Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Brandy 101: What is it?

The word brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. The vast majority of brandy is made by distilling some form of wine. Through distillation, the water in wine is separated from the alcohol. This creates a much stronger drink than regular wine. Most brandy is aged in wood casks, typically oak, for several years. This turns the clear distillate into a fine brown amber color, just like whiskey.

It's worth mentioning that not all brandy is made solely from grapes. There are plum brandies, pear and apple brandies, peach brandy, prune brandy, and even brandy made from other fruits like the juniper berry. You may have seen things like blackberry or ginger-flavored brandy as well. Typically these are not actually distilled from blackberry or ginger. They take a fairly standard brandy and infuse it with blackberries or just blend it with a liqueur. They are still fine products but often have a great deal more sugar than standard brandies.

Pomace brandy is an interesting regional trend. With pomace brandy it is not just the wine that is used to make the brandy, it is the whole grape. A great deal of pomace brandy actually uses substantially less grape juice. Many cultures will juice the grapes to make wine and then take the residual grape pulp and use that to make their brandy. The pulp still contains enough sugar to yield some alcohol. The brandy that comes from the pulp might not yield the same flavors as the wine but different doesn't mean worse. The skin of the grape does bare flavor just as the juice does. Italian grappa is quite flavorful. It is unaged and it carries a great dry wine aroma without feeling burnt. 

Certain regions have opted to call their style of brandy by a different name. Grape brandy from the Cognac region of France is designated as cognac provided it complies with the regulations of the region. The same is true for Armagnac. There is an Appellation d' Origine contrôlée, which legally declares that nothing can be sold as cognac unless it complies with the standards of the land. It acts almost like a patent or copyright protecting the name of the spirit.

If you've ever bought brandy you probably notice that brands often offer a line of products or various grades. The letters, VS, VSOP, and XO are very common in brandy, cognac, Armagnac, and even some rum and other liquors. VS stands for Very Special. VSOP stands for Very Superior Old and Pale, and XO stands for Extra Old. In order, they reflect how long the brandy is aged, from 2 years to 4 years, to 6 years. As something is aged it takes on more flavors and complexities from the wood. Some Brandies have been aged upwards of 50 years. It does take work to age liquor and prices do go up the higher the grade of brandy. Try it all. Find your sweet spot. 

"An American monkey, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus is much wiser than most men."
- Charles Darwin

Photo Credit: Needpix, wikimedia

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