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The original and still the best, to die-hard fans at least. Most likely the first hard liquor to ever be distilled, the history of brandy is as long, deep and complex as the flavours of a 40-year-old XO. A top-tier brandy experience is a pleasure worth seeking – pigeonhole this spirit at your peril.
''Older XO and Hors d'âge brandies are far more deep, complex and moody. Expect intense dried fruits and haughty oak flavours to wage a very pleasurable war on your palate''
Is it wine? Is it liquor? Why not both? History tells us that wherever wine is found, brandy is sure to follow, because brandy is in fact wine in its most spirited form. As wine (or indeed any other alcoholic fruit juice) is distilled, the flavours intensify, the alcohol levels rise to between 35% and 60%, and voila, you’ve got yourself brandy.
In all likelihood the world’s oldest spirit, brandy commands reverence to this day. Perhaps because of its storied history it has, for better or worse, been tied to a drawing room, smoker’s jacket, sipping-from-a-snifter type aesthetic that struggles for relevance in today’s world. But to ignore brandy is to do yourself a disservice – it could be argued that this spirit is the most complex, charming and rewarding around.
Born of function, not form
Why was brandy created in the first place? As it turns out, it probably wasn’t for its taste. While evidence suggests that distillation (the process that produces hard liquor) was known in various corners of the globe as far back as 1200BC, it wasn’t until the 15th century that it was used extensively. And it’s from this period that the first clear evidence of brandy production is found.
The motivation was most likely purely functional. Higher levels of alcohol made brandy a wise choice for merchants, as taxes of the day were charged by volume, and it also kept far better on long voyages. But these long voyages gave the oak barrels time to impart a beautiful flavour on the spirit, so rather than add water back in when the brandy reached its destination, it quickly began to be sold as it was.
The term brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijn, literally “burnt wine”.
Brandy or cognac? Cognac or brandy?
Are they interchangeable? Are they different?
Essentially, what Champagne is to sparkling wine, Cognac is to brandy, with brands like Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier all coming from the French region of Cognac. Armagnac (also France), Pisco (Peru), Metaxa (Greece) and brandy de Jerez (Spain) are other famous regional examples of the spirit.
The French brandy age grading system has been adopted by much of the world, although its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac. Brandies are labelled with one of the four following grades:
- V.S.: “Very special” brandy, otherwise known as three star brandy, designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged in oak for a minimum of two years.
- V.S.O.P.: “Very superior old pale” brandy, otherwise known as “reserve” or five-star brandy, is aged in oak for a minimum of four years.
- Napoleon: A new classification as of April 2018, Napoleon brandy has been oak-aged for a minimum of six years (this used to be the case for XO).
- XO: “Extra old” brandy is aged in oak for a minimum of 10 years (prior to the 2018 change this was six years).
- Hors d'âge: “Beyond age” brandy, a term created by producers who wanted to market their highest quality brandies which extended well beyond that standard aging scale, have usually been aged 20+ years.
The taste of Australia
The Australian public has always had a healthy appetite for brandy, a penchant that stemmed from our love of all things vineyard. Stemmed. Vines. Pun intended.
While the popularity of different wine varietals and fortifieds has ebbed and flowed, the demand for brandy has been surprisingly constant, despite its reputation as a drink for the more mature set.
The Australian brandy industry is dominated by one label – St Agnes. Aged in first fill (unused) French oak casks, their brandies tend to be lighter, fruitier and less oaky than those of Cognac. But that’s not to say St Agnes brandy lacks depth; with XO brandies that have been aged upwards of 40 years, the label produces some of the world’s very best drops.
A flavour to savour
The age of a brandy will greatly impact its taste. And just like its drinkers, brandy just keeps getting better as it gets older.
V.S. and V.S.O.P. brandy demonstrates its youth with a vibrant combination of fruity, herby and floral flavours. Notes of citrus zest, raisins, peaches and rose petals are present, with this profile providing the perfect base for a cocktail. While it’s tempting to reach straight for the cola, light citrus mixers are far better at highlighting the spirit’s charms.
Older XO and Hors d'âge brandies are far more deep, complex and moody. Expect intense dried fruits and haughty oak flavours to wage a very pleasurable war on your palate.
- Brandy can be made from the wine of any fruit, including pear, apple or plum, provided it is labelled as such.
- The brandies of the now closed Hunter Valley Distillery were once world-renowned, with Ernest Shackleton requesting them for his 1908 Antarctic expedition.
- The snifter or brandy balloon glass was designed to intensify the aromatics of the spirit. The drinker’s hand warms the brandy, forcing aromas up through the glass’s narrow lip.