Brandy Basics

An Introduction to a Timeless Spirit

Snifters of brandy on a distressed wood surface.
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Brandy derives its name from the Dutch word "brandewijn", meaning "burned wine", and is a liquor distilled from wine or other fermented fruit juices.

Most brandy is 80 proof (40% alcohol/volume) and has been enjoyed for centuries as a cocktail and cooking ingredient.

This spirit is not the one to be chosen based solely on price because a low-quality brandy can ruin an otherwise great cocktail.

Brandy Production

While the process to make brandy varies between the varieties there are four basic steps needed.

First, the fruit is fermented into wine which is then distilled into alcohol. Once the distillation process is complete the aging process begins. This step is the key to differentiating both the quality and variety of the brandy as even the type of oak used in a cask can determine if the outcome is Cognac or Armagnac. The final step in brandy production is to blend the liquor to taste.


One of the most familiar brandies from the Cognac region of France.

Cognac is a grape-based spirit that must be made of 90% ugni blanc, folle blanche, and/or colombard grapes. The wine produced from these grapes is high in acid and low in alcohol and gives Cognac its attractive flavor.

Cognac is a popular base ingredient in many of the original cocktails.

  • Cognac Cocktails


Limousin and Troncais oak are used for the casks in which Armagnac is aged in the Gascony region of France. These types of oak are essential to the spirit's strong flavor and distinguish it from Cognac.

Too strong for most cocktails, it is not recommended to use Armagnac as a substitute for other brandy, though it is called for specifically in the D'Artagnan cocktail.

Spanish Brandy

From the Andalusian region of Spain, Spanish brandy was originally developed for medicinal purposes. The most popular Spanish brandy today is Brandy de Jerez that uses the solera system of adding young spirits to older barrels while aging.

These brandies tend to be sweeter than other grape varieties.


Pisco is a brandy from South America, primarily Peru and Chile, that has gained in popularity.

There are four styles of pisco, determined by the grapes used: Pisco Puro, Pisco Aromatico, Pisco Acholado, and Pisco Mosto Verde.

American Brandy

Most American brandy is produced on the West Coast from the grapes grown in the region, though this is changing as more craft distillers begin producing some great brandies.

While less expensive brands tend to be overly sweet, there are many quality American varieties available.

There are no regulations as to the grapes used in these brandies so the differences between brands can vary greatly.

High-quality American brandy can be used in any cocktail that calls for brandy.

  • Brandy Cocktails

Flavored Brandy

Using wines or other fermented fruit juices produces a number of flavored brandies, each with their own distinct taste.

Apple, apricot, cherry and peach brandies are popular for many classic cocktails like the Golden Dawn and Zombie.

Other flavored varieties include Ouzo (a Greek brandy with an anise base) Kirsch (a delicious cherry brandy) and Calvados (an apple specialty from Normandy). Applejack is also a brandy, with Laird's Applejack being one of the top brands.

  • Flavored Brandy Cocktails


Eau-de-vie is a French term for fruit brandy and translates to "water of life". The fruit flavor is typically very light and the spirit is clear, colorless and unaged.

Eau-de-vie is made from a variety of fruit, most common are apple (de pomme), pear (de poire), peach (de peche), pomace (marc) and yellow plum (de mirabelle).

It is typically served chilled as a digestif and is used as a base spirit for liqueurs such as Domaine de Canton and St. Germain.


Grappa literally means "grape stalk" and originated in Italy as a way to reduce the amount of waste produced when making wine.

It is made by fermenting and distilling the pomace, or left-over grape skins, stems and seeds, and is typically unaged. Grappa is often clear, but some distillers will age it, giving it a yellow or reddish hue (depending on the type of barrel used).

Primarily served straight as a digestif, Grappa aids in the digestion of the heavier Italian meals and often is served in or alongside hot espresso.

Reading Brandy Labels

Brandy has a rating system to describe its quality and condition. These indicators can usually be found near the brand name on the label.

  • A.C.- aged 2 years in wood.
  • V.S.- "Very Special" or 3-Star, aged at least 3 years in wood.
  • V.S.O.P.- "Very Superior Old Pale" or 5-Star, aged at least 5 years in wood.
  • X.O.- "Extra Old", Napoleon or Vieille Reserve, aged at least 6 years, Napoleon at least 4 years.
  • Vintage- Stored in the cask until the time it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date.
  • Hors D'age- These are too old to determine the age.