The History of Brandy


By John Pulos


“Burnt Wine.”  There is documented proof that Mediterranean traders brought primitive stills to Europe by the Third Century.  Arabic records indicate their use of stills in the Eighth Century.  Arab alchemists experimented with distilling grapes to make a medicinal beverage.  By the Sixteen Century, Dutch wine merchants began removing the water from the wine, to be used in trade, so more liquid could be shipped in limited cargo space.  Many countries were also charging taxes for the wine, by volume, and this method of removing the water from the wine also saved money.  Primitive stills were used to remove the water.  The Dutch called this “burnt wine,” brandewijn.  The idea was to add water back to the brandewijn once it reached its destination.  The only way to store liquid during this time was in wooden casks.  When the brandewijn was opened after its long period in the wooden cask, it was found not to be wine at all – but a new spirit with an altered color, aroma, and taste.  The “burnt wine” had become brandy.

Modern brandy, in its broadest terms, is a spirit made from fruit and distilled to no more than 190 proof (any higher and it would be classified as vodka).  Brandy is then broken down into three basic groupings.  Grape Brandy is distilled from fermented grape juice.  It is aged in wooden casks (usually oak) which colors it and adds aromas and flavors.  Pomace Brandy is made from the pressed grape pulp, skins, and stems that remain after the grapes are pressed for wine.  Pomace brandies are most often not aged in wood and often tend to be raw and harsh.  Italian Grappa and French Marc are two examples of pomace brandies and are considered spirits that are an “acquired taste.”  Fruit Brandies are the third group of brandies.  These are made from fermenting fruit other than grapes.   Colorless fruit brandies are often called Eau-de-vie, a French term meaning “water of life.”  Some fruit brandies are also aged in oak, as is Finger Lakes Distilling’s new Apple Brandy.

Grape Brandy is further differentiated by the type of grapes that can be used and is thus location-specific.  The Cognac region of France is located on the west-central Atlantic coast.  This region produces the world’s best known brandy – CognacThe region is noted for its Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard vinifera grapes which produce wines that are thin, tart, and low in alcohol –  certainly not great for wine, but perfect for brandy.  The origins of Cognac date back to the Seventeenth Century where it was, as it is today, double distilled in pot stills.  The raw Cognac spirit is then aged in new French oak and selected batches are later transferred to used oak casks that impart less of the oak flavor while the brandy ages.  Cognacs are unique in the spirit world.  They are often blended from different vintages and different growing zones.  There is no age statement for Cognac, but the industry has developed accepted “terms” to classify various Cognacs.

V.S.:   very superior

V.S.P./Three Star:  very superior pale – a minimum of 3 years in wood

V.S.O.P./Five Star:  very superior old pale – a minimum of 5 years in wood

X.O./Luxury:  extra old – a minimum age of 6 years for the young brandy in the blend

with the average age running 20 years or older.  Luxury Cognacs are the

the very finest from each Cognac house.

The Armagnac region of France is located in the heart of the Gascony Province, in the southwest corner of the country.  The brandy from this region, Armagnac, is the oldest brandy in France, dating to the 15th Century.  The primary grapes for Armagnac are the same three used to create Cognac.  The difference in the brandies is in the distillation and the length of aging.  Armagnac is single distilled in a copper column still called alembic Armagnacais.  The resulting spirit from this still has a much more assertive character and aroma and requires additional cask aging to “mellow” it out.  It is often aged over 10 years and some spend over 30 years in French oak.  The best of these brandies seem to be between 15 and 20 years old.   Like Cognacs, Armagnacs are blends, but single vintages and single vineyards Armagnacs can be found.

Location-specific grape brandies are found world wide.  Pisco is the official spirit of Peru and Chile.  It was originally distilled by Spanish settlers in the Sixteenth Century.  It is a clear, raw brandy made from muscat and quebranta grapes, double distilled in pot stills and aged for three months in vessels (glass or stainless steel) that will not alter its physical, chemical, or organic properties.  In Mexico, Brandy now outsells both tequila and rum.  Other world class brandies are produced in Spain, Italy, South Africa, Greece, and of course, in the United States.

U.S. grape brandy can be traced to the 18th century Spanish missions in California.  By the time the Civil War was over, brandy became a major industry with export trade to Europe.  The Prohibition period of the 1920’s almost shut down the brandy business, as it did with all American produced spiritss.  After World War II, California brandy producers began to develop their own style of grape brandy.  It had a cleaner palate was much lighter than most European brandies.  Most California (grape) brandies are distilled in column stills using varieties of California table grapes.  They are normally aged for a minimum of two years and up to twelve years in used American bourbon barrels which limits the woodiness in the palate of many European brandies.

No discussion of the world’s brandies would be complete without discussing Fruit Brandies.  They can be made from any fruit.  Calvados, a French apple brandy, German Schnapps, Palinka from Hungry and Slivovitz (plum brandy) from the Eastern European countries of  Serbia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary are all world renowned brandies made with fruits other than grapes.

One of the most popular fruit brandies is derived from apples.  The first distillation of apple cider can be traced to the mid-sixteenth century.  Normandy is one of the few regions in France that does not raise world-class grapes.  It is France’s “apple country.”  The sweet and hard cider from this region are distilled into an Apple Brandy known world wide as Calvados.  This pot stilled brandy is usually aged for at least two years and for as long as twenty years in French oak casks.

American apple brandy was very popular during the Colonial Age.  It is the original distilled spirit in the colonies dating to 1630.  Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington distilled apple brandy.  In 1698, Scottish distiller William Laird began aging his apple brandy in oak, in New Jersey.  (Today, Laird & Company continues a 300 year tradition of producing Apple Brandy and Applejack.)  American apple brandy is often confused with “Applejack.”  Dating back to the colonial period, Applejack was usually an unaged spirit produced by allowing fermented cider to freeze and then separating the unfrozen spirits.  Today, most spirits labeled as “Applejack” are produced through distillation (as apple brandy has always been) and then mixed with other neutral spirits.  Apple brandy is always composed of 100% distilled apples.

Finger Lakes Distilling will be releasing their first pure aged Apple Brandy on February 26, 2015.  (Since the opening Finger Lakes Distilling in 2009, a Maplejack liqueur has been offered which is an apple brandy, aged in used oak with local maple syrup added.)   Finger Lakes Distilling’s Apple Brandy is made in the American style using apple cider produced from local apples.  The fertile soil of our Finger Lakes Region lends well to producing the high quality cider used in our apple brandy.  The brandy is aged in used barrels from our acclaimed McKenzie Bourbon.  The final blend maintains a strong apple flavor as well as a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon.

Today’s brandies are made in a variety of ways in countries throughout the world.  As seen in the rating classifications of brandy, even the lowest rated ones are called “very superior,” leaving many to think of fine aged brandies as luxury items.   Brandy has not reached the commercial success of vodka, or even of whiskey in this country, but brandy has carved out a historical niche that places it among the most popular spirits in the world.

Book an Experience