Class is in session! Welcome to Booze School, a new occasional series dedicated to demystifying spirits, sharing some fun facts, and giving you enough smarts about booze that you're confident in your ability to pick out a bottle or order a glass you'll dig.
Because it's the spirit that most befuddles me, I decided to start with brandy.
OK, What Exactly Is Brandy, Anyway?
There are so many things that fall under the brandy umbrella that, if you're anything like me, it's easy to become baffled by what the spirit actually is. In the most basic terms, brandy is a spirit distilled from fruit, and occasionally from herbs. (And without re-muddying the waters, I also tried a nettle brandy while in Croatia last year, but let's ignore that for now and stick with the fruit thing.)
The most common fruit used in brandy, by a mile, is grapes. Cognac, Armagnac, grappa, pisco, and many American brandies are grape-based. There are some differences in how different grape-ish brandies are distilled (grappa uses the skins, seeds, and stems left over from winemaking, for instance, while pisco, cognac, and Armagnac use grape juice or wine), in the grapes used to make them, and in how they're distilled and aged—hence the vast differences in the end products.
There are plenty of other brandies that rely on other fruits: Armagnac comes from apples, kirsch from cherries, slivovitz from plums, and Hungarian palinka from apricots, to name just a few. I've yet to hear of brandy made from bananas, pineapples, mangos, or other tropical fruits, but otherwise, if it's a fruit, there's a solid chance there's a brandy (or eau de vie, or schnapps, or rakia) made from it.
When Is a Cognac Not a Cognac?
Though the whole world of cognac can get complicated quickly (more on that in a moment), one aspect of it is pretty straightforward: cognac is simply grape-based brandy from the Cognac region of France. In the same way that all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes, all cognac is brandy but not all brandies are cognac.
Same basic deal with Armagnac: it's brandy from a particular area in France, so not every brandy can be called Armagnac, but all Armagnac can be called brandy. Because it is. Capice?
VS, VSOP, XO, WTH?
Unlike other brandies, cognac has a grading system that indicates how long the youngest bit of brandy in each blend has been aged. (Like non-vintage Champagne, cognac from different years is blended, so a barrel of cognac will contain brandy that ranges in age.) Those abbreviations you see on cognac bottles? They tell you things.
- V.S. (Very Special): A cognac blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in an oak cask.
- V.S.O.P (Very Special Old Pale), also sometimes called Reserve: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least four years.
- XO (Extra Old) or Napoléon: A blend in which the youngest brandy has been cask-aged for at least ten years. Prior to 2016, the requirement here was six years of aging, so presumably if you were to go out and buy a bottle of XO cognac right now, chances would be decent you'd be buying a six-year, not a ten-year.
- Hors d'age (Beyond age): The national cognac bureau in France (yes, there's such a thing) officially says that Hors d'age is the same as XO, but in practice, distillers sometimes use it to indicate cognac that's been aged beyond the ten years at which the scale tops off.
There are other bits of potential bafflement on cognac labels, just as there are on many wine labels, but we're sticking with the basics here. Want to nerd out? The Wikipedia entry on cognac is happy to oblige.
How to Drink It
Brandy is delicious in cocktails (but of course); stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in which I dive into that very subject. Perhaps the most famous of this lot is the Sidecar, with cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice, but if you do some digging, especially into older cocktail books, you'll find plenty more.
Some would argue that where brandies—and cognac and Armagnac in particular—really shine is sipped on their own. Do you need brandy snifters, with their big, balloon-like bowls and narrow mouths? Not necessarily. Their shape is designed to warm up the spirit a bit as you hold the snifter in your hand, thereby releasing more of its aromas, and then preventing those aromas from escaping by narrowing the glass toward the top. So while something like a coupe wouldn't be great if you want to sit down and slowly sniff and sip your brandy, a stemless wine glass would totally work.
There's a delicious and incredibly varied world of brandies out there. Get sipping!