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What Is Brandy?

Spirits or liquor, such as scotch or bourbon, are made from grains and distilled. Wine, by contrast, is the product of fermented grapes. But, fortunately for the world at large, there exists a beverage that is a fine mixture of the two processes: brandy. The name is short for 'brandywine' and even the sound ('burned wine') suggests what it is and how it's made.

The specific grapes used, not surprisingly, have a large influence on the final product. Everything from the Ugni Blanc to pomace or sherry grapes might form the base. The first are grown in the Cognac region from which that type of brandy gets its name. Pomace, by contrast, is produced from the pulp, seeds and stems that are left over after the juice has been extracted. The traditional Italian form of brandy, called Grappa, is made this way. Sherry is an anglicized word form of Jerez, the region in Spain that lends its name to the product of that country. This type uses grapes grown specifically for making that native brew.

There are some brandies that don't use grapes at all, such as the slivovitz from Poland, which uses plums instead. But the name in the English-speaking world usually refers to the product made from grape juice.

But whichever grape or grape component is used, the process is much the same, and much the same as making whiskey. Wine is fermented, producing anywhere from 8-12% ABV (alcohol by volume). To achieve the 30-40% of brandy, the liquid is heated in a still typically made of copper. The evaporate passes up where it ultimately condenses into another vessel. Because alcohol boils more readily than other liquids, the final result has a much higher concentration.

The end product isn't merely more potent, though. Part of the process usually involves aging in casks, similar again to the way whiskey and other spirits are made. Pomace and fruit brandies are not aged at all. The specific type of cask and how it's prepared have a substantial impact on the final flavor.

Oak is by far the most common choice of wood from which to make the aging barrels. The so-called single-barrel process produces a golden brown liquid whose taste can't be adequately described. It has to be experienced. The oak suffuses compounds into the wine at the surface, which gradually diffuse throughout the liquid inside. The result is a brew that is part wine, part spirit - and all divine.

When the aging is halted at two years, the produce is an A.C. brandy.

The V.S. (Very Special) designation is reserved for those aged at least three years.

Only those aged five years receive the V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale) label.

For those who can afford the very finest, three more exist:

X.O. (Extra Old, aged at least six years),

Vintage (stamped with the date first stored) and

Hors d'Age, which have seen at least 10 years in the barrel.

Fine grapes, careful distillation and superior aging techniques combine to produce the glorious nectar known the world over as brandy. But then, saying it doesn't prove the point quite like tasting it.

Brandy Brands

Christian Brothers


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