The word "brandy," a general descriptor for this type of alcohol, comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, or, literally, "burnt wine," which refers to the process of heating wine during distillation. Versatile brandy liquors have evolved and shouldn't be viewed as something to be enjoyed only by an older ascot-wearing crowd. Brandy is available in different proofs, and it goes down smooth, velvety or bold. Even though it traditionally was distilled from wine, fruits such as apples are also sometimes used to produce different types of brandy. Brandies that are made from apples and grapes are often aged in wood, which enhances their taste and color.
Types of Brandy
Cognac, distilled in or near the town of Cognac in western France, is considered a top choice in brandy. It's double distilled and aged for at least three years in a Limousin oak barrel. The stars on the cognac label serve as a guide as to how long it's been aged. For example, a one-star designation means it has been aged for three years; two stars mean that it's aged for at least four years; while three stars signifies at least five years' aging. Older cognacs are labeled "V.S." (very special), "V.S.O.P." (very superior old pale) and "V.V.S.O.P.;" (very, very, superior old pale).
Armagnac is also a top-choice brandy and, like cognac, one of the best-known. It originates in a town southeast of Bordeaux called Gascony. While cognac is distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled only once and then at a low temperature. Although it is smooth on the palate, the single distillation process allows for a heartier flavor with some added elements.
Calvados is a dry apple brandy made in Calvados in northern France. It is double distilled in a pot; then, it's aged in Limousin oak barrels for a minimum of one year. Some brands of Calvados are aged up to 40 years.
American brandy is similar in taste to cognac, though the flavor can be a bit more varied because American distillers are allowed to use different types of grapes. American brandies, though not bound to the same rules as their French counterparts, retain the traditional classification system as described: V.S., V.S.O.P. and V.V.S.O.P.
Spanish brandy (brandy de Jerez) is made using the same grapes and methods that create sherry. As with other brandies, it also employs an aging system. Solera, a type of Spanish brandy, is light in flavor and aged for one year. Solera Reserva, which is a little more complex, is aged for three years. Solera Gran Reserva is aged for roughly 10 years and carries notes of dried fruits and nuts.
Applejack brandy is the American version of Calvados, though its production is different. It's created through a process of freezing apple cider and then skimming the ice. It's stored in the same manner as its French cousin and priced more reasonably.
Grappa is a high-alcohol content Italian eau de vie ("waters of life") that's created from the grape skins and seeds left behind in the wine press after wine production. While straightforward versions are made, some are more complex because they are stored in wooden barrels such as oak, birch and juniper.
Marc is the French cousin of grappa, and it's made in a similar process.
Pomace, also similar to grappa, is distilled from the residue (skins, pits, seeds and pulp) that's left after the wine has been produced.