Looking for quick tips, tricks and trivia on Brandy?
Brandy: The Water of Life
With the current battle between vodka and whisky/whiskey raging, it's easy for other spirits to fall out of favor and receive much less coverage. One such casualty of the Vodka-Brown Conflict is brandy. Many of you, right about now, are thinking, "Oh yeah, brandy. That thing my parents send me out to get during the holidays." What a large percentage of you aren't thinking of is cognac, armagnac, eau de vie, calvados and pisco, and that's a problem we need to fix.
What is This Stuff?
Plenty of people drink brandy but, if pressed, very few could actually explain just what it is. In very simple terms, brandy is distilled wine (grape wine, apple wine, etc.). It was created with the simple goal of making wine easier to transport and preserve. Some also believe that brandy was created as a way for merchants to lessen the taxes on their goods, as those were assessed by volume and distillation helped them save money. Where the subject of brandy can really get complicated is the regions of production, which commonly parallel the great wine-producing regions of the world. Let’s start there.
We’ve discussed more than once Old World vs New World when it comes to wine. Quick recap: Old World labeling identifies by region, New World identifies by varietal. Keeping that in mind, you may be surprised to learn that cognac is not a unique spirit but rather a unique production region. Cognac is a commune in southwestern France that produces arguably the world’s most famous brandy.
What makes Cognac unique in the world of brandy production is the region’s double-distillation method: to be called cognac, the brandy must be distilled twice in a pot still. Unlike in some other regions, Cognac reduces the final product’s alcohol by volume (ABV) to 80 proof with distilled water. Commonly made up of a blend of vintages, actual vintage brandy from the region is extremely rare, as is the printing of grape varietals on the labels.
Cognac tends to be lighter on fruit notes and aroma and stronger on floral characteristics than brandy produced by their main competitor, Armagnac (more on this region later). The oak barrels in which it is aged impart notes of herbs and spices, lending complexity and depth to the liquid. When it comes to aging, cognac peaks between 30 to 40 years. Notable houses in the region are Rémy Martin, Château de Montifaud (so named because the distillery sits on land once occupied by a castle, a rarity for the region), HINE (appointed the official cognac supplier to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II of England with their Royal Warrant having been renewed every 5 years) and Hennessy, which supplies a staggering 40% of cognac to the world and is the number one brand in America.
Armagnac is a county in southwestern France located around 100 miles south of Cognac. If Cognac is a ’57 Chevy, Armagnac is a 1957 Lincoln Premiere convertible; less famous but amazing in its own right. While regulations allow for the same grapes to be used as those in Cognac, Armagnac also allows the use of a few other varietals.
The massive difference between Cognac and Armagnac comes down to the distillation process: armagnac is distilled once in a mobile alembic. Yes, one of those… A mobile alembic (or alambic for those who prefer the French spelling) is a small continuous still that is often transported from producer to producer between the months of November and January. Owing to the region’s single distillation method, armagnac generally spends more time in oak and therefore develops more complexity, with the casks imparting vanilla, caramel, toffee, maple syrup and coconut milk notes. Aging peaks between 20 to 30 years and often results in the liquid developing aromas of smoke and earth.
Another difference is the ABV, with armagnac normally coming in between 92 and 96 proof. In addition, this region’s products are often vintage and single varietal. While cognac may seem like a no-brainer for a bar menu with established and profitable names such as Hennessy and Rémy Martin on the market, offering armagnac definitely adds a touch of sophistication and will help to draw in connoisseurs. Look for armagnac from houses Delord, Castarède and Maison Janneau.
Eau de Vie
Eau de vie – eaux de vie for plural – translates from French to English as the epic, “water of life.” This spirit is clear, colorless fruit brandy produced via fermentation and double distillation. The process for creating eau de vie is fairly cut and dry: ripe fruit is fermented, distilled and quickly bottled in order to preserve the freshness and aroma of the fruit. The fruit flavor is normally quite subtle. Typically, eau de vie isn’t aged, as evidenced by the clear color. However, there are some distillers who do age their spirits. Fruit brandy made from wine grapes from regions in France other than Cognac and Armagnac are called eau de vie de vin and, in English-speaking countries, are referred to simply as French brandy. Two high-quality, readily available eaux de vie producers are F. Meyer and Etter of the Anchor Distilling Co. portfolio.
While eau de vie is a French term, comparable spirits are produced in other countries. Germany produces schnapps or schnaps (any strong alcoholic drink), the Balkans have rakia (fruit brandy), the Czech Republic and Slovakia make pálenka (any distilled beverage, in particular fruit brandy), pálinka (fruit brandy) is produced in Hungary, Austria, Romania and Slovakia, arrack or arak (distilled alcoholic beverages made from fermented sap of coconut flowers, grain, sugarcane or fruit) is made in South Asia and Southeast Asia and Georgia – the country – produces chaca (pomace brandy), which is sometimes called vine vodka, grape vodka, Georgian vodka or Georgian grappa.
Combine three-quarters of an ounce of pear (poire) eau de vie, three-quarters of an ounce of gin, three-quarters of an ounce of elderflower liqueur (St. Germain), a half-ounce of Green Chartreuse, a quarter-ounce Bénédictine liqueur, 2 dashes of the bitters of your choice and ice in a shaker. Stir and then strain. Serve up with a lemon twist.
Not to be outdone by the successes of Cognac and Armagnac, Basse-Normandie or Lower Normandy, a northern region of France, also produces brandy. This spirit is called calvados, an apple brandy produced by distilling cider. Should your bar feature ciders or ginger beer (alcoholic or not), calvados is an excellent spirit to put on your menu to tantalize your guests. Calvados can be used as an aperitif, digestif or cocktail ingredient and actually tastes quite nice in coffee.
The production method is simple enough: specially grown and selected apples (200 known varieties) are harvested, pressed into juice, fermented into cider, distilled into eau de vie and aged in oak barrels for at least 2 years. Calvados is often aged for much longer than the required 2 years, resulting in a smoother drink. Check out Christian Drouin calvados to find products for your menu.
As with Cognac and Armagnac, the distillation method is strictly regulated when it comes to calvados. The AOC (appellation of control) of calvados requires single distillation via single column still and authorizes double distillation via alembic. However, one AOC, Pay d’Auge, requires double distillation for the production of calvados. Of course, as with any production method, there are pros and cons. Champions of the single distillation method prefer the fresh, clean apple flavor it provides while those who favor the double distillation method believe it produces a more complex calvados suitable for longer aging. Some also feel that a single column still, run expertly, creates a calvados just as complex as those produced via double distillation.
Calvados & Ginger Beer
Fill a tall glass with ice. Combine 1.5 ounces of calvados, 4 ounces of ginger beer and a dash of Angostura bitters. Lime wheel to garnish.
Chile and Peru are also major players in the brandy game. Their product is colorless, yellowish or amber brandy called pisco produced in their winemaking regions. Pisco is made from grape wine and, as you may have guessed, both Chile and Peru produce pisco according to exacting distillation regulations.
Peruvian pisco is required to be produced from any one of – or a blend of – 8 local grape varieties. Of course, each grape imparts its own characteristics to the finished product. Regardless of the grape variety (or varieties) used, Peruvian pisco may only be distilled once and is never permitted to be diluted. Stainless steel and glass are the only materials that are allowed to come into contact with Peruvian pisco. In stark contrast to Cognac and Armagnac, Peruvian pisco may never be aged in wood or manipulated beyond the blending of grape varietals. A great place to start for this type of brandy is Barsol.
Chilean regulations give distillers the freedom to influence their products more than the rules set forth in Peru. Multiple distillations are permitted and the spirit may be diluted and barrel aged. Additionally, while Peruvian distillers may use 8 grape varietals for production, Chilean distillers focus on just three, with the moscatel grape being the most commonly used. Capel (the Capel Moai bottle is unique and perfect for tiki bars), Pisco Mistral and Kappa are all fine examples of Chilean pisco.
In a shaker, combine 3 ounces pisco, 1 ounce Key lime juice, 1 ounce simple syrup and 1 egg white. Add ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass. Add 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters to foam and serve immediately. To make the Chilean version, use Pica lime juice, omit the bitters and egg white and serve over ice.