When you think of brandy, what comes to mind? Is it your grandpa, smoking a stogie and sipping from a snifter? Is it a mystery to you, a beverage from the past, shrouded in words like “cognac” and “armagnac”? Not to fear! Brandy is less intimidating than you might think, and it goes perfectly with a number of classic cocktails.
What is Brandy?
In the simplest sense, brandy is a spirit distilled from fruit, but there are three basic categories, as well as different classifications for age.
Traditional brandies are distilled from grape wine; they may or may not be aged in wooden barrels. This includes cognac, which is really just double-distilled brandy made in the Cognac region of France; armagnac, distilled in column stills and from the French region of the same name; and pisco, a raw and earthy brandy from South America.
Pomace brandies like Italian grappa are made from the pressed grape skins and stems left over from the winemaking process.
Fruit brandies — also called eau-de-vie, which means “water of life” in French — are made from any other fruit that isn’t a grape. There are also fruit-flavored brandies, which are grape-based brandies with fruit flavors added; these are usually of lesser quality than brandy distilled directly from fruit.
Even though it’s made from wine, brandy doesn’t taste like wine. Because it is distilled and is often aged in wood, it has more of a whiskey-like finish. According to John Peregoy, a classically-trained bartender from Nashville, Tennessee, this makes brandy work nicely with a little sugar and the oils of a lemon or orange peel. It can be drunk straight or over ice, preferably from a tulip-shaped glass called a brandy snifter.
Let’s Get Classified
“XO Brandy” is not just the way your high school crush signed her Valentine’s Day cards. Letter combos such as VSOP and XO stand for different varieties of brandy and can tell you how long and in what they were aged. All cognacs are labeled this way, as are many other brandies. Let’s break it down.
AC: Aged two years in wood.
VS (Very Special), VSP (Very Special Pale), 3 Star: Aged at least three years in wood.
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), 5 Star: Aged in wood at least five years (the industry standard is usually 10-15 years).
XO (Extra Old), Napoleon, Vieille Reserve: Aged at least six years for XO, at least four for Napoleon.
Hors d’Age: If you find a brandy with this on the label, that means it’s old — so old, in fact, that no one’s sure how old it is. Snatch that baby up.
If you get to the store and still feel confused about what to buy, just ask the shopkeep. He or she will gladly point you in the right direction.
Raise Your Glass
Ready to dust off your grandpa’s brandy snifter and start sipping? Here are some brandies you must try.
For newbies, I recommend starting with a lower mid-range brand like E&J’s VSOP. With its hints of vanilla and smooth finish, it’s great for getting your palate used to brandy and is also good mixed in cocktails. For the more discriminating brandy drinker, Peregoy recommends Pierre Ferrand for its smoothness, as well as Martell for sipping.
If you’re looking for top-notch apple and pear brandies, try Clear Creek. This Oregon distillery pairs European methods with locally-grown fruit to make delicious, clear spirits. They also make a grappa and traditional grape brandy that you should definitely check out.
Then there’s Laird’s, the United States’ oldest native distillery, which is famous for its apple brandy (commonly called “applejack”). According to historical records, George Washington was a huge fan of this family-produced New Jersey spirit.
Drink it Down
Brandy is most often sipped on its own, from a brandy snifter, but it can also be used in a number of classic cocktails.
In the words of Feist, “Brandy Alexander always gets me into trouble” — probably because they go down so easily. This is my personal favorite cocktail.
In a shaker, combine 1 ounce brandy, 1 ounce creme de cacao, 1 ounce cream, and ice to fill. Shake and strain into a large glass or brandy snifter. Dust with nutmeg, if desired.
Fill a short glass with ice. In a shaker, combine 1 ounce brandy, 1 ounce Triple Sec, 1 ounce lemon juice, and ice to fill. Shake and strain into glass.
(recipe courtesy of John Peregoy)
In a shaker, combine the white of one egg, 1 ounce simple syrup, and .75 ounce lemon juice. Shake well. Add 2 ounces pisco (Gran Sierpe is recommended) and ice to fill. Shake vigorously and strain into coupe glass. Top with 5 drops of angostura bitters.
Photo credits: Sami Keinänen, Charlotte Adejayan, Szalony kucharz, 427, and Dtarazona.