The word Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, ("burnt wine"), which is how Dutch traders who introduced it to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain in the 16th century described wine that had been "burnt," or boiled, in order to distill it. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Arab alchemists experimented with distilling grapes and other fruits in order to make medicinal spirits. Their techniques spread, with grape Brandy production appearing in Spain by the end of the 8th century.
Brandy is an agricultural spirit and 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.) 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 distilled from fermented grape juice or crushed but not pressed grape pulp and skin. This spirit is aged in wooden casks (usually oak) which colors it, mellows the palate, and adds additional aromas and flavors.
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. Fruit brandies made from cherries are called Kirsch or Kirschwasser; from pears, Poire, and from raspberries, Framboise. They are best served chilled over ice. Fruit-flavored brandies are brandy based liqueurs flavored with blackberries, peaches, apricots, cherries, and so on.
The most highly regarded of the world's great brandies is cognac which can only be made from grapes grown and distilled from within the specially-demarcated Cognac region, about 100 miles north of Bordeaux on the coast of France. (Hence, all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.)
The origins of cognac are closely related to the commerce of salt and wine. Vinyards have existed in Saintonge as far back as the Gallo-Roman times and were probably planted during the last part of the third century AD. Probus, the roman emperor, extended the privilege of owning vines and making wine to all Gauls, but the extent of the plantation was still very limited. The real extension came during the 12th century when salt shipments for Norway started to include local wines.
The wine, unfortunately, would not travel very well and was also very bulky. Dutch transporters, along with the French wine producers from Charente, thought of distilling the wine. The product became considerably reduced in volume and more stable. For practical reasons, the spirits were stored in oak casks. It was then realized that the spirits had matured with age in the casks and could be drunk pure.
The Making of Cognac
Cognac is distilled following a specific, traditional, two-stage method. In the still, the condensed vapours are sent back through the apparatus to be distilled a second time. This involves the use of the Charentais still, made entirely of copper with a total capacity not exceeding 30 hl and a maximum load of 25 hl. Maximum alcohol content of distillate: 72% vol. Distillation must take place by 31 March of the year following the harvest.
The following regulations apply to storage and maturing. Maturing must take place in a type of cellar known as Jaune dOr Golden Yellow reserved for Cognac and separated by a public thoroughfare from any other premises containing spirits of other origins. This bestows the right to use the special Jaune dOr transport permit introduced by the legislation. Only oak casks may be used (oak from the Limousin or Tronçais forests according to custom). The quantity and age of the product must be verified by Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the Cognac industrys governing body. All Cognac sold must have been aged for a minimum period count 2 (around 30 months).
Choosing a Cognac
Cognac labels, beyond providing all legal information (capacity, place of production or bottling) also provide additional information on the product, including its age and vintages.
The indications on age
Cognac has established very strict rules to protect consumers and to also prevent its production and presentation from being counterfeited.. A cognac that is ready to be commercialised must be at least two and a half years old starting from the 1st October of the year of harvest. For the different classes of Cognac, it is the age of the youngest spirit that determins its class.
***, V.S. (Very Special), Sélection, de Luxe.
The youngest spirit of the assembly may not be less than four and a half years old. But often, the spirits are much older.
The youngest spirit in the assembly for Very Superior Old Pales, also called Reserve Cognacs is between four and a half and six and a half years old.
All terms like Napoleon, XO or "very old" are assemblies of spirits that are at least six and a half years old. Most Cognacs are well above this minimum imposed by the regulation. In fact some of the most prestigious names assemble spirits that are each at least dozens of years above the minimum required.
The appelations by vintage
A "Grande Champagne" or "Fine Grande Champagne" cognac is assembled with 100% Grande Champagne spirits. A "Petite Champagne" or "Fine Petite Champagne" cognac is assembled with 100% Petite Champagne spirits. A "Fine Champagne" cognac is the result of an assembly of Grande and Petite Champagne spirits with a minimum of 50% from Grande Champagne. A "Borderies" or "Fine Borderies" cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Borderies area. A "Fin Bois" or "Fine Fins Bois" cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Fins Bois area. A "Bons Bois" ou "Fine Bons Bois" cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Bons Bois area.
Cigars, Brandy and Cognac
The most famous brandy region is Cognac, in France. Another great area for brandy production is Armagnac, southeast of Bordeaux. Cognac is devoted to the pot still, whereas Armagnac uses a hybrid method that is a cross between continuous and pot stilling. Cognac uses Limosin oak, an expensive oak that is used for many famous wines, while Armagnac uses a local black oak.
The qualities to look for most in brandies are balance, richness, and fruit. While extensive oak aging is often a mark of quality, if it overpowers the flavor of fruit, the brandy can taste coarse. A regrettable practice that is often done to modestly priced Cognacs is caramelization. It gives the brandy a darker color as well as the illusion of more aging and lends a coarse quality that overwhelms any flavor of fruit.
Many cigar smokers find Brandy or Cognac the perfect complement to a good smoke. The crispness of a fine Brandy or Cognac go wonderfully with the smooth, spicy flavors of a hand-rolled cigar. American brandies are often fruitier, but display the same complex flavors that come with barrel aging. Spanish brandies are usually deeper in color and often have a sweet, smoky component that enhances a cigar.