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Buying Guide for Brandy

close-up of brandy label with bottle
Brandy is the distillate of the fermented juice, mash or wine of any fruit (27 CFR 5.22d)—whether grapes, apples, plums or even a fruit more exotic. Since the base is fruit, rather than grains, brandy is often made in regions where wine is produced. The history of brandy reaches back to the beginning of distillation in the Middle Ages.

Know the Label

These terms commonly appear on cognac, armagnac, calvados and other brandy labels. For more information, please ask the staff at your Virginia ABC store.

 
AC
 
This label means that a brandy has been aged for two years in wood. This label is not used for cognacs, since by definition a cognac must be aged at least two years.
 
 
Aged
 
Aging imparts mellowness and color to the distilled spirit. Aging for grape brandy occurs in oak barrels; once bottled, the distilled spirit does not further mature. While specific types of brandy, such as cognac, may have aging requirements, there is no general rule that brandies must be aged for a certain length of time or that age be stated on the label. If an age is stated, however, it must be that of the youngest brandy in the blend (27 CFR 5.40). Aging in brandy is often designated by the designations VS, VSOP and XO.
 
 
Appellation
 
A wine or brandy’s geographic origin (see also AOC).
 
 
AOC
 
Controlled appellation of origin, or “appellation d’origine controlee” (AOC), refers to a name, such as “calvados,” “cognac” or “armagnac,” that legally designates a geographic origin for certain types of distilled spirits.
 
 
Grape brandy produced in the Armagnac region of France. Compared to cognac, armagnac typically has an earthier, more robust taste, due to differences in grapes, single distillation (not double) and aging requirements. Primary grape varieties are Ugni blanc, Folle blanche and Colombard. Serve it neat at room temperature, or mix it into the D’Artagnan and other brandy cocktails. For more information, visit the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac.
 
 
Bouquet
 
The characteristic aroma of a brandy—especially a cognac. Bouquet changes with age, mixing fruit, floral, woody and spicy notes.
 
 
A robust grape brandy produced in the same region of Spain as sherry. Brandy de Jerez is single distilled (like armagnac) and aged in sherry casks using the solera system (like sherry). Primary grape varieties are Airén and Palomino. Serve it neat, over ice or as a shot. Mix it in any brandy cocktail, such as the Brandy Sour. For more information, visit Consejo Regulador Especifica Brandy de Jerez.
 
 
Distilled from cider, calvados is an aged apple brandy produced in in the Calvados region of Normandy, France. Calvados can be consumed as an aperitif, pairing well with cheese. It can also be added to the last drops of coffee in a finished cup; mixed with ginger ale; or substituted for the base spirits in many classic cocktails, such as the Tom Collins or the Manhattan.
 
 
Clear
 
A clear brandy is typically unaged and does not have added caramel coloring. Often these are fruit eaux-de-vie
 
 
 
Cognac
 
Grape brandy produced in the Cognac region of France. Cognac must be twice distilled and aged in oak casks for at least two years; only certain grape varieties are permitted, with Ugni blanc being the most common. Serve cognac neat at room temperature, or mix younger cognacs in classic cocktails, such as the French Connection or the Sidecar. For more information, visit the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.
 
 
Cru
 
An official growing area for wine and brandy grapes that exhibit common characteristics. Cognac grapes originate in six crus on the Atlantic coast of southwestern France: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Note that the Champagne crus are unrelated to the region that produces champagne, the sparkling wine.
 
 
Digestif
 
An alcoholic beverage consumed after a meal to aid digestion.
 
 
Double distilled
 
Successive distillations increase the purity of the alcohol, leaving solids, acids, esters and other congeners behind. Cognac is distilled twice, while armagnac is distilled once; accordingly, cognac typically has a smoother taste, while armagnac is more robust, retaining more characteristics from the grapes.
 
 
Eau-de-vie
 
Eau-de-vie (pl. eaux-de-vie) is unaged fruit brandy. The eau-de-vie of grapes is generally not consumed as such, but barreled and aged to produce “brandy.” The eau-de-vie of other fruit is sold as slivovitz (plums), kirschwasser (cherries), Poire William (pears) and similar products. Fruit eaux-de-vie can be consumed chilled and straight, especially as digestifs. Clear, dry and flavorful, they also provide an excellent basis for mixing.
 
 
Fine champagne
 
“Fine champagne” cognac blends eaux-de-vie of the two most famous crus, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne. These crus typically require longer aging. In order for a cognac to be considered “fine champagne,” it must use a minimum of 50 percent Grande Champagne.
 
 
Grappa
 
A “pomace” brandy that originated in Italy. Grappa is produced from the grape pulp, seeds, skins and stalks that remain after winemaking. Distilled once, grappa is flavorful and aromatic, retaining characteristics of the original grapes. Serve it neat as a digestif or add a dash to espresso. It can be mixed in cocktails such as the Italian Stinger or Grappa and Tonic. For more information, visit the Poli Museo Della Grappa.
 
 
Hors d'âge
 
Literally, “beyond age.” This label designates a very high-quality XO cognac or armagnac that has been aged for an extended period of time—for cognacs, even up to a century.
 
 
A clear, dry fruit brandy, or eau-de-vie, made from cherries. Kirschwasser, also called kirsch, originated in Germany. It can be consumed chilled and straight, as a digestif, or mixed in cocktails.
 
 
Maison fondée
 
Literally, “house established.” This phrase may be used to indicate when a cognac distillery was founded (“maison fondée en 1877”). Age and continuity is important in cognac production, with some fine cognacs aging in the barrel for many decades.
 
 
Napoleon
 
Cognac with a minimum age at the younger end of the XO range (see XO).
 
 
Oak
 
Most fine brandies around the world must be aged in oak barrels. Oak contains flavoring compounds that interact with the distilled spirit to enhance color, body, aroma and taste.
 
 
Pays d'Auge
 
An area of Normandy that includes the region where calvados is produced.
 
 
Pisco, Chilean
 
A clear or amber grape brandy from the wine-making regions of Chile (27 CFR 5.22.d.9). Chilean pisco is produced through multiple distillations to higher proof (which is then be lowered by adding water) and rested a minimum of two months, during which wooden casks may be used. Try a Pisco Sour, the national drink of both Chile and Peru.
 
 
Pisco, Peruvian
 
A clear, grape brandy from the wine-making regions of Peru (27 CFR 5.22.d.9). Peruvian pisco is produced by single-batch distillation in pot stills, bottled at proof and rested for a minimum of three months in neutral casks, never in wood. Mosto verdo (“green must”) is pisco from grapes that have not fully fermented; it rests a minimum of twelve months. Peruvian pisco tends to be more aromatic than Chilean pisco. Try  Pisco Sour, the national drink of both Chile and Peru.
 
 
An unaged grape brandy, distilled in Bolivia from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. The altitude at which the grapes are grown creates richer floral tones in the taste and aroma.
 
 
A clear, dry fruit brandy, or eau-de-vie, made from plums. Slivovitz is generally produced in the Slavic regions of Central Europe. It can be consumed chilled and straight, as a digestif, or mixed in cocktails.
 
 
VS
 
“Very special,” meaning that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least two years old. The average age is often much older. Fruity tones predominate, with a more fiery finish than older brandies. Also known as a three star (***) brandy.
 
 
VSOP
 
“Very superior old pale,” meaning that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least four years old. The average age is often much older. Also known as “VO,” five star (*****) or Reserve.
 
 
XO
 
“Extra old,” meaning that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least six years old. The average age is often more than 20 years. Also known as Napoléon. (See also Hors d’age.)
 
SEE ALSO:
 
 
Product list rankings on this page are based on 2016 Virginia ABC sales.

Cocktail Conversation

Armagnac has been produced much longer than cognac. Armagnac dates back to the twelfth century, whereas cognac originated in the seventeenth century, with the development of the process of double distillation. Calvados also predates cognac, originating in the sixteenth century.
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