Brandy Guide - What is Brandy?

A complete Guide to Brandy

By Timo Torner / Last updated on October 14, 2022 

First published on September 25, 2022 

Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruits. It comes in many different varieties and is often served neat or as a component in cocktails.

When talking about Brandy, many people have a similar image in mind. An elderly man sitting in a leather armchair, smoking a pipe or cigar, and enjoying a drink in a snifter. 

This image makes it clear that many see Brandy as a thing of the past and nothing that's overly appealing in modern times.

Yet, Brandy is a broad topic, and it's, in fact, very popular these days. It just depends on which type of Brandy you look at. Time to explain this exquisite spirit in detail and to highlight the differences in the varieties available.

Brandy Fact Sheet

Spirit base: Grapes or grape pomace, but also other fruits like apple, plum, etc.
ABV: 35% to 60%
Proof: 70 to 120
Calories per ounce: 60 to 118
Origin: France
Color: Mostly golden or brown color
Best served: Neat or in cocktails

Glass of Brandy

What is Brandy?

Per definition, Brandy is a distilled spirit made from grape wine, although it can also be other fruits. But those products must be labeled as "fruit Brandy".

Pomace Brandies are an interesting sub-type. While regular Brandy is made from fermenting grape juice, aka wine, pomace Brandies are made from the leftovers from winemaking. That includes the fruit skins, pulp, seeds, and stems.

The most popular pomace Brandy is from Italy and is known as Grappa. But also in other countries like France, Spain, Portugal, and others, pomace Brandies are a thing.

Brandy, like its subtypes, can be sold aged or unaged. Unaged Brandy is clear, and aged Brandy often has a brown or golden color from aging in wooden barrels.

The different Brandy types

Brandy comes in many different types and subtypes. There are differences in the fruits used, the fermentation process, location, and distillation.

Here are some of the most popular Brandy types:

Armagnac: This is a traditional and quite popular French Brandy exclusively produced in the Armagnac region. It's aged for ten years and best served neat.

Brandy de Jerez: This Spanish Brandy is produced in Jerez, Andalusia, and ages in Sherry casks. 

Calvados: Calvados is another French Brandy. This fruit Brandy is based on apples and is produced in the Normandy region.

Cognac: Cognac is a grape-based Brandy exclusively produced in the Cognac region and the most popular type of Brandy.

Eau-de-vie: These Brandies are colorless and unaged and can be made from various fruits. They're best in cocktails and other mixed drinks.

Grappa: Grappa is an Italian pomace Brandy. The popular digestif is available in aged and unaged expressions and is the most popular pomace Brandy in the world.

Pisco: Pisco is one of the most popular spirits in South America, produced in either Chile or Peru. You can best enjoy it in a classic Pisco Sour cocktail or other classic Pisco Cocktails.

Other fruit Brandies: Fruit Brandies are very popular in Europe. In Germany (Schnaps), Hungary (Palinka), and the Czech Republic (Palenka), there's a massive selection of fruit brandies made from all kinds of fruits.

For more details on this, you can read our guide to the different types of Brandy

Grapes and Cognac

Cognac vs. Brandy

As mentioned, Cognac is a specific type of Brandy. However, as many people still mix up the two terms, here's a short explanation of what distinguishes Cognac from other types of Brandy.

To be called a Cognac, a spirit must follow specific rules:

Producers can only use six types of grapes and need to follow a two-step distillation process using copper stills and aging in French Limousin oak barrels. But foremost, Cognac can only be produced in the Cognac region in France.

That means that even if a Brandy follows the exact same steps, using the allowed ingredients, it can not be labeled as Cognac if it's from outside the designated regions.

Further, Cognac is available in different levels of quality. You've probably seen these cryptic terms on a Cognac bottle label stating: VS, VSOP, or XO. These labels more or less describe how long the spirit has aged.

The taste of Brandy

Overall, Brandy has a fruity and slightly sweet taste. Depending on the aging time, you also get spicy wooden notes. Aged Brandy is also more complex than unaged Brandy and has a rounder, more mellow flavor.

How to drink Brandy

Aged Brandy, like Cognac, is best-served neat in a snifter glass. Unaged Brandies, or bottles aged less than two years, are better used in cocktails.

There are quite some interesting classic Brandy cocktails like the Sidecar, Brandy Alexander, and Vieux Carré. If you're looking for more drink recipes, check out our article about the most famous Brandy cocktails.

Cognac in Snifter glasses

History

Brandy is one of the oldest distilled spirits dating back to the 12th century. Back then, spirits were mainly used as medicine or aqua vitae (water of life). 

Around the 16th century, the first legally produced Brandy was distilled in France. However, it was not exactly an economic success. Things changed when the Dutch discovered that transporting Brandy was far easier than transporting wine. 

At this time, the Dutch had the leading mercantile fleet in the world. As they realized the potential in Brandy, the Dutch heavily invested in building distilleries in various regions in France.

Loire, Bordeaux, and also Charente were among the most popular destinations. The latter region is also home to the most famous type, Cognac. 

With this Dutch involvement in mind, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the term Brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn. That literally translates to "burnt wine" but actually means distilled wine.

How Brandy is made

Depending on the type of Brandy, the steps in production vary a lot. But you can divide the whole process into three stages. So, here are the steps to make Brandy.

Fermentation

Each Brandy is based on some sort of wine. This wine is created by fermenting fruits, in most cases grapes, into fruit wine.

Distillation

After fermentation, the wine is distilled. For this, the low-ABV wine is warmed up over low heat. That ensures that the final product has as much flavor as possible.

Some Brandies are distilled once, others twice or even more often.

Aging

The distillate is transferred into wooden casks or barrels to mature. Not every Brandy is aged, but the majority is.

Blending

After aging, some Brandies are blended with other Brandies or water. This way, the brands can maintain a stable level of quality and taste.

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