The story of how brandy came to be is fascinating. It’s a story of accidental glory. An elixir historically produced for medicinal purposes way back in the 16th century, matured in barrels to produce an elegant yet complex liquid, and over the years has transformed into the spirit well-known across the globe today as Brandy.
So what is brandy made from, how is brandy made and how do we drink it?
Brandy refers to a distilled spirit made from a fruit-based wine and originates from the word ‘brandewijn’ which is Dutch for ‘burnt wine.’ It can be produced using any fruits, for example pears apples or cherries, but brandy that is not made from grapes must be labelled with the fruit that it’s made from. For example, Calvados is an apple brandy from the Normandy region in France, Kirschwasser is a German cherry brandy and Poire Williams is a colourless fruit brandy made from Williams pears. These are typically classified as ‘fruit brandies’.
Two of the most famous brandies.
The term ‘brandy’ therefore can be very broad but in general it refers to a spirit made from grapes. It is common throughout history that where wineries and orchards grow, brandy follows. Arguably two of the most famous brandies in the world are Cognac and Armagnac. Both are examples of aged, grape-based brandy with tremendous depth of flavour.
The production of Cognac falls under French AOC (Appéllation d’Origine Côntrolée) designation, legal requirements surrounding production methods and naming.
The classified areas of Cognac.
Cognac must come from the Cognac region in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of Southwest France and must be made from white grapes from one of six ‘terroirs’ – the soil, climate and topography that contribute to ideal grape growing conditions.
These tightly defined geographic areas have distinctive soils and microclimates that produce grape flavour profiles specific to their location. The classified areas are called ‘crus’ and include: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, (not to be confused with the north-eastern winemaking region of Champagne) Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (Bois à Terroirs.)
The white wine for the production of cognac must be made from a strict list of chosen varieties including Colombard and Folle blanche, however the grape mostly used is called Ugni blanc, a robust grape variety that produces a very dry, acidic wine that ages well and is therefore excellent for the distillation and production of craft spirits.
Strict regulations for production of Cognac.
Once the grapes have been harvested, there are also strict regulations surrounding the fermentation and distillation processes. During fermentation (after the grapes have been pressed) the grapes are then left alone for wild yeasts on the berries to convert grape sugars into alcohol. No sugar, sulphur or other substances can be added to the wines as these may affect the taste of the eau de vie and hence the finished product.
Distillation in a traditional copper Charentais alembic pot still.
Step two is distillation. The finest eau de vie – distilled, unaged grape spirit - are selected and distilled in a traditional copper Charentais alembic pot still. Double distillation was introduced back in the 17th and 18th centuries and is still a requirement today, as it is believed to make a considerably more stable product. The first distillation is called the ‘Première Chauffe’ which results in a cloudy liquid called the ‘Brouillis’ and the second distillation, called the ‘Bonne Chauffe’ produces the heads, hearts and tails of the final eau de vie, the beginning middle and end of the batch distillation. The ‘hearts’ are considered the most desired part of the distillation as it accounts for most of the potable alcohol - the ethanol - and pleasant flavour compounds. Successful distillation is based on careful monitoring of the entire process from start to finish. Determining which portion of the ‘hearts’ to use is based on personal preferences and creative direction of the distiller.
Image sourced from https://alkypal.com.au/
The importance of ageing brandy.
Once distillation is complete, the ageing process begins. The eau de vie must be aged in French oak barrels sourced from one of two forests, either Limousin or Tronçais, for a minimum of 2 years and in most cases this is then eventually blended with at least one other batch. Blending the various barrels of brandy is important, in order for the producer to maintain flavour consistency of their house style year after year. Most cognac, therefore contains a blend of brandies and is labelled according to the period of time the youngest brandy has spent in oak casks. The labelling scheme is:
VS: Very Special. Aged for at least 2 years
VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale. Aged for at least 4 years
XO: Extra Old. Aged for at least 10 years
Hors d’Age: ‘Beyond age’ – 10 years and older, usually with an average age of 30 years or more
What are some of the regulations for making Armagnac?
Cognac’s lesser-known but equally interesting sibling armagnac is a full-flavoured brandy, named after the region of Gascony in south-western France, where this brandy is exclusively produced. Armagnac’s production is also heavily regulated. It is made with a similarly dry (some would say almost undrinkable) style of wine as cognac, however in addition to Ugni blanc, armagnac production uses three additional grape varietals: Folle blanche, Colombard and Baco blanc.
The region is divided into 3 zones and brandy production in the area typically involves a single distillation using a column still, but with the resulting spirit much less neutral and a much more aromatic, fruity and intense style when young, as well as being thicker and richer on the palate. Armagnac is also known to allow for yearly variations in flavour, producing what is known as their ‘Millesime expressions’ that are not blended and instead celebrate one single vintage.
Historical records show that armagnac predates cognac by many years, originally produced by roving distillers and even today is considered more artisanal than cognac, as it’s often made by local family-owned producers rather than larger, more industrial sized firms.
The geographical locations are similar, however the microclimate and soils of the regions are very different. Cognac is much closer to the coast, therefore is much more affected by oceanic influences, whereas the armagnac-producing region of Gascony is more inland and shielded by forest.
The History of Australian brandy.
And how does Australian brandy compare I hear you ask? Australia also has a long history of quality brandy production, some say dating back to 1832 when the Macarthurs in Sydney began exporting some brandy to Britain. One of the first export brandies came from Port Melbourne’s Joshua Brothers Distillery in 1892 and The Age reported it had caused quite the stir in London when a notable critic compared it to the finest of the French cognacs.
Today, Australian brandy is hot on the heels of a worldwide craft spirits revolution. Australian brandy is experiencing a revival. Across the globe a new generation of craft spirits enthusiasts are curious about artisanal spirits and the people who make them.
Interested in understanding the story behind their favourite brand, consumers are embracing local producers and their handcrafted spirits.
Australian brandy - the freedom of innovation and creativity.
Unlike the fine brandy producing regions of France, in Australia we consider ourselves lucky as we’re not so limited by government bodies keeping their local drops under tight regulatory control. From specific dates for grape harvest through to precise start and finish dates for the distillation period each year, along with many technical aspects in between such as oak types and wine varietals allowed, are subject to control in those regions.
Image sourced from https://alkypal.com.au/
In Australia, the legal definition of brandy is that it must be ‘a spirit distilled from grape wine in such a manner that the spirit possesses the taste, aroma and other characteristics generally attributed to brandy’ and that it must be matured in oak for a minimum of 2 years. Free from the constraints of tight regulations elsewhere, creativity and innovation is fostered and Australian distillers are experimenting with various styles and using modern technologies to produce an exciting selection of fine brandies that are now beginning to make waves internationally.
Bass & Flinders blending old world knowledge with modern techniques.
Bass & Flinders Distillery is one such distillery. Starting out as a passion project, taking on the challenge of producing a premium Australian brand. Inspired by the surrounding vineyards of the Mornington Peninsula and the finest of French brandy producers. Influenced by the rich traditions behind these products, blending old world knowledge with modern techniques and choosing to work solely with Chardonnay for our brandy, a quintessentially Australian grape variety, Bass & Flinders is an example of an Australian distillery with the freedom to experiment and create new styles of brandy with individual character and finesse.
As far as French age naming conventions go, at Bass & Flinders we choose to avoid this path.
A VS is a minimum blend of 2 year old brandy, but what you can’t see on the label is that there are older brandies in the blend and it’s only the youngest that counts. We feel this isn’t always doing the blend justice, so we choose to use unique names for our brandies - such as Ochre or Noble Stranger – based on their character. Our Ochre Fine Brandy is stated to be a minimum age of 5 years, but today’s batch of Ochre includes 6, 7 and 8 year old brandies too. This will change as we blend together the perfect blend with each batch.
In Australia, with the craft spirits revival arguably in its infancy, 5, 6 and even 8 year old brandy is quite unique, particularly when comparing the sheer volume being produced in France with the much smaller volume of brandy available in Australia. At Bass & Flinders Distillery ultimately what we set out to achieve is above all, quality, character and emotion and if you like the brandy you will feel a connection and choose to sip and savour it.
Image sourced from https://alkypal.com.au/
How to drink brandy.
Brandy is produced all over the world, each region with its own specific flavour and aroma characteristics. Many brandy aficionados suggest to try it neat, to develop an understanding of the nuances in flavour profiles, but if you also have a look at a list of original cocktails from the golden cocktail era, brandy was a bar cart staple! One of the most famous is the Sidecar featured in in Harry MacElhone’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1919, first made famous at The Ritz in Paris, followed by The Savoy in London, as well as the Manhattan, an Old Fashioned and classic Champagne Cocktails.
Fine brandies have always had an image of luxury and history, and this is well deserved, however the tide is turning and brandy is rapidly being welcomed into a much broader audience. Craft spirits enthusiasts are now exploring the incredible versatility of this noble spirit, learning about its rich history and exotic origins and inspiring others to try it for themselves.