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.