“Brandy” originates from the Dutch brandywign, which means, “burnt wine.” Dutch traders introduced the secrets of brandy making to Northern Europe after learning about it in France and Spain. It is said that Brandy was spread to these western Mediterranean countries by word from the Arab alchemists of Muslim states back in the 7th and 8th centuries. After so much traveling, one can imagine the variance among brandies across Europe. Brandy can be categorized in three ways: grape brandy, pomace brandy, and fruit brandy.
Grape brandy, perhaps the simplest of all three, derives from fermented grape juice or crushed grape pulp and skins. This type of brandy is frequently aged in oak casks that help mellow the harsh flavor and adds additional aromas and flavor from the wood itself. At the same time, the original grape flavor tends to be lost to the stronger oak flavor.
Pomace brandy results from the fermentation of the pressed remains of the wine making process. This includes grape pulp, skins and stems. Although the taste is rougher, it carries a stronger fruit aroma because it is not aged in wooden casks, if aged at all. Pomace brandies include such spirits as the Italian Grappa and the French Marc.
The third type and also the most common is the fruit brandy. All spirits distilled from fermented fruit other than grapes is a fruit brandy. More specifically, most fruit brandy derives from distilled fruit wine. Berries, on the other hand, are a special case because they do not contain enough sugar to make a wine with enough alcohol to be distilled into a proper fruit brandy. Instead, the berries are soaked in a high-proof spirit, which extracts their flavor and aroma and are then distilled once at a low proof. Examples of fruit brandy are the wide variety of German Schnapps, Slivovitz or plum brandy from Eastern Europe, France’s Calvados, or Apple Brandy, and Eau-de-vie, which is French for “aqua vitae”, “water of life”, which is a colorless fruit brandy.
Cognac is probably the most popular brandy in the world. It is exclusive to the Cognac region of France and is made from three types of grapes: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. These grapes produce tart wines with low alcohol content, perfect for making Cognac. The wine is distilled twice and then aged in oak barrels. All cognacs are aged in new oak barrels to create a mellow flavor and aroma. The batches chosen for long-term aging are then transferred to used barrels, in order to not further saturate the oak flavor in the cognac. Cognacs can age anywhere from 6 to more than 20 years and afterwards are blended by the Master Blender to create the perfect Cognac.
Make note that with different means of distilling come different results. First, it should be known that wine has already rid itself of many unwanted chemicals found in fermented fruit, thus requiring fewer passes through the still. As few as two passes would suffice and, depending on the equipment used, once may be enough. Just as important as the material used is the speed of distillation. If using an alembic, we recommend a slower speed. The slower the speed of distillation, in this case, the more gently and effectively the alcohol separates from the raw material and unwanted chemical elements. While a less efficient and slower process, this method results in a finer, more aromatic brandy. The reflux still, on the other hand, allows for a speedier production rate and is very efficient. Unfortunately, its speediness destroys many of the elements that give brandy its distinctive character traits. So, if wondering which method and still to use, first decide what you consider most important in making your brandy.
Brandy can also be colored or clear. Aging the brandy in oak barrels adds color, flavor and an even deeper aroma. Suggested fruit for aging are grapes, apples and plums. Brandy, in general, can be aged months to years and, ultimately, depends on the desires of the distiller. If using fruits such as pears, apricots, cherries, strawberries, or raspberries you might prefer not to age the brandy because these fruits are flavorful and aromatic on their own. In this case, the brandy remains a clear spirit (eau-de-vie).
Given a potstill with a 50-gallon mash capacity using a wine with a 12% alcoholic content, the resulting pure alcoholic yield would be 4.2 gallons. Once this liquid is diluted, or cut, down to a drinkable level of 40% alcoholic content the result would be 10.5 gallons of brandy.