Brandy is a fascinating family of alcoholic spirits that can be incredibly diverse with a rich variety of different types that each have their own unique heritage. It stands apart from grain, sugar cane, and potato spirits and is united in that it’s often derived by some type of fruit.
In this guide, you will learn everything that you need to know about brandy such its flavours, how to drink it, and the best brandy to buy:
- What Is Brandy?
- Different Types Of Brandy
- What Does Brandy Taste Like?
- How To Serve Brandy
- Benefits Of Brandy
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read out entire detailed guide.
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What Is Brandy?
Typically, brandy is a term referred to liquor that is produced by distilling wine. However, it can broadly refer to almost any alcoholic spirit that is the result of distilling fruit. Consequently, brandy excludes any types of alcohol made from grain, sugarcane, or potatoes such as whisky, rum, and vodka.
Therefore, brandy is quite an extensive family of alcoholic spirits. However, if it’s made from another other than wine, it’s usually specified. For instance, people may refer to “apple brandy” or “fruit brandy”, which you’ll learn about below.
Confusingly, the French may refer to any type of alcoholic spirit as “eau-de-vie”. Yet, the term can also be used interchangeably with “brandy”. In order to make the distinction, it is often called eau-de-vie de fruit.
Similarly, the Germans use the word “Schnaps” and will often specify fruit brandy as “Obstler Schnaps“.
The English term is derived from the Dutch “branewijn”, which means “burned wine”, and its prominence is often associated with cognac. However, brandy production significantly predates the 16th-century arrival of Dutch merchants on France’s west coast when taking into account the other varieties.
For instance, fruit brandy had long existed as a remedy as well as a way of preserving fruit. It was also sometimes added to juice to halt its fermentation.
Most brandy was effectively continental Europe’s moonshine. It was often made in rural areas after the harvest to either sell or for personal use. Although the production became regulated, clandestine operations remained popular until the mid-20th Century.
It was adopted by Dutch merchants for similar reasons. Wine was both a cumbersome and delicate product to transport. In order to better preserve it, it was either distilled entirely all small amounts of the spirit was added to wine casks.
As it was often stored in oak barrels during transportation, it was soon realised that it improved the flavour. Therefore, oak ageing became an intentional part of the process. You can learn more about the history of these types of brandy with our guide to cognac and Armagnac.
Different Types Of Brandy
As mentioned above, there are many varieties of brandy when the term is used broadly. Therefore, we’ll break down the most common ones, which will provide you with links to further reading.
Cognac & Armagnac
When people talk about brandy, they’re usually referring to either cognac or Armagnac. Both located on the south-western coast of France, they are essentially separated by the Bordeaux winemaking region as well as the Landes forest.
While Armagnac is probably less-known than cognac, it has an equally rich heritage. Indeed, its enthusiasts will often claim that it predates cognac and was first produced as early as the 14th century!
While both cognac and Armagnac are quite similar in the sense that they’re distilled wines aged in oak barrels, there are a number of differences.
Typically, cognac is double distilled using “Charentais” copper pot stills. Meanwhile, Armagnac is often produced using a “Armagnacais Alambics” continuous column stills.
Furthermore, Armagnac is often more artisanal with family-owned businesses that produce vintage “millésimes”. In comparison, cognac is a much larger industry with prestigious houses that make vast quantities of consistent blends.
Also known as applejack, apple brandy is a growing business in the USA and even has a small presence in the United Kingdom. However, Calvados is the most well-known and celebrated variety of apple brandy.
Produced from cider using either cognac or Armagnac stills, Calvados is another French brandy and is made in Normandy. It’s also aged for several years in oak barrels and the resulting beverage isn’t always far removed from its southern cousins.
Learn all about Calvados and why it’s unique with our dedicated guides.
Earlier, we briefly touched on fruit brandy, which has a strong presence throughout continental Europe. Although France and Germany are best known for producing eau-de-vie and schnaps respectively, there are many more across Eastern Europe such as Czech Slivovitz.
Fruit brandy is rarely aged and is often sold as a clear liquid. Although quite strong, it offers features a distinctive fruitiness that adds a mellow and pleasant flavour.
In France, fruit brandy is known as eau-de-vie de fruits and you can learn more with our eau-de-vie guide. Meanwhile, our guide to Schnaps will teach you what you need to know about the German version.
Also known as “marc” brandy, this variety uses the solid remains of grapes, and occasionally other fruit, to produce and alcoholic spirit. Typically, pomace brandy is made by using the solid byproduct of pressing grapes for wine.
Although there are a few French eau-de-vie de marc, the best-known pomade brandy is Italian grappa. Its flavours are quite different from other fruit brandies as the stems, skin, and seeds may be distilled using steam to stop them from burning.
Traditionally, grappa is a clear and unaged spirit. However, given the popularity of premium brandy, it’s a growing practice to barrel-age the distillate to create a more mature flavour. Nevertheless, it’s usually undertaken for short periods to prevent the wood from dominating the grappa’s profile.
Our grappa guides will teach you everything you need to know about it!
How Does Brandy Taste?
Given the rich variety of different types of brandy, there is a whole spectrum of flavours that you may experience. Aside from a few exceptions like Cyprus brandy, which is comparatively weak, it’s usually quite strong.
Both the USA and EU outline a legal minimum of 40% ABV for alcohol to be classified as liquor or a spirit. Therefore, it’s typically strong alcohol. In most cases, producers closely adhere to the legal minimum by cutting the alcohol with pure water.
Nevertheless, there are some exceptions. For instance, some Armagnac producers will strategically use the angel’s share during the ageing process to naturally evaporate the water down to around 40% ABV. Therefore, it’s usually slightly above.
In any case, brandy is often a heady drink. If it has been distilled just once in a continuous column still, the product will usually be more expressive and offer a distinctive fruitiness.
Meanwhile, brandy that is stilled twice like cognac is often purer in flavour. Such brandy will take on a more woody character if aged in oak barrels.
How To Properly Drink Brandy
We believe that there is no wrong way to drink a beverage as long as you enjoy it. Where brandy is concerned, there are a few traditions, but they can vary from country to country. The guides linked above will teach you the specifics of each brandy if you want to learn more about them.
Generally, brandy is usually enjoyed as a digestif and rarely as an apéritif. Given that it is typically believed that brandy aids in digestion, it’s often reserved for after a meal.
Similarly, some brandy is may be combined with coffee following a meal. For instance, grappa and calvados may often be served alongside an espresso.
In Italy, the practice is referred to as “caffè corretto” and a drop of alcohol is added to the cup after every sip. Typically, the final sip should be a shot that rinses the cup clean. In France, it’s known as a “café calva”.
Otherwise, brandy is enjoyed neat and at room temperature in a nosing glass. The only exception is grappa where the clear varieties may be chilled beforehand to reduce the alcohol bloom.
Although making cocktails with cognac and Armagnac has been popular since the late-19th century, using fruit brandy is a relatively recent phenomenon.
What Glasses To Use For Drinking Brandy
Most people will initially think of brandy snifters for consuming brandy. Thanks to the balloon shape, it will effectively capture the brandy’s aromas and create a bouquet that can be perceived by the nose when taking a sip.
While these heavy vessels are perfectly fine for aged brandy, they’re rarely used for clear eau-de-vie. Therefore, small tulip glasses are often preferred for clear brandy.
Nevertheless, it is growingly common for aged brandy to be sampled with fine tulip glasses as well. As they feature thin and long stems, it is easy to control the beverage’s temperature and avoid accidentally warming it with the hand.
Glasses used for tasting grappa are occasionally quite elaborate with extremely long stems and a tall body. Professionals will often use grappa glasses for French eau-de-vie and German schnaps. However, households may use wine or shot glasses instead.
You can learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Brandy?
In most cultures, brandy has been widely regarded as a beverage with potent medicinal qualities. Indeed, most varieties were used as a remedy for various ailments.
You may have noticed that it was the drink of choice in old films to calm nerves or steady a shaking hand. Furthermore, many Anglosaxon households used to keep a bottle of brandy in a cupboard for when feeling unwell.
Wine brandy may indeed offer some health benefits. Thanks to a decent concentration of antioxidants, it could improve heart and blood circulation as well as protect against either gallstones or type 2 diabetes.
The most effective will likely be grappa as 95% of a grape’s nutrients are found in the skin rather than the juice. Following that, Armagnac is only distilled once so it will preserve more of the fruit’s benefits. Finally, cognac can help but the double distillation process may strip away some of the valuable nutrients.
Otherwise, the health benefits of most varieties of brandy tend to be greatly exaggerated.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Brandy
Most brandy will either contain no sugar while some allow only a limited amount to be added before it is bottled. Therefore, a shot of almost any variety of unadulterated brandy should only consist of around 100 calories.
Furthermore, assuming that no flavourings have been added, brandy is naturally gluten-free. Although any alcoholic spirit is arguably gluten-free thanks to the distillation process, some sufferers of Celiac disease have experienced issues with grain alcohol.
Meanwhile, brandy is only made from fruit. Therefore, it’s perfectly safe for anyone with a sensitivity to the protein.
Finally, it’s a very lean beverage so it also won’t contain any carbs or fat.
Top 10 Best Brandy To Buy Online
Now that you have read all about brandy, check out our selection of the best ones to buy online, which consist of grappa, eau-de-vie de fruits, schnaps, cognac, and armagnac:
- Delord 25 Year Bas Armagnac
- Louis XIII Cognac
- Hennessy XO Cognac
- Armagnac de Montal XO
- Lecompte 12 Year Old Calvados
- Boulard XO Calvados
- Marolo Grappa di Barolo Grappa
- Massenez Poire-Williams
- Schladerer Kirschwasser
- Nonino Vigneti Moscato Grappa
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to learn more.
Delord is a well-known Armagnac producer that has been operating since 1893. It was founded by Prosper Delord, a travelling distiller or “bouilleur de cru”, who transported his still by horse and cart.
The house remains a family business and is own by brothers Jacques and Pierre. Jaques’ sons, Sylvain and Jérôme, help in the blending process as well as its promotional endeavours. Meanwhile, the domain consists of 42 vineyards in Lannepax, consisting of 56% Ugni Blanc, 24% Colombard, 14% Baco, and 6% and Folle-Blanche.
Recognised for its contribution to France’s culture, the government awarded Delord with the prestigious “Entreprise de Patrimoine Vivant” (Living Heritage Company) status. Delord produces many millésime vintage Armagnacs. However, it also sells its classic blends that can vary in age.
Their 25-year old expression represents the quintessential artisanal Bas-Armagnac, which reveals mellow tannins, spices, and cocoa.
"A magnificent Armagnac that captures the region's heritage and cultural identity."
Louis XIII is renowned among enthusiasts as one of the most prestigious and expensive cognacs in the world. However, it’s for good reason. Each batch is a 100% Grande Champagne blend of up to 1,200 different eaux-de-vie of which some are 60 years old!
The result is a harmonious bouquet of delicate and complex flavour. Every experience can be different as the dizzying array of notes can express themselves in various ways. You may experience citrus fruit, raisins, labdanum, and even suede leather.
A typical 75 cl bottle costs over $4,000 and admittedly corresponds to very few budgets. However, Louis XIII does produce 50 ml miniature bottles, which gives you an opportunity to sample it.
Hennessy is probably the most famous cognac house for various reasons and the X.O. is one of the most premium blends that it produces. Its XO is composed of Ugni Blanc eaux-de-vie from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fin Bois, which are all aged for up to 30 years in Limousin oak barrels.
Expect a harmonious nose of spiced candied fruit and a dash of pepper. As for the palate, it delivers a rich orange zest, succulent oak, suede leather, and a long vanilla and cinnamon finish.
Founded in 1963, Les Hauts de Montrouge is a cooperative also known as Cave des Producteurs Réunis de Nogaro. It brings together 60 regional winegrowers as well as more than 1,000 hectares of Bas-Armagnac vineyards.
Les Hauts de Montrouge partnered with Château de Rieutord’s owner, Olivier de Montal, to produce Armagnac de Montal. The grape varieties used are Folle Blanche, Ugni-Blanc, Bacco, and Colombard. Its X.O. opens with rich notes of vanilla, clove, and cacao, before descending into a long tobacco finish.
If you don’t have the budget for premium X.O. cognac, it doesn’t mean that you should abandon cognac altogether! Indeed, there are many V.S.O.P. cognacs that are more affordable yet offer exceptional experiences.
On of our favourites is Hine’s Rare, which is a Fine Champagne blend of Ugni Blanc grapes. Although it only consists of one grape variety, which is distilled on the lees, it is composed of over 20 eaux-de-vie from the Grand and Petite Champagne areas.
The result is an opulent yet gentle mouthfeel with a fruity complexity of exotic flavour that contrasts against a suede leather accord before revealing its spicy finish.
As described above, Calvados is an apple brandy from Normandy. Although made from altogether different fruit, a well-aged and carefully blended Calvados can have a flavour profile that closely resembles cognac or Armagnac.
Lecompte’s 12-year old Calvados is an excellent specimen of what the region can produce. Its maître de chai, Richard Prével, has developed a blend that offers a cinnamon and nutmeg accord, which delivers an accord that evokes spice baked apples with a hint of liquorice.
Although it wasn’t at the top of our selection of the best grappa, we wanted to highlight it here. Although grappa is most commonly sold as a clear brandy, ageing it in oak barrels is growing in popularity.
The result is a unique expression of the pomace’s characteristics. However, it retains its identity rather than resembling cognac, Armagnac or Calvados. After just four years of ageing, the grappa delivers warmly toasted flavours of vanilla with a rich amber hue.
Quintessential French eau-de-vie de fruit is usually produced from Williams pears. It’s rarely aged unless when making a Pays d’Auge Calvados. In most regions, it’s regarded as a type of cultural moonshine and is sometimes affectionately referred to as “gnôle”.
Alsace is one of the most well-known regions for eau-de-vie given their shared heritage with German schnaps. Since 1870, the Massenez family has been producing its eau-de-vie there. However, it’s far from a local hooch. In fact, it’s served by French presidents at the Élysée Palace and is enjoyed by European royalty.
Massenez is also an official partner of the Cannes Film Festival and its Williams eau-de-vie has been awarded multiple awards. If you want to sample a specimen of authentic French eau-de-vie, this would be a good place to start.
As mentioned above, Germany has a proud heritage of its schnaps, which is similar to eau-de-vie and mustn’t be confused with American schnapps! Founded by Sixtus Schladerer in 1844, his eponymous schnaps has now been produced by six generations of the family!
Kirschwasser is made from cherries and represents Germany’s most well-known type of Obstler Schnaps or fruit brandy. Indeed, it’s the secret ingredient for making a successful Black Forest cake! As Schladerer is based in the Black Forest region, it’s the most authentic one you can use.
It’s worth noting, though, that both France and Germany each produce Kirschwasser and Williams fruity brandy while using very similar techniques.
We couldn’t conclude this selection without finishing on a classic grappa bianca. This particular specimen is interesting as it’s a monovitigno (single grape variety) grappa that is produced from moscato grapes.
Nonino is another celebrated brand and its exquisite grappa unveils crisp and floral notes with an aromatic soft vanilla finish.