A Gentleman’s Introduction to Brandy

A Gentleman’s Introduction to Brandy
Exploring the delicious world of a lesser-known liquor.

Even in today’s more cocktail-centric world, in which quality ingredients and careful preparation are celebrated, and liquor is enjoying a wave of popularity and respect that it hasn’t seen since perhaps the days before Prohibition, brandy still suffers from a bit of a stuffy reputation.

No more, I say! Forget that image of an older gentleman in a robe, nestled into his arm chair in front of a roaring fire, swirling a gigantic snifter of amber liquid in his hand and taking from it the occasional sip. Brandy can be much more than that. Like whiskey or gin, Brandy comes in many varieties, each with its own subtle nuances. It can be bold and bright, subtle and warming, high proof or toned down. It can be mixed with or taken neat, and is just as happy serving as a modifier in a cocktail as taking center stage. In short, it’s a versatile, delicious liquor worthy of celebration and a place of honor in your liquor cabinet.

Great … But What Is It?

Brandy is the distilled alcohol extracted from any fruit-based mash. A good deal of the world’s brandy is made from grapes and, indeed, the word “brandy” derives from the Middle Dutch “Brantwijn” or “Burned [i.e.: distilled] Wine.” Wine-based brandies come in two types: regular and “pomace,” the latter of which is distilled from the skins and peels of grapes, in addition to just the juice. This gives a different, earthier flavor to the finished product. Examples of this type include Italian grappa and South American pisco. It’s also possible to make brandies from fruits like apples, pears, cherries, and more. These fruit brandies are often called eaux-de-vie, which is French for waters of life.

Many wine-based brandies are, like whiskey, aged in oak barrels for some period of time. This gives the liquor its amber color and notes of spice, caramel, and dried fruit. Like whiskies, the aging process also increases the price. Fortunately, there are inexpensive brandies out there that are very good, and we’ll be covering a few. Brandies made from other fruits are sometimes aged (the French apple Brandy Calvados, for example) and sometimes not (some pisco, most eaux-de-vie).

brandy liquor

Types of Brandies

While brandy is a catch-all descriptor for this type of alcohol, there are many specific types worth mentioning. The two best-known types of brandy in the world are probably Cognac and Armagnac, both from France. These two brandies can only be produced in their respective regions, from specific grape varietals. Fine cognacs can run in the thousands of dollars for a bottle, and that’s not even getting into vintages that were distilled before the introduction of American phylloxera mites to European grape stocks utterly decimated the brandy-making world in the 1860s. Yes, you can still buy brandy from before that era … if you have ten grand or more to spend on a single bottle of booze.

Beyond the two French styles, though, there is a whole world of brandy on offer. We’re going to cover as many as we can here. As always, feel free to chime in down in the comments with further suggestions!

courvoisier

Cognac

Here we have the grande dame of brandies, against which all others are measured. Cognac is both a type of brandy and the region in France that produces it. It’s an aged, grape-based brandy that usually comes with a tremendous depth of flavor. Younger cognacs often present light fruit and oak notes, with older ones blooming into lots of dried fruit and spice.  Cognac is usually bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV).

By law, you can’t make cognac outside of Cognac, and even inside Cognac you must use specific grapes, and follow specific aging restrictions. Most cognac contains a blend of brandies, and is labeled according to the period of time the youngest brandy of the bunch has spent aging in oak casks. In general the average age of the blend is much older than that of the youngest brandy, with many XOs easily reaching an average age of twenty years.

The labeling scheme is:

Very Special/Superior (VS) – Aged for at least two years.

Very Special/Superior Old Pale (VSOP) – Aged for at least four years.

Extra Old (XO) – Aged for at least six years. According to Wikipedia, citing the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, this will be raised to ten years in 2016.

Brands to Try: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Remy Martin, Hine, Camus, Martell

Suggested Cocktail: Cognac will work beautifully in any brandy-based cocktail, but it’s especially at home in one of the most venerable of the bunch, the Old-School Sazerac.

armagnac

Armagnac

A little harder to find than cognac, armagnac is nonetheless available at most quality liquor stores. Like Cognac, it’s named after the region of France which produces it, and only brandies made there can legally be called armagnacs. Fruitier than its cousin early on due to a different distilling process, Armagnac transitions into caramel and toffee notes as it ages and takes on more character from the wood. Armagnac is usually bottled at 92-96 proof (46-48% ABV).

Also Like cognac, armagnac must adhere to certain labeling requirements, with the classification built on the age of the youngest brandy in the blend. Armagnacs designated by the year of their bottling are common, and you can find many a liquor store in France with a wide selection reaching back fifty years or more.

The labeling system for armagnac is:

VS – Aged for at least two years.

VSOP – Aged for at least five years.

XO – Aged for at least six years.

Hors d’âge – This roughly translates to “beyond age” and is aged for at least ten years.

Brands to Try: Castarède, Cerbois Bas, Sempe, Delord

Suggested Cocktail: Armagnac pairs incredibly well with the Benedictine and Dry Vermouth found in a classic Vieux Carré.

E&J XO American Brandy

American Brandy

American brandy, like American wine, suffered from a bad rap for a long time. Well past the time, in fact, when it had actually gotten good. No more: people know now that you can get some amazing wines from California, Oregon, and other parts of the US … and some of those wines are being distilled and aged in oak, just like their French cousins. The flavor profile of American brandy is usually similar to that of cognac, though because the Americans are free to use a wider variety of grapes, there is a broad range of possibilities.

Like Cognac, American brandies often use the VS, VSOP, and XO classifications to denote the age and quality of the liquor within, although unlike Cognac and Armagnac, those designations are not legally enforced. Because American brandies are, shall we say, not always quite so refined as their French cousins, I recommend VSOP or better. The good news: American brandy is often a fraction of the price of Cognac or Armagnac. In fact, finding any other oak-aged liquor at these prices, whiskey or brandy or otherwise, is almost impossible. E&J XO, for example, is a terrific brandy that’s on par with many VSOP Cognacs, can be had for about $15 at many liquor stores.

Brands to Try: E&J, Paul Masson, Christian Brothers, Korbel

Suggested Cocktail: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better brandy-based cocktail than The Sidecar.

lustau

Brandy de Jerez

Spanish brandy, like Spanish wine (both normal and fortified) is often overlooked. You just don’t hear as much about Brandy de Jerez as you do about French and American brandies. That’s too bad, because the Spanish brandy-making tradition is robust and produces some unique entries, many with subtle flavors of nuts and dried fruit. You may have heard of Jerez before – it’s the region of Spain responsible for giving sherry, a fortified wine similar to port, its name. Brandy de Jerez is made using many of the same grapes and techniques that produce sherry, including the Solera technique, in which older liquids are blended continuously with newer batches to create the final product.

Like other brandies, Brandy de Jerez has a classification system. Solera has an average age of one year and is light and fruity. Solera Reserva has an average age of three years and displays more oak characteristics. Solera Gran Reserva has an average age of ten years and brings lots of dried fruits, roasted nuts, and other notes traditional in liquors long-aged in oak.

Brands to Try: Lustau, González Byass, Magno

Suggested Cocktail: The Between the Sheets, while often made with other brandies, works very well with Brandy de Jerez. The aged rum will really help bring out the brandy’s flavor.

Calvados

Calvados is a delicious French brandy distilled from fresh apples. It has a significant apple scent, but in flavor is delicate, with apple notes that combine very well with the traditional wood and caramel flavors that come from oak aging. It’s produced in the lower part of the Normandy region, in the north of the country, and its production dates back at least to the mid-sixteenth century. To qualify as Calvados, rather than eau-de-vie, the distillate must be aged in oak for a minimum of two years.

Much like seemingly everything else in France, there are many laws dictating exactly how Calvados can be labeled. In addition to certain location designations, Calvados uses age indicators similar to Cognac and Armagnac.  The age on the bottle always refers to the youngest brandy in the blend, and is labeled as follows – two years: Fine, Trois étoiles, 3 Star, or Trois Pommes. Three years: Vieux or Reserve. Four years: VO, VSOP, or Vielle Réserve. Six or more years: Extra, XO, Napoléon, Hors d’Age, or Age Inconnu.

Brands to Try: Daron, Busnel, Chateau Du Breuil, Boulard

Suggested Cocktail: The Widow’s Kiss is a big, rich, decadent cocktail made with Calvados. We recommend it with fervor.

applejack brandy

Applejack / Apple Brandy

This is Calvados’s wild, unrefined, American cousin. Originally made by repeatedly freezing hard apple cider and skimming the ice from the top, thus slowly increasing the alcohol content, it’s now most typically distilled and stored in the same manner as Calvados. Generally speaking, apple brandies (and applejack in particular) have a heartier apple flavor than French entries, and are a little rougher around the edges, owing in part to the fact that there’s no clear-cut grading system established.

Don’t let that frighten you, though. Applejack is inexpensive and delicious, and many American apple brandies are just as fine as Calvados.

Brands to Try: Laird’s, Clear Creek, Orchard Hill

Suggested Cocktail: The Jack Rose is a classic Applejack cocktail with a nice blend of sweet and sour that really works with the base liquor’s apple flavor.

Pisco

Pisco is a South American pomace brandy made in Chile and Peru that is often clear and occasionally light yellow. As many varieties of grape can be used in its production, and as the two countries that produce it have very different methods of doing so, Pisco has a wide range of flavors, though the majority of them have a fresh grape scent at the forefront.

Peruvian pisco is aged for as little as three months in chemically inert vessels (i.e.: glass, metal, etc), and thus has none of the flavors associated with oak aging. It cannot contain additives of any kind. It is bottled at distillation strength, without dilution. At its base, Peruvian Pisco resembles strong, slightly grape-scented vodka. However, some methods of creation are specifically designed to retain more flavors from the fermenting grape mash, giving the alcohol much more character.

Chilean pisco is aged in oak and can be diluted to various strengths before bottling. At the lower end of the spectrum, Chilean pisco resembles low-strength white rum, but the older and higher-alcohol variants have a great deal of flavor. The longer it’s aged, the more wood flavors it picks up, with long-aged variants coming to resemble French and American brandies, albeit with a much stronger grape flavor due to the use of grape must in the distillation.

Brands to Try: Pisco Portón, Macchu Pisco, Control C, Capel

Suggested Cocktail: The Pisco Sour is the most classic pisco cocktail you’re going to find, and the unique use of bitters makes it an interesting variant on the standard sour.

Eaux-de-Vie

If you start with fruit as a base, distill it, and bottle the result without aging it in wood for any extended period, you’ve got eaux-de-vie. These typically clear (but sometimes colored) liquors resemble vodka with subtle fruit notes, and are often served chilled in small glasses as digestifs. Common fruits used in making eaux-de-vie include pears, apples, plums, and peaches, but other fruits may also show up.

In Germany, this type of liquor is called Schnaps, but don’t confuse that with the syrupy-sweet, heavily-flavored stuff that gets labeled “Schnapps” in America. They’re effectively unrelated. German Schnaps, like all other Eaux-de-Vie, are sugarless, high-proof liquors like the rest of the brandies on this list.

Brands to Try: Clear Creek, Harvest Spirits, and dozens of European brands.

Suggested Cocktail: Believe it or not, there really aren’t any classic Eau de Vie cocktails out there. I recommend giving the Poire Bomb, created by Dan Chadwick, a shot:

  • 2 oz. Pear Eau de Vie
  • .5 oz. Maraschino
  • .5 oz. Ginger Liqueur
  • .5 oz. Lemon Juice
  • 1 Dash Peychaud’s Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice and shake thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with a pear slice.

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website, cwbuecheler.com.

  • Travis Davidson

    This is a topic I have always wanted to learn more about! Thank you for the information.

    • Bryan S

      Same here, I’ve been putting off making brandy based cocktails as I knew nothing about it.

      • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

        I strongly recommend grabbing a bottle of good American brandy (E&J and Paul Masson both make good stuff). It’s cheap, you can sip it or cocktail with it, and it’s an easy way to get an introduction into that side of the liquor. From there, developing a taste for cognac and armagnac is not hard … trust me (and my poor wallet). :)

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Glad to be of help! Brandy’s such a huge category, it can be a little daunting, but there’s some delicious stuff in there (much of it inexpensive!) if you know where to look.

      • Travis Davidson

        Inexpensive is good…for now. I enjoy whiskey, do you have any recommendations to start in the brandy world from that angle?

        • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

          If you like whiskey, then American brandy, cognac, or armagnac will all be in your wheelhouse. They’re all oak-aged like whiskey and have a similar flavor profile, just that the base spirit is distilled from grapes instead of grain. You won’t find any smokey brandies, so nothing akin to an Islay scotch, but plenty of brandies have similar flavor profiles to bourbon, Irish whiskey, and some of the softer scotch whiskies (rye … not so much. It’s a little spicier).

          I’d strongly recommend E&J XO, Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP, and Camus VSOP (possibly also VS but I haven’t had it). The old standbys — Courvoisier, Hennesey, and Remy Martin — are also all excellent even at the VS level.

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  • Steve Gordon

    I read somewhere that South African KWV brandy is produced identically to Cognac (though not sure about the grape variety used), and some people consider it on par. The age ranges from 3 yrs (mixer) to 20 yrs and above. I did a chocolate pairing of the 5, 10 and 20 yr at one of their distilleries – pretty nice, though brandy is definitely something I need to get more acquainted with.

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      I’ve never had South African brandy, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. The cognac method is a sound way to take plain old base spirit and make it into something magnificent, and the days when only the French knew how to do it right are long past (which is not to say that the French don’t still do a great job!). I’ll see if I can find some at my local liquor store — they carry a pretty wide variety of stuff.

  • adam

    Great article on an under-appreciated spirit!
    I will say, the American stuff is great for how much it costs. Although, I think Paul Masson VSOP and St. Remy VSOP are worlds above E&J XO

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      The internet seems really torn about E&J XO. I quite like it, but some people find it has too much of a maple syrup nose for them. Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP is probably the highest-rated American brandy out there, so definitely a good bet. I haven’t had St. Remy VSOP but I’m sure it’s also excellent.

      • Jason Siegel

        St. Remy is excellent. It’s like $12 a bottle where I live in NE Ohio. Still, I’d rather spend $3 more, and get Masson VSOP. That stuff goes great with a night of MMORPGs…..

  • http://www.thecleanmind.com James Cook

    I’ve been trying new liquors and, after reading this post, stopped by and picked up E & J XO on your recommendation. THANK YOU! I now have a new favorite over bourbon!

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Awesome. Glad to hear you’re enjoying it! Don’t give up on bourbon, though … there’s some spectacular bourbons out there to enjoy.

      • http://www.thecleanmind.com James Cook

        Oh, not giving up, just expanding my horizons!

    • Hindianna Jones

      What time does your bar open? lol

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  • melmoth

    I only drink liquor neat. I don’t even like to add ice. I don’t understand why people buy a product they admire just to add sugary children’s drinks to it to hide the taste of the original product. I’m not going to buy a Brioni tie and then find all kinds of cool designs to add to it with crayons. But to each their own.

    However, is there any information about drinking neat Brandies? Just the obvious, maybe…get a decent quality one and go for it? Is one better than another for a ‘neat’ guy?

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      A good cocktail does nothing to mask the base spirit’s taste but instead enhances and complements it, making something that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s why you can absolutely tell the difference between a daiquiri made with cheap white rum, and a daiquiri made with the good stuff. The latter is sublime.

      Describing the vast array of vermouths, quinquinas, amari, digestifs, aperitifs, and liqueurs out there with the blanket descriptor “sugary children’s drinks” is just absurd.

      That said, if you want to drink your brandy neat — which I wholeheartedly support! — the traditional vessel is a snifter, which is worth using. Just get something decent and pour about an ounce to an ounce and a half into the snifter. The glass is built to let your hand warm the liquor and release its aromas, which the shape of the glass concentrates.

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  • Davide

    Salve a tutti… ho una bottiglia di Brandy Paloma Picasso vecchio 800… può interessare a qualcuno?

  • Davide
  • 235711

    Metaxa?

  • Hindianna Jones

    Thanks for all of the great info, Christopher. Getting brandy for the boss and want to give him a great tasting product, without emptying my wallet. (Need a raise here. lol)

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Glad to help. American XO’s or french VSOPs are good bets. VSOP and even XO Armagnac is often more affordable than equivalent Cognac, and quite good. XO Calvados can also be had for reasonable prices in some liquor stores. Good luck!

      • moretears

        Do you have any knowledge of why the state of Wisconsin, out of all American states, including California, is interested in brandy way above the American norm? Is there something in Wisconsin history that explains why brandy sales in that state are huge relative to brandy sales in every other part of the country?

        • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

          No one really knows for certain, but the generally-accepted line of thought is that German settlers brought a preference for brandy over whiskey with them to Wisconsin, and once something like that has taken hold in the culture it just kind of gets passed down from generation to generation. Brandy sales apparently vary widely by area of the state (and even parts of the larger cities), with less-German populations generally consuming less brandy.

          • moretears

            Sounds like a good, and credible, theory. Very interesting. And thanks for replying so quickly. If you have time to answer another question, and seeing how highly you recommend Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP, do you know anything about Paul Masson changing the blend so that it no longer includes some imported cognac? From what I am reading on-line, the VSOP used to mention cognac on the bottle, but now just says “a blend of fine brandies,” and people are saying the product is no longer as good. Any comment on that? Do you still like it a lot?

          • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

            I honestly haven’t had it in a long time. Right now I’m living in France, where uh … they don’t sell much American brandy. Previously, my local store didn’t carry it, so I tended to use E&J XO as my American brandy of choice.

            I kind of have a hard time believing that a small amount of cognac in the blend makes that much difference, but if enough people are saying it’s gone downhill, then I’d approach with caution. The good news: it’s cheap, so it’s not like experimenting is going to set you back the way a VSOP cognac or armagnac would.

          • moretears

            Again, thanks. I have been reading a lot about brandy and specifically cognac lately (hence my reading your article above). One of the things I read, which surprised me, is that the French really don’t care for cognac, and 97% of it is exported. The French are apparently crazy about blended scotch. Does this conform to your own observations? Is there any interest in bourbon in France?

          • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

            There’s plenty of cognac and armagnac available in France, both in bars and on store shelves, but the observation that scotch is king (both blended and single malt) is accurate. It’s the most widely represented alcohol on liquor shelves here by a significant margin.

            Jack Daniels is the only American whiskey that can reliably be found. Most everything else, you have to go to a liquor store, and most liquor stores only carry one or two brands of bourbon (only a handful carry any rye at all). The cocktail scene here is growing, though, so people are learning and branching out.

  • Susan Duran Duran

    HI! I have a several food intolerances ( Corn/wheat/gluten/dairy/eggs/ barley/plum) and now must look for an alcohol free from corn etc that I can tolerate. Can you confirm that corn is not ever used in the process?

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Sure thing. I’ve never heard of a brandy being made with corn. I guess it’s possible that very, very cheap brandies might use corn liquor to cut corners on price, but certainly if you buy any cognac, armagnac, or any of the good american brandies, there’s not going to be any corn-based liquor in them. Legally, all cognac and armagnac have to conform to certain production standards, one of which is that they’re made purely from grapes found in certain regions of France.

  • Javier Nuñez

    Very nice post Christopher! I love Sherry style brandies. And the “weird guys” in sherry brandies are Ximénez-Spínola. Very rare and old with PX grapes. I recommend checking them out.

  • Tim Kennedy

    Chris…my favorite is Ararat Armenian Cognac Nairi 20 years old. It is best served straight. I recommend reading up on it, specifically why it has the distinct privilege of being called cognac. Also, give it a try. There are several other Ararat cognacs such as Dvin, Ani, Aktamar, and a couple of others. In my opinion, it beats all the others out there.

    Tim

    • philip

      A few points about brandy: Like all spirits,brandy ages only in the cask. Once bottled, it doesn’t get any better. This means that a really good brandy could have been bottled yesterday. Blending is everything. I live near to the Armagnac region but a good Cognac is my preference, and I mean GOOD (better than Hennessy XO, please).
      For drinking, the glass should be small enough to fit within two hands. This is so that you can warm it just by holding it (never over a flame!). When warmed, bring it up to your nose and, gently touching both sides of your nostrils with your two thumbs, breath in slowly through your nose and mouth together to best savour the aroma. Take your time before actually sipping it. Shear heaven!

    • Sammael

      Just to point something out.
      Ararat is an very good brandy. I had a pleasure of trying it out couple of years ago, and with Albanian Scanderberg brandy is one of the nicest surprises I found.
      But calling them cognac is wrong. For a brandy to be called cognac, it has to be made in France, in cognac region. Many local brandies in eastern Europe call themselves cognac (though the ones that entered or hope to enter EU had to change, for example in Serbia and Croatia it has been rename Vinjak) but they are not. Cognac is a protected regional name for a very specific type of brandy.

  • Richard Cotromano

    I used to like bourbon,Jack Daniels,but I tried brandy for the first time a couple of months ago.I tried a few brands but settled on E&J VSOP,tried the XO,but a little too spicey,even though I’m Italian and love spicey.

  • Clecy Conner

    I just bought and tried E&J XO Extra Smooth…quite literally the best alcohol I’ve ever tasted!!!

  • Leslie

    And don’t forget Hungary’s national drink, palinka!!