07 Dec A Beginner’s Guide to Brandy

Brandy suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis when it comes to base sprits. Some regard it as the gentry class’ ultimate quaff- the drink of cigar-smoking men in suits, stood by wooden bookcases talking about their latest investments. Others see it as the drink of choice in the hip-hop scene, with glasses of Hennessy in the VIP booths. Let’s delve into what brandy actually is and whether it’s a trendy party drink or Aristocrat nightcap. Or even both.

Once fruit has fermented, natural sugar is turned into alcohol by the yeast, which produces wine. The conversion carries on until there is no more sugar for the yeast or until the yeast dies (typically when the alcohol percentage rises to such a degree that the cells become poisoned at around 15% ABV).

A new frontier

This represented the very highest possible levels of booze for the ancients. During the Middle Ages, however, the advent of the alembic led to a brand new frontier for alcohol. As alcohol boils at a temperature lower than water, liquid can be distilled by being heated to where the alcohol is not only evaporated but also captured. This leaves behind water and other solids. Any spirit produced from fermented fruit is known as brandy. Brandy in its early days was very probably rough, due to it being utilitarian. It was high in alcohol and loaded with impurities from less-then-perfect distillation. With enough care taken, however, and at its best, it would have resembled contemporary eau de vie. It was also produced from cast-off and low-quality fruit.

Fruity and high-proof

The result can be both delicately fruity and high-proof, rough when going down the throat and pleasant on the nose. Eau de vie remains very much a regional product, illustrating the fruits that grew local to the distillery. Flavours can be common such as framboise (raspberry), kirsch (cherry), poire (pear), or exotic like Douglas fir buds. The brandy we tend to think of as being contemporary, however, is an aged brandy that first made its appearance as far back as the 1500’s. Dutch traders operating in France discovered that the wine they purchased too quickly spoiled to be sold so they opted for a twice-distilled and shelf-stable product known as brandewijn ( or as it was referred to in the Netherlands, “burnt wine”).

Easy and smooth

The Dutch experienced a fortunate accident when transporting the spirit: the wooden barrels in which the distillate was housed in produced great colour and flavour. This mellowed the spirit into an easier-drinking and smoother brandy- the kind of brandy we know today.

Colonists in America imported brandy (along with other spirits), in French-influenced regions, especially. Plucky pioneers, however, began to fend for themselves and began making their very own domestic distillates. Plentiful grains like rye and corn would result in whiskey becoming America’s strength when it came to spirits. American fruits, however, would result in well-received brandies such as southern peach brandy and New England applejack.