TYPICALLY, this is the part of the magazine in which I wax poetic about the importance of wine as a lens through which we examine the human experience before sending you off with a few recommended bottles to seek out on the shelves of your local wine shop. But not this time, no. Now that we’ve made it to July, having dealt with what I think we can all agree has been a decade-long start to 2020, it’s become clear: It’s time to skip the wine and go straight for the hard liquor.
My liquor of choice? Well, honestly, it’s gin, but this is a wine column, so grapes have to be involved somehow, which leads us to brandy. By its simplest definition, brandy is a distilled spirit made from wine, but as everything originating in Europe is wont to do, there’s more to the story of brandy than cigars, smoking jackets and a 1972 hit song by Looking Glass.
There are two major forms of grape brandy: pomace and wine. Pomace brandy is chic and European and not just because it’s white and likes to be called “Marc.” It’s just not common in the United States, save for its Italian counterpart Grappa. It’s the darker and more popular wine brandy, however, that’s become a signifier of hip-hop bona fides and higher tax brackets.
Wine brandy is made by distilling wine, then aging it in casks, usually oak barrels. And great brandy, the stuff you see on the highest shelf behind the bar, is a result of the most intangible alchemy, the way wine whispers its way through a still over and over until there’s nothing but the purest spirit left. Ironically, brandy, as lofty a place as it holds in most drinkers’ minds, is made from wine that no one would ever actually want to drink. Grapes you’ve never heard of such as ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche and baco make for bland and uninteresting wines (sorry not sorry, but saying you like baco is like saying your favorite color is clear), but when processed through with a still and a barrel, the two work in concert to create a single virtuosic sip.
While that might sound complex, like all things involving alcohol, there’s plenty of room for even more nuance and complication. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in brandy’s two most famous hometowns, Cognac and Armagnac, in the French region of Gascony. The two regions split hairs over everything from grapes to stills and barrels.
Armagnac allows for any of 10 different grapes to be used in its brandies, though Cognac only permits one. Armagnac is distilled once in a column still, while Cognac requires two distillations in pot stills. Written out, the differences can seem tedious, but in the finished product, they’re stark and unmissable. The products’ flavors and aromas will be similar—sweet figs and glazed apricots, salted butterscotch and vanilla—but the presentation of those notes will differ wildly. Cognac, with its double distillation, is debonair and refined, while Armagnac is more rambunctious and in your face. Compare them to Black Panther and Ant Man: two superheroes who are equally likely to save your life, but one does it as the ruler of the world’s most advanced society, and the other is Paul Rudd.
As classic as Armagnac and Cognac are, brandy is sometimes at its most interesting when it strays away from its motherland and gets adapted to a new home. In Chile and Peru, for example, brandy goes by the name pisco where it stars in the pisco sour cocktail. Just like France, they have their own special laws for pisco production that govern everything from the villages that are allowed to produce it, the grapes and—in the spirit’s biggest European departure—that it cannot be aged in wood. The result is a clear and slightly sweet spirit that relishes in its earthiness, swapping out cognac’s warm baking spice notes for delicate tropical flowers and warm citrus tones. But South America isn’t the spirit’s only home away from home. Spain, Japan, and the United States also have sizable brandy industries that are worth trying when and if you find them.
Regardless of where in the world brandy is produced, you’ll usually find its bottle marked with some form of age statement, denoting how long the brandy was aged. These standards are enshrined in European Union law, though most producers around the world stick to them, more or less. (To your right, you’ll find the most common, and don’t worry, they’re a selling point of the product, so they’re prominently featured on all labels.) But again, it’s 2020, and you need a drink in your glass before the next disaster strikes. Here are the brandies that I’ll be hunkering down with.
Capel Pisco, $18Pisco is brandy’s most party-friendly facet. It’s fantastic on its own on the rocks, but becomes a summertime essential when mixed with lime juice, simple syrup and egg whites to form the pisco sour. There’s a bit of borderline brouhaha between Peru and Chile over which country is the originator (even though this bottle is from Chile, my money and history seem to be on Peru’s side here), but no matter where pisco is from, there’s no better way to beat the Arkansas heat.
Pierre Ferrand 10 Générations Cognac, $65Members of the Ferrand family have been making Cognac since the year 1630, but when the last direct descendant of the family died, the current owners sought to celebrate their commitment to the family farm with the aptly named 10 Générations. A blend of brandies ranging in age from five to 20 years, this is partially aged in dessert-wine barrels that lend it the perfect touch of sweetness on the finish. If you’re a whiskey drinker looking to give brandy a try, start here.
Hennessy V.S.O.P. Privilège Cognac, $70Typically, I’m always one for supporting small brands and independent producers, but there’s a good reason that Hennessy’s V.S.O.P with its iconic pear-shaped bottle has been synonymous with wealth and modern celebrity: It’s delicious. This was the first brandy I ever tried when I snuck it from a friend’s father’s liquor cabinet after a Razorback game, and even my beer and who-knows-what punch-soaked palate knew I’d found something great. Behind the notes of candied fruit, cinnamon and clove, you can just taste how refined it is and why brandy is always associated with wealth.
Germain-Robin XO Brandy, $130Perhaps my favorite brandy in the entire world comes from the little mountain town of Ukiah, California. Germain-Robin was founded in the early 1980s with the idea to take traditional French technique and marry it with California’s world-class grapes. Even as relative newcomers to the game, the brandy’s creators quickly made a name for themselves, and legend has it that there’s been a barrel of their brandy in the basement of the White House, on reserve for every president since Ronald Regan. Their XO bottling is made mostly from pinot noir, and the brandy embraces the grape’s natural fruitiness in a way that makes it stand out against its French counterparts. Tasting it, you can almost imagine yourself in a smoking jacket on the deck of the Titanic, black-cherry- and peach-scented icebergs all around you. With a bottle of this in hand, pull up a deck chair, and enjoy even a temporary life of luxury.
V.S.: “Very Special,” meaning that the spirit is at least 2 years old.
V.S.O.P.: “Very Superior Old Pale,” meaning that the spirit is at least 4 years old, though as most brandies are blends of multiple barrels, it’s common to have much older brandies included in a V.S.O.P. bottling.
X.O.: “Extra Old,” meaning that the minimum age of the brandy is 10 years old.
Vintage: Just like with wine, brandies are sometimes bottled not as multiyear blends, but as single-year vintages. These bottlings are rare but are among the best in the world.