20/04/2018 14:39 SAST | Updated 20/04/2018 14:39 SAST

Brandy 101 – A Beginner's Guide To The Fiery Spirit

From the different types, to pairing them with food – we've got you covered.

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Brandy, for too many people, has a reputation as a spirit enjoyed by a more mature crowd. Picture an older man in a plush wingback leather armchair, next to a roaring fire with a cigar between his lips – he has a glass of brandy in his hand, right?

That's a very outdated stereotype, though. These days, brandy is enjoyed across the board by young creatives, corporates and even stay-at-home mums – as well as, of course, distinguished silver-haired gents with suits and cigars.

So many will no doubt be curious to learn more about brandy – we found out all you need to know, and Wine of the Month Club's Alexandra Edwards filled in the gaps in our knowledge.

What is brandy?

Technically, brandy is any spirit distilled from fruit juice that has been fermented to form alcohol – but most of the commercial brandies we drink start life as grapes. The fruit is crushed, and its juice fermented to make wine. Following this, the wine is distilled – a process of boiling the wine and then condensing its alcohol-rich vapours to enhance aromas and flavour – to create brandy.

The raw spirit is clear, and in many "witblits" varieties, like peach brandy, it is left that way. However, maturation in toasted oak barrels gives traditional grape brandy its colour, and adds to its flavour.

The distillation process raises the alcohol content while enriching the flavour, giving brandies a strong, rich, even fiery character. Most commercial grape brandies spend at least two years in the barrel to mellow them, but further ageing is optional.

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Different types of brandy

Basically any kind of fruit can be used to make brandy, with grapes the most popular. There are arrays of brandies that fill shelves across the world. Here are a few:

  • Cognac is the most prestigious brandy, named after the French town in which it is produced. Two of the world's most recognised cognacs are Courvoisier and Hennessey.
  • Armagnac is similar to cognac, named after the town in France in which it is produced — slightly south of the town of Cognac. It has been around longer, and is a slightly more affordable option.

Other types include U.S. applejack brandy, made by repeatedly freezing apple cider then removing the ice layer on top [which is pure water, thus leaving the remaining liquor stronger], French apple brandy Calvados, and Spanish Brandy de Jerez, which is often used to fortify sherries. In addition to regular brandy, there is "pomace" style brandy, which is distilled using the skins of the grapes. Italian grappa and South American pisco are examples of pomaces.

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Know your brandy labels

  • Very Special (VS) is aged for at least two years
  • Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) is aged for at least four years
  • Extra Old (XO) is aged for at least six years

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How to taste brandy like a professional

To make the most of your brandy experience, drinking it with a brandy snifter is your best option. The snifter glass shape enhances the aromas and overall tasting experience. While tasting your brandy, sip slowly to savour the flavours and appreciate the varied taste profiles. Sip it neat, or with a dash of soda water, to get the full brandy experience!

Brandy is also a fantastic sprit to use in cocktails. Some popular cocktails include metropolitans, mint juleps, and New York sours, but a true classic brandy cocktail is the sidecar.

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Brandy and food pairings

While wine is always a widespread option to pair with meals, thanks to the strong character and aromatic features, brandy is a fair contender for food pairings.

The general idea is to enjoy a glass of brandy alongside foods that are rich and aromatic. Brandies go well with strong cheeses and rich, decadent desserts.

But whether enjoyed on its own, in a classic sidecar cocktail or paired with a full-flavoured meal, brandy is a definitely a drink to savour and appreciate.

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