There is no drink more favored by the elegant dandy than a premium bottle of brandy. As the preeminent after-dinner drink for the modern aristocrat, Brandy is like a fine cigar in that it can be enjoyed for hours alone or in company, sparking enlightening conversation amongst friends or unaccompanied deep reflection.
“Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”
– Samuel Johnson
The History of Brandy
It goes without saying that brandy traces its routes to the Dutch word brandewijn meaning “burnt wine”. Back in the 12th century, the Dutch utilizing a newly indoctrinated form of distillation would distil wine in the hopes of preserving it for the long journey it took in the company of the merchants responsible for its transportation abroad. In addition to preservation, some believe today that the brandy was also distilled to lessen the tax burden amongst buyers since, at the time, wine was taxed based on its volume. Initially, the intent of the winemaker was to add the water back into the brandy shortly before it was consumed, however, it was quickly realized that after being stored in the wooden casks during its delivery, that the distilled spirit had significantly improved and in some cases, not only had the taste been refined, but due to the distillation process, various aromatic compounds were formed and many others dissolved. These findings separated brandy from wine allowing merchants to increase revenue and offer buyers a new premium spirit capable of significant markup.
For generations, brandy has been consumed in many ways. From the after-dinner drink to being used as flavoring in desserts and various recipes. It even holds a historic place in the medical books formerly being used to treat everything from the common cold and even as an integral ingredient in many patent medications.
Today, brandies are as diverse as wine or beer in taste and aroma. Most often consumed as a beverage, it’s commonly served straight in a snifter or tulip glass, often in a cocktail, sometimes gently warmed, and in parts of Asia on the rocks. The vast majority of popular brandies stem from various regions in France, and while there are a plethora of countries that make brandy, the two most popular selections tend to be Cognac and Armagnac, both of which, come exclusively from their respective regions in France, and both of which we’ll focus on here.
What most people don’t realize is that Armagnac was developed far before Cognac ever hit the market. In fact, about 700 years before Cognac, Armagnac was introduced sometime in the 15th century as the very first brandy to be exclusively produced in France.
Nestled betwixt the Adour and Garonne rivers at the foothills of Pyrenees, Armagnac is to this very day, a quaint, picturesque village of vineyards spanning a vast 37,000 acres of exquisite grape-producing vines.
Divided into three districts deep within the department of Gers, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne, they are known as the Bas-Armagnac, the Armagnac-Ténarèze and the Haut-Armagnac. Each district is controlled independently by separate appellation regulations, which now includes a recent addition of the “Blanche d’Armagnac” appellation, initially established for the production and exportation of clear, white Armagnac, all of which have been un-aged.
The production of Armagnac allows for the use of ten varieties of grapes. Of these ten, the four the form the primary part are the Baco 22A, the Folle Blanche, the Ugni Blanc, and the Colombard grape.
Unlike Cognac, which is distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled only once, at 52% in a unique Alembic Armagnacais, which is a type of column still that although far less efficient than a typical pot still, results in an initially tastier and more fragrant spirit. However, due to the extensive aging process in Monlezun, Limousin or Troncais oak casks, the taste is mellowed and results in a more complex flavor profile that’s very rustic and commanding. While the Monlezun oak is preferable amongst brandy connoisseurs, due to recent shortages, other casks are being used more predominantly.
Aging in the barrel removes a part of the alcohol and water by evaporation (known as “part des Anges” meaning “Angels’ tribute” or “angels’ share”) and allows more complex aromatic compounds to appear by oxidation, which further modifies the flavor. When the Armagnac is considered matured, it is transferred to large glass bottles (called “Dame Jeanne”) for storage. The main difference between Armagnac and other spirits is that, due to its relatively low proof, it is not diluted with water and, therefore, is not added with flavor or color enhancers as are the major other brandies.
Similar to Armagnac, for a brandy to be given the coveted name of “Cognac”, the distiller must meet or exceed a set of very specific and stringent requirements throughout its production. A double-distilled white wine, Cognac requires that it be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche grapes while the remaining 10% can be other grape varieties including Meslier St-François, Sélect, Folignan, Montils, Jurançon blanc or Sémillon. While there is a vast selection of cognacs with a variety of flavors and aromas, the one common denominator that binds all cognacs together is that they must be produced in the Cognac region of France for which it’s named after.
Because of the regions natural wild yeast, the juice that remains from the pressed grapes are left to sit for two to three weeks while the native yeasts ferment it, converting the sugars into alcohol. The regulations prohibit any additional sugars or sulfurs from being added, thereby ensuring that only the purest forms of brandy are consumed by the end user.
After the fermentation process, the cognac is poured into a charentais copper still, widely known as an alembic where it is twice distilled before reaching about 70% alcohol. After the distillation is completed, the cognac is again moved, this time into Limousin oak casks where it will rest for at least two years, interacting with the air and the oak barrel where it evaporates at the rate of approximately 3% per calendar year. Once the alcohol concentration drops to about 40%, the cognac is transferred to a glass carboys which is called bonbons and stored before being blended, bottled and sold to the public.
In this slide show, you will learn why Cognac is so popular today:
Aside from the popular Cognac and Armagnac regions of France, there are a wide variety of countries around the world that produce brandy made of grapes, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, elderberries, raspberries, and blackberries, or even such foods as coconut and leftover pomace.
With such diverse selections spanning the shelves at your local liquor store, purchasing a bottle of brandy is akin to any other brown spirit or fine wine; some are wonderful, and others resemble moonshine or hooch that can only be found in the bowels of a Texas State prison.
Aside from aesthetic appeal, the labels affixed to each bottle of brandy are representative of a number of things. While there most likely won’t be tasting notes as found on some wine bottles, what you will find are various phrases and terms that can help you ascertain whether or not it is a brandy worth sampling.
The type of brandy is probably the first thing you want to look at. Obviously if it says Cognac or Armagnac you can safely assume it was produced in that region, but for those that simply say “brandy” it’s a wise idea to look for the Country of importation and the major source used, whether it be grapes, fruit or pomace.
Next you want to determine its age. In certain regions such as in France, there are regulated terms that are used to estimate age, those usually being VS, VSOP, and XO, among others. The designation is assigned using the youngest spirit in the bottle. As an example, in a blended bottle of Cognac, if the youngest spirit is two years old, but the eldest is ten, then that bottle will be labeled as a two-year-old bottle of Cognac.
It is of vital importance to remember that the following labels are guidelines only and that often different types of brandy will have alternative labels, vintage dates or even the meaning of the labels may change from region to region and type to type.
V.S. (Very Special)
This means that the brandy has been aged a minimum of two years. Due to its age, the younger brandy will often have aromas of fresh white fruits such as apples or pears that make these younger brandies ideal for mixing rather than sipping. For a sipping brandy, I would strongly encourage you to upgrade to at least a VSOP.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale)
This category will typically include brandies that are between four and a half to six and a half years old.
X.O. (Extra Old)
These brandies are usually six and a half years old or more. Often these brandies are given other labels that can include Napoléon (4 years or more), Impérial, Vieille, and Réserve.
These are brandies that for one reason or another are too old to determine the age of.
Brandy, like many other spirits should never be a rushed experience regardless of whether you choose to sip it or mix it into a cocktail. It should be enjoyed, savored and even cherished. It is an escape, a road to relaxation, and despite what recent ad campaigns by Remy Martin may suggest, brandy should not be downed in shot glasses on the dance floor at your local watering hole. You must drink it from a real Brandy glass, like this one from Spiegelau, to really experience the full flavor of a Brandy.
This is the epitome of a fireplace drink. It’s a commitment to tranquility that should be savored in peaceful surroundings such as a home library; candle lit sitting room or if in public, a piano bar.
To begin the process of tasting brandy, one should pour it into a brandy snifter and swirl it at eye level to get a sense of the legs it possesses.
It’s important to remember that because brandy is a brown spirit made from grapes it’s extremely delicate and very versatile giving brandy a uniquely diverse and wide range of aromas and flavors. Just like there are many types of wines with varying flavors and aromas, brandy should not be written off after one bad experience, but should be tried multiple times to give yourself a chance to find the right blend for your palate.
- With brandy, there are three separate noses. The first time you nose (sniff) the brandy you should hold it at chest height. This nose will allow you to capture the floral notes of the blend, introducing the delicate aromas to your senses, so you’re not overpowered by its intricacies on the first taste.
- Next, raise the snifter to chin height and again take a deep breath in through your nose. This next impression will allow you to capture the dried fruits present in the brandy.
- For the final nose, raise the snifter directly under your nose and this time take a breath in through your mouth and nose. This final nose will be much more complex allowing you to enjoy the spice of pepper or perhaps cinnamon components in the brandy.
- Now that you’re ready to taste the brandy, I recommend taking two sips. The first of which should be the smallest sip you can possibly take. You’ll notice with this initial sip that it will cover the entire palate and encompass your mouth with its beauty and warmth. When you’re ready to take another sip, take a slightly larger sip and swish it around in your mouth. Now you’ll experience a very long and beautiful finish that will keep you coming back for more.
- Always remember that the aroma of a good brandy is just as important and enjoyable as its flavor.
Our Favorite Bottles
While most Americans are familiar with the big four (Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell), we were delighted to speak with Nicolas Palazzi, a French born brandy connoisseur who spends his days as the CEO of PM Spirits in New York, blending and sourcing the rarest and most exclusive brandies for his affluent and very discerning clientele. In addition to Mr. Palazzi’s help with this article, we had the pleasure of speaking with Becky Sue Epstein, one of the most distinguished wine and spirits experts in the United States, who has published numerous works on the topic in her decades of experience as an author, journalist, critic and competition judge.
The following is, a list of their personal favorites selected especially for the readers of Gentleman’s Gazette, along with a few of ours as well.
Courtemanche-Manoir de Querville
Navazos-Palazzi Single casks Spanish Brandies
In case you would like to learn more about Cognac, the following books may be of interest to you.
1. The Cognac Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide by Conal R. Gregory – If you just want one book, look no further, this is it. Full of reviews and explanations, it is a drinker’s guide that will teach you a lot.
2. Cognac: A Liquid History by Salvatore Calabrese – This cognac guide is for the brandy lover, who wants to learn more about the details of this fine spirit and how it is made, and were the industry is headed. It comes with great pictures.
3. Cognac by Nicholas Faith – If you prefer to read an ebook on your tablet or Kindle, here is one for you. It focuses mainly on the history and geography, less on the process and hardly at all on different brands.
While I never, ever recommend mixing or even pairing a high quality brandy, there are a number of classic drinks that call for it and that you can serve at a cocktail party. In these cases, I recommend a less expensive and younger bottle, rather than something worthy of a collectors praise. At the same time, Cognac cocktails become more and more popular and are even offered in Michelin star restaurants. The following video shows the process of blending cognacs.
1 1/2 ounces Cognac
1 ounce Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
Lemon twist for garnish
Sugar for rimming (optional)
Rim a chilled martini glass with sugar.
Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes.
Strain into the prepared cocktail glass.
1 1/2 oz brandy
1 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 tsp simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes.
Strain into a chilled martini glass.
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz brandy
Pour the Benedictine into a brandy snifter.
Use the back of a bar spoon to gently float the brandy on top.
GENTLEMAN’S HOT TODDY
1 oz brandy
1 Tbsp honey
1 cup hot water
Pinch of cloves
Pinch of nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks
Coat the bottom of a mug or an Irish coffee glass with honey.
Add the liquor and the juice of the lemon quarter.
On the side, heat water in a tea kettle.
Pour the steaming tea into the glass and stir.
Add cloves and cinnamon stick.
Let sit for 5 minutes.
Special thank you to Ms. Becky Sue Epstein and Mr. Nicolas Palazzi for their expert opinion and gracious offering of their valuable time to help with the research for this article.