Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fermented grape juice. The word brandy comes from the Dutch Brandewijn (=burnt wine), i.e. wine is heated to below the boiling point in a still, the alcohol evaporates, rises in the narrow part of the still, cools, and condenses into a liquid form.
The history of brandy dates back the 12th century, though the more basic concept of distilling was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The first known reference to the distillation of alcohol dates to the Solerno School in southern Italy. This early method was very basic, and required multiple cycles of distillation, and using the product to refill the still. Fractional distilling, where the heads, heart and tails of production could be drawn off separately, was invented in the 13th century, thus obviating the need to refill the still after every run.
Brandy was originally produced as a way to preserve the wine harvest, more easily transport it for sale, and to avoid paying taxes, which were typically rendered on the volume of wine sold. The beneficial effects of oak barrel aging quickly became known, and it wasn't long before brandy production was established.
Brandy can refer to many different kinds of distilled spirits, but they for the most part fall into one of three categories:
- Fruit brandy: Made from distilled fruit and usually named after the fruit from which it was distilled. Eau de vie is a type of fruit brandy associated with France, Germany and Austria that is typically unaged. Examples of fruit brandy include apple brandy, Poire Williams (pear), Calvados (apple), Marillenbrand (apricot) and Kirschwasser (cherry).
- Grape brandy: Made from wine, the word "grape" can be omitted. Examples of grape brandy include Cognac and Armagnac and Pisco.
- Pomace brandy: Made from the leftover grape skins and seeds from the winemaking process, these brandies are typically more rustic, but retain the essential flavors of the grapes from which they're made. Examples of pomace brandies are grappa and Marc, and the German Tresterbrand.
Fruit brandies retain some of the character of the fruit from which they're made, but other, interesting flavors can be coaxed out from the distillation process. The best fruit brandies use an incredible amount of fruit to produce very little spirit. Raspberries are notorious for this -- it takes on the order of 80 pounds of raspberries to make a liter of raspberry brandy.
Fruit brandies are typically between 75 and 95 proof. They are dry, and can sometimes be aged in oak barrels for a period of time, though the wood influence starts to dominate the fruit flavor after a while. Fruit brandies should not be confused with fruit liqueurs, which are always sweet, and only rarely made with a fruit brandy as the base spirit.
Grape brandy is made from the distillation of wine, which can vary from region to region where it's made. Wine enters the still at between 16 and 24 proof, and goes through a first distillation into low wine, which is around 60 proof. This low wine is then distilled again, and the distillate is separated into three parts: heads, heart, and tails. Heads are very high proof, and full of impurities, so they're recycyled into the next batch of low wine. The same goes for the tails. The useful portion, called the heart, is around 140 proof.
American brandies are usually made in a column, or continuous stil, which are inexpensive, and make a large volume of clean, light brandy. Cognac, Armagnac and a few other types of brandy are made in a pot still, which are more difficult to use and maintain, but give brandies that are weighty and flavorful.
This high proof spirit is typically diluted with water - a little if the brandy will undergo aging in barrel, or down to drinking proof of about 80 if it to be sold unaged. In many countries around the world, there are laws requiring certain labelling provisions, or minimum aging requirements.
Some terms you might see on a brandy label are: VS (Very Special), which spends around three years in barrel, VSOP (Very Special/Superior Old and Pale), around five years, and XO, which are usually at least six years old. Remember, though, that some of these terms are used in other countries without any legal requirements, so be careful of using these terms as a guide to quality.
Pomace brandy is made from pomace, the leftover skins, seeds and lees from the winemaking process. These leftovers are distilled in the same way as grape brandy, but are much less clean and easy to distill. Historically, pomace brandy was made for personal consumption, and was a fiery, rustic spirit. Pomace brandies are most commonly left unaged, but there is a trend for treating them more like grape brandies, with extensive oak aging in some case. Grappa is probably the best known type of pomace brandy, and is named on the label with the type of grape used (e.g. Grappa di Moscato, Grappa di Sangiovese). Many famous Italian wine estates make grappa, but they can be difficult to find.
Brandy is typically served in a brandy snifter after dinner, though its woody warmth serves well in cocktails.