Brandy is a strong alcoholic beverage distilled from the juice of fermented grapes or other fruit. The type distilled from grapes may simply be labeled "brandy." Other types must indicate the fruit that was used, such as cherry, plum, peach, and apricot.
All brandies are composed of ethyl alcohol, water, and volatile oils that provide flavor. The fermented juice, or wine, from which brandy is made is distilled either in batches in pot stills or continuously in modern, or patent, stills. The brandy is then placed in oak casks to age until it is bottled.
The most famous brandies come from the Cognac and Armagnac regions of France. Cognac brandy is distilled twice in pot stills. It is amber in color, mellow in texture, and has a grape aroma. Armagnac brandy is made in a single distillation process. It has a sharper, drier taste than Cognac.
The distinction of a fine brandy depends partly on the quality of the wine used and partly on the method of distillation, but principally on the type of wood in the barrel in which it is aged. Cognac matures most satisfactorily in casks of Limousin oak. Spirits do not go on maturing after they are bottled. "Napoleon" brandy, supposedly bottled in the Napoleonic era, has acquired legendary fame. Actually, if such an ancient brandy existed, its age in the bottle would add nothing to its quality.
Most spirits today are distilled in continuous stills, but true Cognac comes from the traditional pot-still type of distillation. A pot still consists of a pot for heating the wine, a head or alembic through which the vapor passes, and a condenser to cool and condense the steam. To attain utmost purity the distillate may complete this cycle two or three times, while preserving its full flavor. In the process, the first and last runs of the brandy are discarded, and only the middle, or "heart," is retained. The spirit yielded will be between 60% and 70% alcohol by volume. This traditional Cognac method is the prototype for all good brandy making.
Real Cognac comes only from the legally delimited Cognac district in western France, which is watered by the Charente River and served by the port of La Rochelle. The principal brandy companies have their headquarters in the towns of Cognac and Jarnac. In neighboring vineyards are grown the Folle Blanche and Semillon grapes that produce the hard, acid wines from which this brandy is made. Local farmers distill their own wines and sell the raw, colorless spirit to shippers who keep it in barrels in their warehouses during the long maturing period.
Most Cognacs are blends of different vintage years and the age given on the bottle label is that of the oldest vintage, not the average age. A Cognac all of one vintage year occurs only rarely. After long aging, the tannin in the wood of the barrel will have imparted amber color as well as a distinctive flavor to the spirit. In cheaper brandies this color may be simulated by the addition of caramel, and the harsh flavor may be smothered with vanilla.
Armagnac is a heady brandy that at its best is preferred to Cognac by some connoisseurs. It comes from farther south in France, from Gas-cony, the home of Alexandre Dumas' fictitious hero d'Artagnan. The making of Armagnac, compared with the methods of the big firms in Cognac, is almost a cottage industry. The small Gascon firms share portable stills and age their distillates for a long time in barrels of Armagnac oak.
Each winegrowing country (Italy, Portugal, Spain, the United States, and many others) distills its own brandy. Well worth knowing are the apple brandies, French Calvados and American applejack, and the pungent marc of Burgundy, made from grape pomace, or residue of wine pressings. Italian grappa is a similar, if inferior, product. The pisco brandy of Peru is popular.