Few spirits embody the idea of regal class and distinction like a fine brandy. Of all the distilled libations, brandy is perhaps the least immediately approachable. Even the finest examples are a wave of alcoholic heat and uber-rich aromas; a far cry from the easy-to-mix-and-sip vodkas, gins, whiskies, and rums of the world. Those who take the time to appreciate and enjoy a good brandy are richly rewarded.
The name “brandy” derives from the original Dutch brandewijn or “burnt wine,” a change that was precipitated by its growing popularity. And, just like almost every other example of progress in beverage and culinary history, brandy‘s invention happened by accident and not by necessity.
Served neat or on the rocks, brandy is a final destination drink. You end the night with brandy; you do not start with it. Once a brandy has graced your palate, all other drinks will seem utterly toothless and weak by comparison. Its sheer strength and fierce warmth will make sure of that. After all, it is always best to end on a high note.
Leader of the Pack
By far, the most famous expression of “burnt wines” are those originating in the Cognac region of France, just south of Bordeaux. While brandies of all shapes, sizes and qualities abound, the spirits of Cognac have carved out their place at the forefront of the consumer market. Made almost exclusively from the little known grape Ugni Blanc (also known in Italy as Trebbiano), the wines that start out as the base are literally undrinkable, having been picked so early in their growing cycle they are searingly acidic. The wine then goes through the delicate and painstaking process of distillation before undergoing oak aging – the key to elevating the drink from “throat-burning firewater” to “elegant fireside companion.” Brandies from Cognac are aged exclusively in casks made from the Limousin and Tronçais oak forests northeast of Bordeaux, long favoured as superior for oak aging of spirits.
The Diamond in the Rough
Then there is Cognac‘s older brother, Armagnac. The town of Armagnac, located further south in Gascony, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, boasts a longer history of brandy production than Cognac. Unlike virtually all Cognacs that are produced by large companies that buy their grapes from various producers, Armagnac’s take a more artisanal approach. The brandies of Armagnac are handmade by individual producers and are arguably of higher quality than their more famous Cognac counterparts. There is many a brandy geek that claim that dollar-for-dollar a good Armagnac will outperform a Cognac in taste tests any day.
Not all great brandies originate in France. Spain has an even longer tradition of renowned brandy production than either Cognac or Armagnac. Nearly all Spanish brandies come from Jerez in the southwest tip along the Atlantic coast in the region most famous for Sherry production. To wit, Brandy de Jerez are aged in sherry casks and made from the indigenous Airen and Palomino grapes, with the latter being the principle Sherry grape. These brandies are blended the same way as Sherry wine, using a process called Solera, or fractional blending, where new vintages are introduced to the
overall mass of previous vintages. The theory distillers believe is that the older, high quality brandy seasons “teach” the new vintages. Enjoying Brandy
First and foremost, it is important to know what to expect when pursuing brandy. There are a number of age-derived designations adorning (French) brandy bottles, however the three most commonly found are VS, VSOP and XO. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of appellation-designated minimum aging requirements, simply remember: younger (VS), aged (VSOP), and extra aged (XO), with prices reflecting the same. The younger brandies will lean toward floral and fruity aromas and flavours, and will be lighter in mouthfeel. Older brandies bring more notes of caramel, wood, dried and candied fruits, as well as a richer, more voluptu-ous feel on the palate.
Many people favour heating a dram of brandy up, but this misconception should be avoided. “Hand warm” is the temperature preferred by brandy aficionados, which is achieved simply by holding the glass long enough to allow one‘s body heat to raise the temperature of the glass itself.
When tasting a brandy, nose the glass carefully. Allow the aromas to waft to your nostrils from a few centimetres first, then get closer, ensuring the more delicate aromas can be assessed without the strong alcohol notes getting in the way. Then, take a very small sip and allow it roll or swish around the palate, before swallowing and enjoying the warm glow that this special beverage elicits.