what is brandy anyway

So what is brandy, anyway?

First, brandy is a distilled spirit, made by putting a liquid containing alcohol into a still and making that liquid stronger in alcohol. In the process, the flavors and aromas in the original liquid get concentrated and purified.

Hubert using the antique cognac still

Distilling spirits is two things:

1. Making a potent drug, namely a high-alcohol beverage, that folks consume because of how it makes them feel, and

2. Creating something that has concentrated flavors and aromas.

Distillers who care focus on the second aspect. They go to a lot of trouble and expense to use a good still, and to put the right things in the still, and to run the still well, so that they can use the distillation process to create something wonderful to drink.

Crispin Cain working on a holstein pot still

Spirits start with a liquid in which the sugars/carbohydrates have been fermented into alcohol, to say 5% up to 15%. Before and during good distillation, the alcohol absorbs flavors and aromatics, and as you concentrate the alcohol, you intensify those flavors and aromatics and also purify them, meaning get rid of stuff that doesn’t need to be there. Distillation is more complex than this summary, but the key words are concentration and purification: if you’re running the still correctly, you get a more intensely focused and cleaner version of what you put in it. It’s also way stronger: on a continuous (column) still, what comes out is up to 95% alcohol; on a pot still, it’s usually from 55-70%.

Cider production in colonial times

BRANDY

Brandy is the word/designation for a spirit distilled from fruit. You make juice from the fruit, ferment the juice, which turns the sugars into alcohol, and put the stuff through a still.

Brandies are made from apples, pears, apricots, blackberries… you name it and someone has distilled a brandy from it. There are a great number of brandies distilled from pears, raspberries, etc. bottled clear, known as eau-de-vie, schnapps, slivovitz, (plums).

Apple brandy (distilled from cider) was a liquor of choice (along with rum) in colonial times, until people got to places where you could grow corn and grain and started to make whiskey. George Washington owned a fair-sized distillery. George distilled apple brandy, and whiskey too.

Armenian grape brandy casks

GRAPE BRANDY

Most experts believe that the best brandies are made from grapes, although some class apple brandy and eau-de-vie from pear as their equals.

Grape brandies with good reputations include cognac and armagnac. Good brandy is also distilled in Armenia (Ararat), South Africa (Oude Meester), Spain (Torres, Conde de Osborne), Mexico (Pedro Domecq), Greece (Metaxa), Italy (Vecchia Romagna), and Germany (Asbach Uralt). Brandy has a particularly long history in Armenia; in the 19th century, Armenian brandies often outscored cognacs in European competitions.

Distilling brandy long ago: wood-fired stills

There is a huge amount of misinformation current about grape brandy, especially about cognac. Here’s a long article by Frank Shipman of Brown-Forman on spirits distillation that has mucho information on the actual mechanics of making grape brandy:
http://www.britannica.com/topic/distilled-spirit#ref137255
and, for quite a bit of hard-to-find info, with video, on making potstill brandy, along with other distillation and spirits topics, go here: http://craftdistillers.com/journal/

Millard Fillmore is a blend of brandies made on a potstill and brandies made on a continuous, or column, still.