I’ll be honest, until recently brandy conjured up images of old bearded men in tweed sipping and swilling between puffs on their pipes in some old library. It’s never been my favorite. But recently I visited the Van Ryn’s brandy distillery in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region, and it completely changed my opinion of brandy. We participated in a brandy and chocolate tasting (how bad can that be) and learned the do’s and dont’s of drinking brandy. As it turns out, the way you sip brandy can entirely change the taste and your drinking experience, making it either delicious and enjoyable or biting and assertively alcoholic. So to enhance your drinking experiences and make you appear a more well-rounded and educated person, here’s a brief lesson on brandy- what it is and how to drink it.
First, let’s get the semantics right. The word brandy simply means neutral grape spirit. It’s basically a wine that’s been distilled into a vapor, and that vapor gets concentrated and then aged (usually in French oak casks) for a set amount of time before drinking. This distillation brings the liquid up to roughly 40% alcohol, or 80 proof. Usually two years of aging meets the minimum standard for brandy, but you can purchase 200-year-old brandy from the French Revolution for a pretty penny (try upwards of $2,200 a bottle). Usually the older the brandy, the more mellow, floral, and smooth the flavors. More chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon, and less smack-you-in-the-face alcohol smell and taste.
Cognac and Armagnac both fall under the brandy umbrella. Their distinction stems from the type of grapes they are fermented and distilled from. Its sort of like how champagne must come from the champagne region of France, but you can get sparkling wine from around the world.
For cognac, you can tell how long it has been aged by looking at the distinctions on the label:
- VS (very special) means a minimum of 2 years
- VSOP (very superior old pale) means a minimum of 4 years
- XO (extra old) means a minimum of 6 years
For Armagnac, the distinctions are similar:
- VSOP means a minimum of 4 years
- XO means a minimum of 5 years
- Hors d’Age means a minimum of 10 years
To properly drink brandy and take advantage of all its flavors, pour 1-2 ounces into a tulip shaped glass and warm it gently in the palm of your hand. The cardinal sin of drinking brandy is swilling and swirling your glass. This stirs up all the alcohol and prevents you from smelling or tasting any of the other more delicate flavors. If you do it by accident, don’t worry. The alcohol vapors will settle back down and you can enjoy your drink again. Sniff your glass and take small sips. This is not a beverage intended for chugging. Look for flavors of chocolate, vanilla, orange, apricot, toffee, and nuts, to name a few. Do NOT serve your brandy over ice, and try to avoid mixing anything of quality with cola- you’re ruining it. You can however mix your brandy with a bit of peach puree and a few ice cubes for a deliciously summery cocktail.
If you still turn your nose up at brandy- you probably already love a few of its derivatives. The aperitif and popular cocktail ingredient Lillet is just brandy mixed with fruit, herbs, and wine. The liquor Grand Mariner gets its flavor from cognac infused with orange and sweetened.
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