“Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”
Brandy, for too many people, has a reputation as a spirit enjoyed by a more mature crowd. Picture an older man in a plush wingback leather armchair, next to a roaring fire with a cigar between his lips—he has a glass of brandy in his hand, right? However, these days, brandy is enjoyed across the board by young creatives, cocktail enthusiasts, and even stay-at-home moms—as well as, of course, distinguished silver-haired gents with suits and cigars.
Brandy is exploding in the American market. It may not get the popular-press attention and cultural buzz that other spirits do, but the numbers don’t lie. Between 2002 and 2015, sales by volume increased overall by 27.8%, with super premium bottlings rocketing up by 226.9% and premium by a mind-boggling 340.5%, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Time for a Little History
The term brandy is a shortening of the English brandywine, which was derived from the Dutch word gebrande wijn, which literally means burned wine.
The origins of brandy were clearly tied to the development of distillation. While the process was known in ancient times, it wasn’t used for significant beverage production until the 1400s. Rendering grape wine by reducing its water content offered a method of preservation making it easier for merchants to transport their products. By adding water back again to the fortified liquid before consumption you saved some handling charges. If a local tax was added by volume at your purchase you saved that too.
Somewhere along the line, it was discovered that after having been stored in wooden casks the resulting product had improved over time versus the original distilled spirit. In addition to removing water, the hot distillation process led to the formation and decomposition of numerous aromatic compounds, fundamentally altering the composition of the distillate from its source. Non-volatile substances such as pigments, sugars, and salts remained behind in the still. As a result, the taste of the aged distillate was often quite unlike that of the original source.
As described in the 1728 edition of Cyclopaedia, the following method was used to distill brandy: “A cucurbit was filled half full of the liquor from which brandy was to be drawn and then raised with a little fire until about one sixth part was distilled, or until that which falls into the receiver was entirely flammable. This liquor, distilled only once, was called spirit of wine or brandy. Purified by another distillation (or several more), this was then called spirit of wine rectified. The second distillation was made in balneo mariae and in a glass cucurbit, and the liquor was distilled to about one half the quantity. This was further rectified—as long as the operator thought necessary—to produce brandy."
Notable Varieties of Brandy
As most brandies have been distilled from grapes, the regions of the world producing excellent brandies have roughly paralleled those areas producing grapes for viniculture. At the end of the 19th century, the western European markets, including by extension their overseas empires, were dominated by French and Spanish brandies, and eastern Europe was dominated by brandies from the Black Sea region, including Bulgaria, the Crimea, and Georgia. In 1884, David Sarajishvili founded his brandy factory in Tbilisi, Georgia, a crossroads for Turkish, Central Asian, and Persian trade routes and a part of the Russian Empire at the time.
The most well-known brandy, named after the French town in which it is produced. Cognac production falls under French Appellation d'origine contrôlée designation, with production methods and naming required to meet certain legal requirements. Among the specified grapes Ugni blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is most widely used. The brandy must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. The white wine used in making cognac is very dry, acidic and thin. Though it has been characterized as “virtually undrinkable,” it is excellent for distillation and aging. In the U.S., the most popular cognacs are Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin.
V.S. (Very Special) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) or Reserve designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.
X.O. (Extra Old) currently designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least ten years.
Cognac’s lesser-known (and more affordable) cousin. It’s produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, France. It is distilled from wine usually made from a blend of grapes including Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle blanche and Ugni blanc, traditionally using column stills, rather than the pot stills used in the production of cognac.
Armagnac is the oldest brandy distilled in France; and, in the past, it was consumed for its therapeutic benefits. In the 14th century, Prior Vital du Four, a cardinal, wrote that it had 40 virtues: “It makes disappear redness and burning of the eyes, and stops them from tearing; it cures hepatitis, sober consumption adhering. It cures gout, cankers, and fistula by ingestion; restores the paralysed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid from time to time himself permits.”
Interested in Learning More?
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