Even in a world where cocktails are grabbing all of the attention, in which careful preparation and high-quality ingredients are the order of the day, and liquor is enjoying a respect and popularity as high as it has since pre-Prohibition, the finest brandy still can’t seem to shake its stuffy reputation.
Brandy can be far more than its undeserved reputation, however. Like gin or whiskey, it can come in a large number of varieties, and each one with its very own nuances. It can be bright and bold, warming and subtle, toned down or high proof. It can be taken neat or mixed, and is just as effective when used as a cocktail modifier as it is when taking centre stage.
So what is it?
Brandy is a distilled alcohol extracted from a fruit-based mash. A large proportion of the world’s brandy comes from grapes. There are two types of wine-based brandies: pomace and regular. The former is distilled from the peels and skins of grapes. As well as the juice, this provides the finished product with an earthier, different flavour. Examples include South American Pisco and Italian grappa. Brandies can even be made from such fruits as cherries, pears, and apples. These brandies are sometimes referred to as eaux-de-vie (“waters of life” in French).
Many wine brandies are similar to whiskey in that they age for some time in oak barrels. This provides the liquor with its amber colour, as well as notes of dried fruit, caramel, and spice. The ageing process, again, like whiskies, raises the price. There are brandies out there are, however, with less expensive price tags. Brandies from other fruits are sometimes aged, such as the French apple Branch Calvados, and sometimes not, like most eaux-de-vie and some pisco.
Types of Brandies
While brandy can be considered a catch-all term for this type of alcohol, there are numerous specific types. The two most recognisable ones are probably Armagnac and Cognac, both from France. They can only be made in their own respective regions and from particular grape varietals. Fine cognacs can cost up to thousands of pounds for a single bottle, and that’s before we’re even looking at vintage brandies.
This is the brandy against which all others are measured. It isn’t only the name of a brandy but also the French region from where it’s produced. It’s a grape-based aged brandy that typically offers an extraordinary depth of flavour. Younger versions often come with oak notes and light fruit, with the older ones blooming into lots of spice and dried fruit.
This isn’t as easy to come across as cognac but it’s still available from the majority of decent off-licenses. It’s also the name of the French region from where it’s made, and, in fact, it’s illegal to call a brandy an Armagnac that wasn’t produced in that very region. Armagnac turns into toffee and caramel notes as it ages and adopts further character from the wood.