Pop quiz: What’s the difference between brandy and Cognac?
Answer: Cognac is nothing more than a brandy that hails from the Cognac region of France and is pot distilled and aged according to precise French regulations.
Follow-up question: OK, then, what the heck is brandy?
Answer: Distilled wine.
Brandy is wine that’s been distilled and then stored in wood casks. Manufacturers reduce high-acid wine with 8 to 12 percent alcohol by volume to increase the alcohol concentration to roughly 30 percent ABV. Then the batch is distilled a second time to get the ratio to roughly 70 percent alcohol. The resulting distillate is casked and aged for a specific amount of time; the wood aging effects similar changes to distillate brandy as it does to distillate whiskey, including softening the more volatile alcohols and converting some sugars in the distillate.
You see those funny letters on your bottle of brandy? They reflect age rankings, but except for Cognac and Armagnac, they’re generally not well-regulated. The categories, from least to most rare/tasty/expensive, run:
- A.C. — aged for a minimum of two years in a wooden cask
- V.S. — three year aging (“very special”)
- Napoleon — four year aging
- V.S.O.P. — five year aging (“very superior old pale”)
- X.O. — six year aging (“extra old”)
- Hors d’age — too old to determine the age, but generally older than 10 years
Because rankings aren’t universally well-regulated, use them as a guide rather than an absolute quality reference. For example, a V.S. Cognac may contrast favorably against a V.S.O.P. Cognac depending on what the drinker prefers; the former may be a bit less smooth but more complex, while the latter may go down like water but provide a simpler taste. Your mileage may vary.
Unless otherwise noted on the label, a brandy is made from grape wine. It’s possible to make a fruit brandy from a wine made with something other than grapes (e.g., a cherry wine turns into a cherry brandy). Brandies hail from different regions around the world, with various methods of distillation (pot versus tower) and aging.
Traditionally, brandy is taken after dinner, neat and slightly warmed. Served in a tulip glass, a good brandy may be warmed by hand — but not too much, because the alcohol vapors will burn off and change the flavor profile.
A traditional gentleman’s drink, brandy has been marketed more recently to African-American audiences in the United States, where brandy is celebrated on occasion in hip-hop music and in urban street culture. Nevertheless, a good brandy makes a fine social investment for any demographic and provides a high-quality after-dinner beverage that requires no mixing or fuss. Just pour and enjoy!