There are plenty of images a glass of brandy might bring to mind. Maybe it’s putting brandy in your eggnog during the holidays. Maybe it’s old men smoking cigars and sipping on brandy. Or maybe it’s Drake’s song “One Dance,” where he danced with Hennessy in hand. Whatever it is, most people have heard of brandy — but they often don’t know a lot about the liquor itself.
Brandy may not be as well-known as other liquors, like vodka, bourbon, scotch, and even rum. But that doesn’t mean brandy isn’t worth a spot in your bar. Brandy may not be your typical liquor, but it’s got plenty to offer on its own or as part of a cocktail.
Here’s a breakdown of the history of brandy, what brandy even is, and how to drink — and love — this special liquor.
Glasses of Brandy
Brandy dates way back to 1313, specifically, across the pond in France. Similar to many types of alcohol, it was primarily used for medicinal purposes. In fact, physicians often referred to it as “the water of life” because of its strengthening and sanitary powers.
Once it started to be used as a beverage, brandy became an essential liquor in many places in the world. In the 1700s, one type of brandy earned a royal accord (or the seal of the French royal family). In China, it became a sign of having really made it in life, and people would bring a bottle of Cognac to another’s house while visiting.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and brandy began being distilled in America by Laird’s America, the first apple brandy producer. Just a few years later, at the advice of his Scottish farm manager, George Washington began distilling brandy. Eventually, he became one of the largest distillers in the country with five copper stills that produced brandy all year long.
It’s somewhat overlooked and unappreciated these days. But brandy used to be the essence of classy American drinking during most of the Colonial era.
Brandy has been around as long as the country itself, but many people don’t actually know what brandy is. Part of its uniqueness comes from the fact that brandy is a “burned wine” — or a liquor that is distilled from wine, specifically white wine. It can also be distilled from other fruits, including apples and pears.
Brandy and Apples
Read more about how liquor is made.
Possibly the most popular brandy — and not only because of Drake and “One Dance” — is Cognac (or Hennessy). You know how champagne must come from the region of Champagne, France? Cognac is a brandy produced in a specific region in Cognac, France.
Brandy, on the other hand, can be made anywhere in the world — and it certainly is. The top brandy exporter is Mexico, at 34 percent of all brandy exports. Just below it is China, then Italy, then the U.S. France sits at number seven, with just 3.3 percent of total brandy exports.
Brandy is unlike other liquors for a few reasons. To start, it has a fairly broad definition. Unlike whiskey or wine — which have strict regulations — brandy can be any distilled spirit that comes from fruit. This means that any fruit can be used as a base (including grapes, apples, peaches, plums, and pears). Therefore, the flavors of brandy have a much larger range than other liquors.
It also has its own classification system to signify how long it’s been aged. If the bottle says VS (Very Special) or has three stars, it’s been aged for two years at a minimum. This is the most common classification. If the bottle says VSOP (Very Special Old Pale), that brandy has been aged at least four years. The phrase XO (Extra Old) is reserved for brandy that has been aged for six and a half years or more. Finally, vintage brandy — or hors d’age — has been aged for at least a decade, and it will also have the year the brandy was originally made right on the bottle.
Compared to other liquors, brandy is also quite strong. Most brandies range from 70 to 120 proof — meaning up to 60 percent of the drink is alcohol. For comparison, vodka is usually 90 to 100 proof (or 45 to 50 percent alcohol). So brandy is either just as strong or stronger than vodka.
Though brandy is the base of plenty of cocktails, most brandy connoisseurs recommend enjoying the liquor on its own (at least at first). Try a few different kinds, and try them at different temperatures (both neat and on the rocks). Check out our Copper and Kings brandy review as a start.Try pairing your brandy with food, just like you might with wine. Many people think of brandy as an after-dinner drink, and it does go well with dessert. But other foods with strong flavors — like coffee beans and parmesan — also go well with this liquor.
You may also love brandy in one of many well-known cocktails. Here are two of our favorites to try.
A classic drink for the fall and winter months, a hot toddy is delicious when made with brandy. Enjoy it by a roaring fire or cozied up with a blanket on a snowy night.
To make an apple brandy hot toddy, you’ll need:
The sidecar is possibly one of the most popular brandy cocktails. It’s crisp, dry, and rich — and it highlights the complexities of any Cognac you choose.
To make a sidecar, you’ll need:
Brandy is often an overlooked liquor, but it has a lot to offer — both on its own and as a part of a delicious cocktail. This fall, light the fire, grab a glass, and pour some of this classic liquor. You won’t regret it.
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Which classic brandy cocktail will you try this evening?