The Brandy Guide: No Experience Necessary

Here is an amazing fact: more brandy is sold annually in America than gin and Scotch. That is a surprising and interesting insight into a market that is changing rapidly. Alongside these changes is a lack of real knowledge about brandy as a product.

It appears that most people think that all brandy is Cognac. Wrong!

There is a belief out there that all brandy is French, made from grapes and sipped from snifters? Wrong again!

According to the latest data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, in 2017 there were 11.1 million 9-litre cases of brandy sold in the United States, up 15 per cent from 2012, with the super-premium category leading the charge, up 54.3 per cent. That’s more brandy sold annually than gin, at 10 million cases, and Scotch, at 9.43 million cases. It is genuinely incredible.

Yet, for so many drinkers that I speak with, brandy simply equates to Hennessy or Remy Martin. There is a generic and cliché image of a stuffy old white man in a smoking jacket with a snifter by a fireplace drinking some unpronounceable French brandy is how most people see Brandy. It is an amazingly diverse and interesting collection of spirits.

Let’s start with just a few of the brandies from around the world:

  • Brandy de Jerez is a Spanish brandy made in the Jerez region of Andalusia.
  • Calvados hails from France, however, it’s an apple brandy and must come from the Normandy region.
  • Grappa is an Italian pomace brandy, made from the pomace left over after winemaking.
  • Ouzo, from Greece, is also made from pomace, however, it’s flavoured with anise and potentially other herbs, so is not technically a brandy.
  • Palinka is a Hungarian fruit brandy which dates back to the 14th century.
  • Palenka, meanwhile, comes from the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
  • Pisco is a Peruvian brandy, although Chile makes it too under different classifications and the two nations battle over the term. As opposed to Cognac, with mandatory oak barrel ageing, Peruvian Pisco cannot be aged in wood.
  • Rakia is a Balkan fruit brandy, but it’s not to be confused with Raki, a Turkish anise-flavoured spirit distilled from grape pomace à la Ouzo.
  • Schnapps is a broad classification of fruit brandies from Germany.

So that leads to a better question, what is Brandy?

Well, Brandy, by definition, refers to a spirit which has been distilled from wine, or another fermented fruit juice. It can be aged, as is required for Cognacs, or it can be unaged, and it can come from anywhere in the world.

What is Cognac? Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine. It simply means that brandy known as Cognac is, made in a specific region of France following specific rules to guarantee its quality. The Cognac region is in western France, north of Bordeaux, with one border on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Beyond Champagne to sparkling wine, there’s another easy comparison as well. I frequently explain to people the difference between bourbon and whiskey, namely that bourbon is a type of whiskey. I similarly try to explain to people that Cognac is a type of brandy

Within Cognac, there’s a broad range of styles, as there is within any other category of spirit, such as bourbon. For instance, half a dozen different sub-regions exist within Cognac, noted as offering different taste characteristics and overall quality levels.

The Grande Champagne de Cognac is a very special and small area in the heart of the Cognac region. Most Cognac houses have a Grande Champagne edition that is usually their most prestigious.

Cognac must be made from a specific selection of grapes, double distilled in copper alembic stills and aged for a minimum of two years in French Limousin oak. Cognac is most often blended, utilizing grapes from different regions, as well as barrels of different ages. There’s also a hierarchy of quality for Cognac, including:

  • V.S., “Very Special” or “Three Star” Cognac, in which the youngest brandy is at least two years.
  • V.S.O.P., “Very Special Old Pale” or “Reserve,” with a minimum age of four years.
  • X.O., “Extra Old” or “Napoleon,” with a minimum age of six years, set to change to a minimum of 10 years in 2016.
  • Hors d’Age is used to indicate even older and more premium releases.

Before time spent in those oak barrels, as is required for Cognac, a spirit made in the same fashion anywhere in the world is known as an eau de vie, referring to a clear brandy. Meanwhile, the term ‘fruit brandy’ can be used to refer to brandy made from any fruit besides grapes.

Cognac must be made from a specific selection of grapes, double distilled in copper alembic stills and aged for a minimum of two years in French Limousine oak.

One of the many misconceptions is that all Cognac does not need to be sipped neat. Of course, traditional drinks such as the Sidecar and Vieux Carré are made with Cognac, so the spirit’s cocktail heritage is strong.

Those looking to try a style of Cognac (young and lively, but still with dark, rich flavours and a higher proof) that would have been originally used in those drinks and other classic cocktails should look to Pierre Ferrand’s 1840 Original Formula—a super unique and relatively new bottle that has won several notable awards.

Armagnac, an aged French brandy hailing from a region south of Cognac, has started to gain traction stateside as an often more affordable Cognac alternative. Three sub-regions exist within Armagnac and, as opposed to Cognac’s double alembic still distillation, brandy production in the area typically involves a single distillation using column stills.

Armagnac’s spirit classification system is like that of Cognac’s. Here though, V.S.O.P. indicates a minimum age of five years, rather than four, X.O. is stays put at six years, and Hors d’Age indicates a minimum of 10 years.

Sometimes I like to spin an imaginary globe and randomly pick a country – a distinctive brandy is likely produced there. That includes the United States, with applejack, which is distilled from hard apple cider, otherwise known as fermented apple juice. Apples and apple cider were both used for brandy production in America dating back to the colonial period.

Today, a broad range of brandy is produced from coast to coast in the USA. That includes the aforementioned Catoctin Creek, which makes 1757 Virginia Brandy, Pearousia, a pear brandy, and several other fruit brandies.

Like with beer there is a growing market in ‘craft distilleries. Small American producers like Osocalis and Germain Robin, are putting enormous effort, love and energy into making outstanding American brandies.

It is time to enjoy Brandy in a new and exciting way. Start exploring and enjoy!