit Brandies,
except those made from berries, are generally distilled from fruit wines. Berries
tend to lack enough sugar to make a wine with sufficient alcohol for proper distillation,
and thus are soaked (macerated) in high-proof spirit to extract their flavour and
aroma. The extract is then distilled once at a low proof. Calvados, the Apple Brandy
from the Normandy region of Northwestern France, is probably the best known type
of Fruit Brandy. Eau-de-vie ("water of life") is the default term in French for spirits
in general, and specifically for colourless fruit brandy, particularly from the Alsace
region of France and from California.
Brandy, like Rum and Tequila, is an agricultural spirit. Unlike grain spirits such
as Whisky, Vodka, and Gin, which are made throughout the year from grain that can
be harvested and stored, Brandy is dependent on the seasons, the ripening of the
base fruit, and the production of the wine from which it is made. Types of Brandies,
originally at least, tended to be location-specific. (Cognac, for example, is a town
and region in France that gave its name to the local Brandy.) Important Brandy-making
regions, particularly in Europe, further differentiate their local spirits by specifying
the types of grapes that can be used and the specific areas (appellation) in which
the grapes used for making the base wine can be grown.
French Brandies: Cognac and Armagnac
Cognac is the best known type of Brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other
Brandies are judged. The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle
Blanche, and Colombard. The wines made from these grapes are thin, tart, and low
in alcohol; poor characteristics for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making
Brandy. Cognac is double distilled in pot stills and then aged in casks made from
Limousin or Troncais oak. All Cognacs start out in new oak to mellow the fiery spirit
and give them colour. Batches that are chosen for long-term ageing are, after a few
years, transferred to used, or "seasoned," casks that impart less of the oak flavour
notes while the Brandy matures.
Virtually all Cognacs are a blend of Brandies from different vintages, and frequently,
different growing zones. Even those from single vineyards or distilleries will be
a mix of Brandies from different casks. As in Champagne, the production of local
vineyards is sold to Cognac houses, each of which stores and ages Cognacs from different
suppliers and then employs master blenders to draw from these disparate Brandies
to create continuity in the house blends.
Armagnac is the oldest type of Brandy in France, with documented references to distillation
dating back to the early 15th century. The primary grapes used in making Armagnac
are likewise the Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. But distillation takes
place in the unique alambic Armagnacais, a type of column still that is even more
"inefficient" than a typical Cognac pot still.
The resulting brandy has a rustic, assertive character and aroma that requires additional
cask aging to mellow it out. The best Armagnacs are aged in casks made from the local
Monlezun oak. In recent years Limousin and Troncais oak casks have been added to
the mix of casks as suitable Monlezun oak becomes harder to find.
Grape brandy is best drunk from a tulip-shaped glass or a snifter, at a cool room
temperature. Often it is slightly warmed by holding the glass cupped in the palm
or gently heating it with a candle; however, such heating may cause the alcohol vapour
to become pungent so that the aromas are overpowered.
Brandy, like whisky and red wine, exhibits more pleasant aromas and flavours at a
lower temperature, e.g., 16° Celsius (61°F). In most homes, this would imply that
brandy should be cooled rather than heated for maximum enjoyment. Furthermore, alcohol
(which makes up 40% of a typical brandy) becomes thin as it is heated (and more viscous
when cooled). Thus, cool brandy produces a fuller and smoother mouthfeel and less
of a “burning” sensation.
A bottle of fruit brandy made from apples.Fruit brandies are distilled from fruits
other than grapes. Apples, plums, peaches, cherries, eldberberries, raspberries,
blackberries, and apricots are the most commonly used fruits. Fruit brandy is usually
clear and 80 to 90 proof. It is usually drunk chilled or over ice.
Calvados is an apple brandy from the French region of Lower Normandy It is double
distilled from fermented apples.
Coconut brandy is a fruit brandy made from coconut sap.
Eau-de-vie is a general French term for fruit brandy.
German Schnaps is fruit brandy produced in Germany or Austria.
Kirschwasser is a fruit brandy made from cherries.
Palinka is a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. It can be made from any kind of
fruit, most often from plums, apricots, elderberries, pears, or cherries. Less commonly,
it is made from apples, peaches, or walnuts.
Slivovice is a strong fruit brandy made from plums; by law, it must contain at least
52% ABV. It is produced in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Slivovitz is a fruit brandy made from plums. It is a traditional drink in Bulgaria,
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia. Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Tuica is a clear Romanian fruit brandy made from plums, apples, pears, apricots,
mulberries, peaches, quinces, or mixtures of these. Romania and Moldova also produce
a grape brandy called vin ars (burnt wine) or divin.
Pomace brandy is produced by fermentation and distillation of the grape skins, seeds,
and stems that remain after grapes have been pressed to extract their juice (which
is then used to make wine). Examples include Italian grappa, French marc, Bulgarian
grozdova, Georgian chacha, and Cretan tsikoudia.
Most pomace brandy is not aged and not coloured.
Pot vs. tower stills
Cognac and South African pot still brandy are examples of brandy produced in batches
using pot stills (batch distillation). Many American brandies use fractional distillation
in tower stills to perform their distillation. Special pot stills with a fractionation
section on top are used for Armagnac.
Brandy is produced using one of three ageing methods:
No ageing: Most pomace brandy and some fruit brandy is not aged before bottling.
The resulting product is typically clear and colourless.
Single barrel ageing: Brandies that have a golden or brown colour may have been aged
in oak casks.
Solera process: Some brandies are aged using the solera system. Brandies from Spain
are typically aged by means of this process.
Solera is a process for ageing brandyby fractional blending in such a way that the
finished product is mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as
the process continues over many years. A solera is literally the set of barrels or
other containers used in the process.
In the solera process, a succession of containers are filled with the product over
a series of equal ageing intervals (usually a year). One container is filled for
each interval. At the end of the interval after the last container is filled, the
oldest container in the solera is tapped for part of its content, which is bottled.
Then that container is refilled from the next oldest container, and that one in succession
from the second-oldest, down to the youngest container, which is refilled with new
product. This procedure is repeated at the end of each aging interval. The transferred
product mixes with the older product in the next barrel.
No container is ever drained, so some of the earlier product always remains in each
container. This remnant diminishes to a tiny level, but there can be significant
traces of product much older than the average, depending on the transfer fraction.
In theory traces of the very first product placed in the solera may be present even
after 50 or 100 cycles.