What is Brandy? Brandy is the broad classification used for any sort of spirit distilled from fermented grape or fruit. It is easily the broadest category of spirits made all over the world in great variation in styles and sources. It might properly be called eau-de-vie (or sometimes eaux-de-vie), which is French for “water of life.” (Compare with aqua vita, the Latin for “water of life,” which gave rise to the Scandinavian aquavit and the Gaelic usquebaugh or uisge beatha also translated as “water of life.”) The term “brandy” itself comes from the Dutch brandewij meaning “burnt wine” and this is good name, in our opinion, because all brandy or eau-de-vie begins as fermented fruit juice… that is, wine. Distill that wine and it becomes the spirit brandy or eau-de-vie. The most common fruit, no doubt, the grape (just as that’s the most common base of wine) but it can be made from any sort of fruit and varieties abound. Based upon where it is made and how it is aged (among others), it can become cognac, armagnac, grappa, or a variety of other styles… but it’s all brandy. In short, distilled wine (fruit juice) becomes brandy and distilled beer becomes whiskey. For our purposes, we’ve drawn the major distinctions between aged brandy (that we call “brandy”) and clear, generally un-aged brandy we call “eau-de-vie.”
Where does brandy come from? According to Andre Domine in his Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails, brandy was first mentioned in the year 800 as a medicine from different Arabic sources… really the very beginning of distillation itself. In the 13th century, Thaddeus Florentinus wrote the De Virtiutibus Aque Vite Et Eius Operationibus in Italy, providing directions for distillation and giving rise to the 16th century Dutch trade in distilled wines from Spain and France. Those regions now comprise some of the most commonly known brandies of all: cognac (from the Cognac region in France with specific age statements), armagnac (from the Armagnac region in France), and Brandy de Jerez (from the Jerez region of Spain). Still, there are many famous regions of brandy production including South Africa, California, and Georgia among others. Today, aged brandy will often carry a VS (very special), VSOP (very superior old pale) and XO (extra old) designation, which generally indicates levels of aging (for cognac, 3.5 years, 4.5 years and 10 years respectively). Cognac and other famous brandies will make special mention of both the variety of grape and where it is grown. Still, other styles are equally famous, notably calvados, which is a French apple brandy from a specific region and Pisco, which is specifically from Peru.
How is brandy made? Fermented fruit juice (wine) is distilled to something on the order of 140 proof and out comes eau-de-vie: a clear spirit that retains some of the flavors, aromas, and characters of that wine but is undeniably a liquor. These are sometimes blended back to 80 proof with water, bottled and sold as is. There is a strong history of using some of the cast-offs from wine making—the skin, seeds, etc.—and distilling these specifically, which are generally called pomace (grappa is probably the most well-known of these peasant-style liquors). Like whiskey, most brandy is aged in oak oftentimes in cellars kept at specific temperatures and humidity. Some estates proudly mention the specific varieties of mold at work in the cellars. These spirits—often known as cru—are blended by the Master Blender and bottled in specific editions and flavors. We should note that there is a growing prevalence of vodka being made from fermented fruit juice. International agreements are such that if these spirits are distilled to 190 proof, it becomes vodka (and indeed strips out most of the flavors of the fruit juice leaving a neutral, odorless, largely flavorless spirit). But vodka purists insist that these are merely another style of eau-de-vie.
Who should drink brandy? Like whiskey, brandy exploration can be a lifetime endeavor and, in some cases, even more far-flung for the great variety of fruits and aging that can be employed, not to mention the many locations that all proudly insist on their own accents in taste. Generally arriving at 80 proof, it’s classically meant to serve neat at room temperature and seldom used in cocktails. Oftentimes, you will find a person cupping the snifter in the palm of the hand and swirling to warm the liquid with body heat and release aromas. For those who enjoy wine, immediate delights can be awakened when seeking out a favorite style of wine distilled in a brandy. In particular, for those who enjoy the lighter, cleaner flavors of un-aged vodka, the un-aged eau de vies can be a revelation.
Biggest brandy myth to bust... Again, like whiskey, brandy can have rare editions, aged expressions, and highly sought-after collectors’ items. But price only roughly correlates with quality where modest pricing can mask extremely well-crafted brandy. To us, brandy seems nothing so much like cheese where variations in flavor from around the world abound with pricing and rare varieties not really the best guide. Let your palate explore different styles rather than different price ranges and very quickly you will settle on those flavors most appealing to you.
Best Brandy Reviews and Ratings