Any type of fermented, distilled fruit base can be considered brandy; most are made from grapes or apples. Some varieties of brandy are aged in oak, while others are bottled young. Each fruit base and processing method produces a unique set of characteristics in the final liquor.
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Cognac is perhaps the most well-known form of brandy. It can only be produced within the Cognac region of France from specific grape varietals and must be aged in oak for a minimum of two years.
Armagnac is similar to Cognac in that it must come from a specific location, the Armagnac region of France, and be produced from specific varieties of grapes. Differences in the distilling process leave Armagnac with a fruitier flavor than Cognac.
Calvados and Apple Brandy
Calvados is made from fresh apples, and in some instances a mixture of apples and pears, in the Normandy region of France. Apple Brandy -- sometimes called Applejack -- is the American version of this liquor.
Applejack was originally made at home by repeatedly freezing hard apple cider and then skimming off the ice, thereby increasing the alcohol content. Commercial apple brandies are produced in column or pot stills in a similar method to French Calvados.
Calvados must be aged for a minimum of two years. Some American apple brandies follow this custom, while others are sold young.
Pisco is a South American pomace brandy produced in Chile and Peru. The final products from these two countries are distinctly different.
In Chile, pisco is aged in oak barrels, where it absorbs flavor and color. It is often diluted to specific strengths before bottling. There are no regulations dictating how long pisco must be aged, leading to a wide variety in quality and price.
Peruvian pisco is aged in glass or metal vessels before bottling. In Peru, pisco cannot contain any additives and is always bottled at full strength.
Pomace refers to the practice of using the skins and peels of grapes in addition to the juice. It typically produces an earthier brandy than those made from wine.
Any distilled liquor made from fruit may be considered brandy. To separate the more sophisticated -- and regulated -- aged spirits from all the rest, the term eaux-de-vie came into use. Eaux-de-vie can be made from any type of fruit and are not typically aged. Traditionally these spirits are served after a meal as a digestif.