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Brandy: How Did It Come To Be?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
– Samuel Johnson

What is it about brandy that sets it apart from all other drinks? Where did it come from anyway? Read on for some sobering although light-hearted answers.

Brandy’s history dates back to ancient Greece and Rome where it was used both as an antiseptic and an anesthetic. One can only suppose that "drinking for medicinal purposes" may have originated at this time. It is known, however, that Arab alchemists in the 7th and 8th centuries experimented with distilling grapes and other fruits in order to create medicinal spirits. Their knowledge and techniques quickly spread beyond Islam’s borders, with grape Brandy production appearing in Spain and Ireland (via missionary monks) by the end of the 8th century.

It was not until the 17th century, however, that brandy became recognized throughout the world. The word itself derives from the Dutch brandewijn (burnt wine), which is how the Dutch traders who introduced the drink to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain described wine that had been burnt or boiled in order to distill it. It seems the process evolved somewhat by accident (like penicillin, Carvel ice cream, champagne and other wonders). It was a means to save space in the ship’s hold. Wines were boiled to reduce their volume by evaporation and then, reconstituted with water. It was observed that although this process had no visible effect on the traders themselves, some wines actually benefited from it.

Cognac, one of the more famous and popular brandies made from white wine, originated in the 17th century when the Cognacais family began to double distill their wines. It soon became one of France’s most popular and profitable exports and the drink of choice for the aristocracy. First it traveled to Holland, then to England, the Far East and finally to the New World via Spanish monks. At first dismayed when the many casks they had transported to the New World were soon gone, the monks discovered that native California grapes were a perfect source for their favorite libation (and possibly the realization that God really was good). They also found that other fruits could be used to produce brandy as well. This knowledge spread to Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Australia and South Africa, where by the end of the 18th century, fruit brandy was being produced in large quantities.

Fruit Brandy is a term that refers to all brandies made from fermenting fruit other than grapes. It should not be confused with fruit-flavored brandy, which is grape brandy that has been flavored with the extract of another fruit. Fruit Brandies, except those made from berries, are generally distilled from fruit wines. Berries tend to lack enough sugar to make a wine with sufficient alcohol for proper distillation, and thus are soaked in high-proof spirit to extract their flavor and aroma. This extract is then distilled once at a low proof. Calvados, the Apple Brandy from the Normandy region of Northwestern France, is probably the best known of this type. Eau-de-vie (water of life) is a term, which refers to spirits in general and specifically to colorless fruit brandy from the Alsace region of France and from California, (imbibed, no doubt, by colorless and thirsty phantoms and specters).

Depending upon the region and the fruit, brandy is divided into four main categories: fruit brandies, American brandies, armagnac and cognac. Fruit brandies are clear, generally 80 to 90 proof and are distilled directly from the fruit itself. They are made from many fruits, including pears, apples, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apricots, plums and cherries. They are served chilled or over ice. Almost all American brandy is distilled in California by individual firms, and is lighter and smoother than European brandy, which tends to possess a stronger taste. Armagnac is similar to cognac with the most substantial difference being the method of distillation. Armagnac is generally aged longer than cognac with its best years between the teens to mid-twenties (aren’t we all?). Anything over thirty years is considered over aged. (Thank God these distinctions are for just grapes and fruits! Can you imagine an adult being old at 30?)

Cognac is the best known brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other brandies are judged. The Cognac region is located on the west central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux. The region is further subdivided into six growing zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bois Ordinaires, Borderies, Fins Bois and Bons Bois. The first of these regions produces the best cognac and will frequently be so designated on bottle labels. Cognacs labeled Fine Champagne are a blend of Petite and Grand Champagnes (for the taller among us). The primary grapes used in making cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Columbard. These grapes produce wines that are thin, tart and low in alcohol; poor qualities for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making brandy. Cognac is double distilled in pot stills and then aged in oaken casks. All cognacs begin in new oak to mellow their fiery spirit and render their color. Batches that are chosen for long-term aging are, after a few years, transferred to "seasoned" casks.

Brandy has a unique system of classification, which was first introduced by Hennessey in order to offer a simple method for consumers to differentiate between cognacs. "A.C." signifies that it is two years old and aged in wood casks, "V.S." is "very special" and aged three years in wooden casks, "V.S.O.P" signifies "very superior old pale" aged for a minimum of five years, "X.O." means "extra old", which is aged for a minimum of six years. This label includes Napoleon (not the man, the drink) and Vielle reserve. Napoleon is aged at least four years, and for a brandy to be labeled vintage it must go directly from the aging cask to the bottle without passing go or collecting two hundred dollars, and with the label showing the date. Finally, the "hors d’age" classification means it’s too old to determine the age. (I feel that way sometimes. Don’t you?)

Virtually all cognacs are a blend of brandies from different vintages, and frequently, different growing zones. As in Champagne, the production of local vineyards is sold to Cognac houses, each of which stores and ages cognac from different suppliers and then employs master blenders to draw from these disparate brandies to create continuity in the house blends. Because there are no age statements on cognacs, the industry has adopted some generally accepted terms to differentiate them. These terms have no legal status, and each shipper uses them according to his own criteria. For example, X.O. (Extra Old) means a minimum of six years aging for the youngest cognac, with the average age running twenty years or older. All Cognac houses maintain inventories of old vintage cognacs and the oldest of them are removed from their casks and stored in large jugs to prevent loss from evaporation and to limit astringency. Luxury cognacs are the very tops of the line of each individual Cognac house.

Armagnac is the oldest type of brandy in France, dating back to the early 15th century. Its primary region is located in the heart of the ancient province of Gascony in the southwestern corner of France. As in Cognac, there are growing zones: Bos Armagnac, Haut Armagnac and Tenarze. The Ugli Blanc, Folle Blanc and Columbard (the same grapes used for cognac) are also utilized in producing Armagnac, but the distillation process is different and the resulting brandy has a rustic character and aroma that requires additional cask aging to mellow it out. The best armagnac are aged in casks made from the local Monlezan oak. In recent years, Limousin and Troncais oak have been used as suitable Monlezan oak becomes harder to find. (I myself have absolutely no idea where any of them are.)

Most Armagnacs are blends, but unlike Cognac, single vintages and bottlings can be found. Classifications are the same as those of Cognac (V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O.) Blended armagnacs often have a higher percentage of older vintages in their mix than comparable cognacs, making them a better value for the discerning buyer.

Brandies are produced throughout Europe. Those from Spain come from two basic regions. Brandy de Jerez is made by the Sherry houses centered in and around the city of Jerez de la Frontiera in southwestern Spain. Its product is lush, slightly sweet and fruity. Penedes Brandy comes from Catalonia near Barcelona. Italian brandies have no specific producing regions. Their brandies tend to be on the light and delicate side with a touch of residual sweetness. German brandy (weinbrand) is made from imported wine rather than from the more local varieties. The best German brandies come from the Black Forest region. They are smooth, somewhat lighter than Cognac and finished with a touch of sweetness. Greece produces pot-distilled brandies, many of which, such as the well-known Metaxa, are flavored with Muscat wine, anise or other spices. Brandy production in Israel dates back to 1880 when the French Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, established what has become the modern Israeli wine industry along French lines. Latin America, South Africa and many other far away places too numerous to mention all have their own brandies. The list is hefty and in the words of Sonny and Cher, the beat goes on.

All in all, brandy is one of the great pleasures in life, to be savored, enjoyed and remembered. Whatever your preference, remember that only you can prevent forest fires and that the drink is best imbibed when one has no driving to do or lectures to give or attend. In front of an open fire after dinner with some lovely rich chocolate may not get you to Weight Watchers, but it will certainly get you into heaven.

Happy Brandy to all and to all a good Brandy!

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Copyright 2006