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Brandy: A Beginner's Guide

An introduction to brandy.

The Chanticleer brandy cocktail adapted by David Wondrich using 1840 Original Formula.
The Chanticleer brandy cocktail adapted by David Wondrich using 1840 Original Formula.
Courtesy of Pierre Ferrand Cognac

Think that all brandy is Cognac? Or that all brandy is French, made from grapes and sipped from snifters? Far from it.

According to the latest statistics from DISCUS (the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), in 2013 there were 11.1 million 9-liter cases of brandy sold in the United States, up 15 percent from 2002, with the super premium category leading the charge, up 54.3 percent. That's more brandy sold annually than gin, at 10 million cases, and Scotch, at 9.43 million cases. Yet, for so many drinkers, brandy simply equates to Hennessy or Remy Martin.

"The only times I really hear brandy referenced, it's the most generic, cliché image of a stuffy old white man in a smoking jacket with a snifter by a fireplace drinking some unpronounceable French brandy," says Chad Robinson, an all-around brandy enthusiast, and brand ambassador for Catoctin Creek, a Virginia distillery which produces a range of brandies, in addition to whiskey and gin. Yes, brandy can be enjoyed in that form and fashion. But no, that's not all there is to it.

What is Brandy?

Brandy, by definition, refers to a spirit which has been distilled from wine, or another fermented fruit juice. It can be aged, as is required for Cognacs, or it can be unaged, and it can come from anywhere in the world.

What is Cognac?

"Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine," explains Alexandre Gabriel, proprietor of Pierre Ferrand Cognac. It simply means that the particular brandy known as Cognac is, "made in a specific region of France following specific rules to guarantee its quality." The Cognac region is in western France, north of Bordeaux, with one border on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Beyond Champagne to sparkling wine, there's another easy comparison as well. "I frequently have to explain to people the difference between bourbon and whiskey, namely that bourbon is a type of whiskey," says Robinson. "I similarly try to explain to folks that Cognac is a type of brandy."

Within Cognac, there's a broad range of styles, as there is within any other category of spirit, such as bourbon. For instance, half a dozen different sub-regions exist within Cognac, noted as offering different taste characteristics and overall quality levels.

"Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine."

"The Grande Champagne de Cognac is a very special and small area in the heart of the Cognac region," explains Gabriel. "Most Cognac houses have a Grande Champagne edition that is usually their most prestigious."

Cognac must be made from a specific selection of grapes, double distilled in copper alembic stills and aged for a minimum of two years in French Limousin oak. Cognac is most often blended, utilizing grapes from different regions, as well as barrels of different ages. There's also a hierarchy of quality for Cognac, including:

  • V.S., "Very Special" or "Three Star" Cognac, in which the youngest brandy is at least two years.
  • V.S.O.P., "Very Special Old Pale" or "Reserve," with a minimum age of four years.
  • X.O., "Extra Old" or "Napoleon," with a minimum age of six years, set to change to a minimum of 10 years in 2016.
  • Hors d'Age is used to indicate even older and more premium releases.

Prior to time spent in those oak barrels, as is required for Cognac, a spirit made in the same fashion anywhere in the world is known as an eau de vie, referring to a clear brandy. Meanwhile "fruit brandy" can be used to refer to brandy made from any fruit besides grapes.

Jackson Punch brandy cocktail

The Jackson Punch, adapted by David Wondrich from an 1863 recipe by Jerry Thomas. Photo courtesy of Pierre Ferrand Cognac.

Cognac must be made from a specific selection of grapes, double distilled in copper alembic stills and aged for a minimum of two years in French Limousine oak.

Back to Cognac, all Cognac does not need to be sipped neat. Of course, traditional libations such as the Sidecar and Vieux Carré are made with Cognac, so the spirit's cocktail heritage is strong. Those looking to try a style of Cognac (young and lively, but still with dark, rich flavors and a higher proof) that would have been originally used in those drinks and other classic cocktails should look to Pierre Ferrand's 1840 Original Formula—a super unique and relatively new bottle that has won several notable awards. The spirit's final blend is based upon a surviving bottle of Pinet-Castillon Cognac from the year 1840, which Gabriel and his team, including cocktail historian David Wondrich, sampled and evaluated.


Armagnac, an aged French brandy hailing from a region south of Cognac, has started to gain traction stateside as an often more affordable Cognac alternative. Three sub-regions exist within Armagnac and, as opposed to Cognac's double alembic still distillation, brandy production in the area typically involves a single distillation using column stills.

Armagnac's spirit classification system is similar to Cognac's. Here though, V.S.O.P. indicates a minimum age of five years, rather than four, X.O. is stays put at six years, and Hors d'Age indicates a minimum of 10 years.

Catoctin Creek Brandy

Catoctin Creek's 1757 Virginia Brandy. Photo courtesy of Firefly Imageworks.

American Brandy

Spin a globe and randomly pick a country and it's likely that a distinctive brandy is produced there. That includes the United States, with applejack, which is distilled from hard apple cider, otherwise known as fermented apple juice. Apples and apple cider were both used for brandy production in America dating back to the colonial period.

"Those trees good ol' Johnny Appleseed were planting weren't to keep the doctor away," jokes Robinson, "he was making cider and applejack!"

Today, a broad range of brandy is produced from coast to coast. That includes the aforementioned Catoctin Creek, which makes 1757 Virginia Brandy, Pearousia, a pear brandy, and several other fruit brandies.

"Other small American producers like Osocalis and Germain Robin, they're putting the same kind of effort, love and energy into making outstanding American brandies," notes Robinson, also citing Copper & Kings as another American brandy producer worth checking out.