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A Brandy Primer

Though you may not think about it when swirling your snifter, most of the brandy you’ve heard of is made from wine. And like wine, grape variety and aging technique really matter in creating what ends up in your glass. It’s amazing what fruit from different regions can do when coaxed by a master distiller.

For any wine-lover, grape-based brandies are a great way to explore the myriad personalities wine can express, given a dose of distilling magic. Though I encourage you to explore the broad range of brandies from around the world, these are some of the most popular:

Cognac is from the Cognac region of France. It is double distilled using copper pot stills, and aged at least two years in French oak (most are aged longer), creating that gorgeous amber hue we associate with the spirit. Among the many other legal requirements, only certain grapes may be used, such as Ugni Blanc (you might also know this grape as Trebbiano). Single-region brandies from different Cognac appellations tend to have recognizable variations in aromas, flavor and body; for example, Grande Champagne brandies tend to have ripe fruit and a full body, whereas those from Borderies have distinctive violet aromas.

Armagnac, meanwhile, is made from grapes from the Armagnac region in Southwest France. Unlike Cognac, it’s made using column stills rather than pot stills; but like Cognac, it’s then aged in French oak before release. Armagnac is also made with Ugni Blanc, Baco, and Colombard.

Pisco is produced in Peru and Chile. Most are clear (though a handful of golden barrel-aged Piscos exist) and are made from a number of different grapes, such as Quebranta or aromatic varieties such as Muscat and Torontel. The flavors can vary from herbal and almost tequila-like, to fruity and floral.  The best way to enjoy Pisco? In a Pisco Sour – no competition.

If you have the opportunity to try brandies next to the wines from which they’re made, it can be quite the experience. You’ll notice many of the distinctive characteristics from the wine carry over: acidity, body and aromas. You can also find brandies made from more familiar wine grapes like Pinot Noir, which provide a fascinating comparison to familiar table wines.

If you have a favorite grape brandy, we’d love to hear about it – please comment below.