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.
Learn more with our cognac guides and Armagnac guides.
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.