So you want to dive into brandy but don’t know where to start? Maybe you’ve tried it once and thought it just tasted like really alcoholic wine? This article is going to give you a great overview of what brandy is (and how brandy is different from wine), what to look for, and how to use it. Brandy is a delicious choice to sip as an after-dinner drink and a terrific cooking ingredient, as well as a key ingredient for cocktails. Scroll down to the end of the article for some good choices if you’re headed out to go shopping.
Brandy starts its life as wine, then it’s distilled and refined, as its name indicates. The word brandy stems from the Dutch meaning “burnt” or “distilled” and “wine.” (Read a wee history of brandy here.) After distillation and aging, brandies end up ranging from 70-120 proof. Translation: they’re pretty darn strong….as strong as or stronger than, say, some vodkas, which range from 90-100 proof.
There are several different kinds of brandies, including Cognac, Armagnac, Grappa, and Pisco. In America, you might see variations of brandy on your local store shelves as Apple Brandy or Applejack. In fact, there are numerous geographical variations of brandy. You can find brandy coming from France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Chile, Peru, South Africa, and many other areas of the world.
It’s important to know that terms like Cognac and Pisco are brandies. The language about brandies can get confusing at times because of all the variations and geographic spins. Just remember that “brandy” is essentially a generic term referring to any kind of wine that is distilled.
Brandy begins its journey in a raw form of fermented fruit. Grapes are the most common fruit used. These grapes are typically picked when they are still green, so that the skins don’t break, releasing as few phenols as possible.
While grapes are most common, the spirit can also be made from apples, apricots, peaches, or other fruits. These “other” fruits typically fall into two categories. They are pome brandy (apples and pears), or stone fruit brandy (apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums). The fermentation can occur from the fruit juice, pulp, or pomace. These options give the distiller choices in terms of flavor profile, acidity, etc.
Yeast is then introduced to the fruit, which converts the natural sugars into alcohol. With every kind of alcohol made, the type of yeast can vary widely and completely change the taste of the fermented spirit.
Aha! This is where wines and brandies start to diverge. Brandy makers will distill the base wine once, twice, or three times into a strong, concentrated alcohol. Distillers can choose to do the distillation in copper pot stills or continuous column stills. Sometimes the spirit is only distilled once. Armagnac, for example, is almost always only distilled once, whereas Cognacs are always double-distilled. (Here’s an article about the difference between Cognac and Armagnac if you want to get into the weeds on the topic! Similarly, here’s an article about the difference between Calvados and Cognac.)
The brandy is then aged in wood barrels, typically French or American oak, for anywhere from 2-30 years. During this process, the liquor mellows, picks up the oak flavor, and changes color to dark amber—much like the process of making Scotch whiskey.
Now, it’s noteworthy that there’s no oversight commission giving requirements to brandy aging. Brandies don’t have to be aged in oak barrels, although most are. Brandies don’t even have to be aged, although, again, most typically are. There are, of course, exceptions to this “no regulations” rule. For example, Cognacs can only be called that if they come from grapes grown in the Cognac area of southwestern France. Spirits that want to be called a Cognac are overseen by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. Furthermore, Cognacs must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, among other rules. The same applies for brandies that want to be called Grappa, or brandies that want to be called Calvados. Regulatory agencies strictly control what kind of spirits are allowed to have those regional names.
Before bottling, some distillers choose to blend different barrels of brandy together, or to combine them with water, to achieve the desired taste profile. Most brandies are bottled at 40% ABV (80 proof).
Because the term “brandy” is so general, when going to find a brandy to start with, you may want to start with a flavor profile that you’re interested in. Are you looking for something made with pear, peach, or grape? Another option is to consider how smooth you want the brandy to be. This would be something to consider if you’re sipping it straight (as opposed to, say, cooking with it).
In general, you can use the label on the bottle to guide you in picking out a brandy. For example, the label should tell you how long the spirit has been aged (more about that below). It might also tell you if there are additives, like caramel or other sugars. You also might want to choose the brandy based on color and/or smell.
Finding a beautifully amber-colored brandy is one possible goal. If brandy is aged in oak barrels, it will pick up an amber hue that deepens over time. That’s something that gives professional tasters a thrill! But what you see isn’t always what you get. Some distilleries add food coloring to their spirit to achieve this. Furthermore, some Cognac makers will add caramel to sweeten the blend, which also affects the coloring of the spirit. Check out the label—if you’re lucky, the label will indicate that the product is free from coloring or additives.
The smell of a blend is another way to pick out a nice brandy. Sometimes your spirit might smell like heavy-proof alcohol. These spirits are either not aged for a long time or have been aged in stainless steel. Brandies that are highly rated tend to be ones with the smell of alcohol disappearing behind other notes. The nose of your fruit should come forward. Other notes like caramel, vanilla, oak, or various burnt smells like tobacco, cocoa, or leather may be present as well. Using a decanter is a great way to allow the product to “open up” and reveal some of the underlying scent profiles. This isn’t just upselling you on a product—there is legitimate science behind the benefits of decanting. Oh yeah, decanting is also sexy and classy.
When you’re shopping for a Cognac, you’re going to see some notations, like VS, VSOP, or XO. What do those terms mean?
VS = Over two years old. This abbreviation stands for “Very Special.” It’s also referred to as “Selection,” “De Luxe” or simply with three stars next to it. Hennessy VS Cognac is a popular VS choice.
VSOP = Over four years old. This abbreviation stands for “Very Superior Old Pale,” although sometimes distillers might use “Very Special” instead of “Very Superior.” To classify as a VSOP, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least four years old. Again, Hennessy has a great VSOP, but so does Remy Martin VSOP.
XO = Over ten years old. XO is short for “Extra Old,” and as you might have guessed, this is going to be your most expensive Cognac choice. Although the minimum age of this spirit needs to be 10 years, the average age is between 15 and 20 years.
XXO = Over 14 years old. XO means “Extra, Extra Old.” These products have been aged for a minimum of 14 years.
If you want to know more about these options, this is a great article breaking down the three standard Cognacs.
Did you buy a bottle of brandy and discover that you don’t love sipping on it straight up? That bottle doesn’t have to go to waste. Brandy is a very popular ingredient choice with chefs of haute cuisine. The fruits in the brandy help bring out sweet and savory flavors alike. Some popular recipes like Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee, and Bombe Alaska all use brandy in their ingredient list. When using brandy to cook a savory dish, it’s a great choice to turn into a sauce or to deglaze the pan.
Remember that when you cook with brandy at a high temperature, you typically cook off most of the alcohol content. So you don’t have to worry about giving a Bananas Foster using this highly alcoholic spirit to your six-year old-child. The high temperature burns away the alcohol. On the other hand, if you are adding the brandy to a recipe without heating it, then yeah, it’s going to pack a little punch. (Worried? Check out this article.)
Remember, be sure to present your culinary masterpiece with a beautiful decanter of brandy on display for an extra “wow” factor. Again: it’s sexy. Take your date night up a notch.
Check out these additional Cognac recipes.
Apple Brandy (or Applejack)
Brandy is a relatively generic term that simply means the distillation of a wine. Wines are made from a variety of fruits, and the distillation and aging process can look very different. This means that brandies come in a wide variety of flavors. Many of these differences are geographical.
Brandy is great for beginners to step into. Partly, that’s because it’s great as a stand-alone sipping drink after dinner, and partly because it makes a great ingredient in a mixed drink. Furthermore, brandy is an excellent ingredient for both sweet and savory dishes. So while you might feel a little uncomfortable dishing out $60 on a bottle of brandy, you can rest assured that it won’t go to waste.
Hot tip: Try sipping on your brandy at a variety of temperatures. Try it chilled, and try it gently warmed up, too. How does the flavor profile of the brandy change with the temperature change? Do you prefer your brandy hot or cold? Let us know in the comments!