Brandy (from brandywine, derived from Dutch brandewijn — “burnt wine”) is a spirit produced by distilling wine, the wine having first been produced by fermenting grapes. Brandy contains 36%–60% alcohol by volume and is normally consumed as an after-dinner drink. While some brandies are aged in wooden casks, most are coloured with caramel colouring to imitate the effect of such aging.
Brandy can also be made from fermented fruit (i.e., other than grapes) and from pomace.
The origins of brandy are clearly tied to the development of distillation. Concentrated alcoholic beverages were known in ancient Greece and Rome and may have a history going back to ancient Babylon. Brandy, as it is known today, first began to appear in the 12th century and became generally popular in the 14th century.
Initially wine was distilled as a preservation method and as a way to make the wine easier for merchants to transport. It was also thought that wine was originally distilled to lessen the tax which was assessed by volume. The intent was to add the water removed by distillation back to the brandy shortly before consumption. It was discovered that after having been stored in wooden casks, the resulting product had improved over the original distilled spirit. In addition to removing water, the distillation process leads to the formation and break-up of numerous aroma compounds, fundamentally altering the composition of the distillate from its source. Non-volatile substances such as pigments, sugars, and salts remain behind in the still. As a result, the taste of the distillate may be quite unlike that of the original source.
There are three main types of brandy. The term “brandy” denotes grape brandy if the type is not otherwise specified.
Grape brandy is produced by the distillation of fermented grapes.
The European Union legally enforces Cognac as the exclusive name for brandy produced and distilled in the Cognac area of France, and Armagnac from the Gascony area of France, using traditional techniques. Since these are considered PDO, they refer not just to styles of brandy but brandies from a specific region, i.e. a brandy made in California in a manner identical to the method used to make cognac, and which tastes similar to cognac, cannot be so called as it is not from the Cognac region of France.
Grape brandy is best drunk from a tulip-shaped glass or a snifter, at a cool room temperature. Often it is slightly warmed by holding the glass cupped in the palm or gently heating it with a candle; however, such heating may cause the alcohol vapor to become pungent so that the aromas are overpowered.
Brandy, like whisky and red wine, exhibits more pleasant aromas and flavors at a lower temperature, e.g., 16° Celsius (61°F). In most homes, this would imply that brandy should be cooled rather than heated for maximum enjoyment. Furthermore, alcohol (which makes up 40% of a typical brandy) becomes thin as it is heated (and more viscous when cooled). Thus, cool brandy produces a fuller and smoother mouthfeel and less of a “burning” sensation.
Fruit brandies are distilled from fruits other than grapes. Apples, plums, peaches, cherries, eldberberries, raspberries, blackberries, and apricots are the most commonly used fruits. Fruit brandy is usually clear and 80 to 90 proof. It is usually drunk chilled or over ice.
Coconut brandy is a fruit brandy made from coconut sap.
Eau-de-vie is a general French term for fruit brandy.
German Schnaps is fruit brandy produced in Germany or Austria.
Kirschwasser is a fruit brandy made from cherries.
Palinka is a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. It can be made from any kind of fruit, most often from plums, apricots, elderberries, pears, or cherries. Less commonly, it is made from apples, peaches, or walnuts.
Tuica is a clear Romanian fruit brandy made from plums, apples, pears, apricots, mulberries, peaches, quinces, or mixtures of these. Romania and Moldova also produce a grape brandy called vin ars (burnt wine) or divin.
Pomace brandy is produced by fermentation and distillation of the grape skins, seeds, and stems that remain after grapes have been pressed to extract their juice (which is then used to make wine). Examples include Italian grappa, French marc, Bulgarian grozdova, Georgian chacha, and Cretan tsikoudia.
Most pomace brandy is not aged and not coloured.
Cognac and South African pot still brandy are examples of brandy produced in batches using pot stills (batch distillation). Many American brandies use fractional distillation in tower stills to perform their distillation. Special pot stills with a fractionation section on top are used for Armagnac.
The European Union has established its own legal definition of the term “brandy”:
5. Brandy or Weinbrand
- (a) Brandy or Weinbrand is a spirit drink:
- (i) produced from wine spirit, whether or not wine distillate has been added, distilled at less than 94.8% vol., provided that that distillate does not exceed a maximum of 50% of the alcoholic content of the finished product,
- (ii) matured for at least one year in oak receptacles or for at least six months in oak casks with a capacity of less than 1000 litres,
- (iii) containing a quantity of volatile substances equal to or exceeding 125 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol, and derived exclusively from the distillation or redistillation of the raw materials used,
- (iv) having a maximum methanol content of 200 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol.
- (b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of brandy or Weinbrand shall be 36%.
- (c) No addition of alcohol as defined in Annex I(5), diluted or not, shall take place.
- (d) Brandy or Weinbrand shall not be flavoured. This shall not exclude traditional production methods.
- (e) Brandy or Weinbrand may only contain added caramel as a means to adapt colour.
This definition formally excludes fruit brandy, pomace brandy, and even unaged grape brandy. The same European Union regulation defines the names of these excluded spirits as fruit spirit, grape marc spirit, and wine spirit.
In Poland, brandy is sometimes called winiak, from wino (wine).
After one distillation, the distillate, called "low wine," will contain roughly 30% alcohol (ethanol) by volume. The low wine is then distilled a second time. The first 1% or so of distillate that's produced, called the "head," has an alcohol concentration of about 83% and an unpleasant odor, so it is discarded (generally, mixed in with another batch of low wine for future use). The distillation process continues, yielding a distillate of approximately 70% alcohol (called the "heart"), which is what will be consumed as brandy. The portion of low wine that remains after distillation, called the "tail," will be mixed into another batch of low wine for future use.
Distillation does not simply enhance the alcohol content of wine. The heat under which the product is distilled and the material of the still (usually copper) cause chemical reactions to take place during distillation. This leads to the formation of numerous new volatile aroma components, changes in relative amounts of aroma components in the wine, and the hydrolysis of components such as esters.
To abridge these several distillations, which were long and troublesome, a chemical instrument was invented, whereby the rectification of spirit of wine was performed in a single distillation. To test the purity of the rectified spirit of wine, a portion was ignited. If the entire contents were consumed without leaving any impurity behind, then the liquor was good. Another, better test involved putting a little gunpowder in the bottom of the spirit. If the gunpowder took fire when the spirit was consumed, then the liquor was good.
As most brandies are distilled from grapes, the regions of the world producing excellent brandies have roughly paralleled those areas producing grapes for viniculture. At the end of the 19th Century, the western European market—and by extension their overseas empires—was dominated by French and Spanish brandies, and eastern Europe was dominated by brandies from the Black Sea region, including Bulgaria, the Crimea, and Georgia. In 1880, David Saradjishvili founded his Cognac Factory in Tbilisi, Georgia (then part of the Russian Empire) which was a crossroads for Turkish, Central Asian, and Persian traderoutes. Armenian and Georgian brandies (always called cognacs in the era) were considered some of the best in the world, often beating their French competitors at the International Expositions in Paris and Brussels in the early 1900s. The storehouses of the Romanov Court in St. Petersburg were regarded as the largest collections of cognacs and wines in the world—much of it from the Transcaucasus region of Georgia. During the October Revolution of 1917, upon the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolshevik Revolution actually paused for a week or so as the rioters engorged on the substantial stores of cognac and wines. The Russian market was always a huge brandy-consuming region, and while much of it was homegrown, much was imported. The patterns of bottles follow that of western European norm. Throughout the Soviet era, the production of brandy remained a source of pride for the communist regime, and they continued to produce some excellent varieties - most famously the Jubilee Brandies of 1967, 1977, and 1987. Remaining bottles of these productions are highly sought after, not simply for their quality, but for their historical significance.