Lesson Five: Brown Spirits

Chapter One: Brandy and Her Children

You’re Gonna Need a Drink

Let’s start with some boring stuff: definitions. Yes, we know it’s boring; we just admitted that, but bear with us. Brandy is a category of spirit, and it’s distilled from wine. Spirits like Cognac or Armagnac are brandies that come from some particular place, in these cases, places respectively called Cognac and Armagnac. Make brandy in Cognac by Cognac’s rules; you can call it Cognac. See? Definitions are easy and they’re fun! Well, maybe not, but definitions reflect two things: history and the fact that we’re talking about French stuff so defining our terms means doing a bit of translating. The French don’t speak English most of the time; go figure.

What they do, though, is spend centuries getting really, really good at certain things, like cheese, like sauces, like arguing, or like making wine or Cognac. At some point they make rules about it all, and being French, at least some of them figure out ways legal and perhaps shifty to get around those rules.

Rules to Mark Time

But let’s go next to those rules: if Cognac and Armagnac are brandies, and they have to come from specific places (called Cognac and Armagnac), they also must be aged for a period of time in oak barrels. The barrels need to come from specific forests and the brandies must be aged for minimum amounts of time; those time periods determine the classification of the brandies.

Classifications vary a bit with region: in Cognac or Armagnac, a Three Star or VS classification (short for Very Special) requires that the brandy is aged for a minimum of two years. If you want to call your Cognac Five Star, Réserve or VSOP (short for Very Superior Old Pale) then you need to age it in barrels for four years. Armagnac, apparently needing to overcompensate, requires five years for VSOP. Then we get to the upper end of Cognacs and Armagnacs, XO (short for Extra Old), Extra, Napoleon or Hors d’Age; but for any of these categories at least six years in barrel are necessary. Oops, one minor exception: Armagnac (it’s that overcompensation problem again) demands that the category called Hors d’Age be aged in barrel no less than ten years.

And these are minimums, bear in mind. It is routine, in fact necessary, for a producer of good or better Cognac or Armagnac to exceed these numbers. So why do the numbers exist? Because these brandies are almost always blended from different vintages: a typical VSOP Cognac will have a bit of old Cognac in it. An XO Armagnac will undoubtedly have a bit of very old Armagnac in it. A VS Cognac may have some two-year-old brandy in it, but it had damned better have something older in it too.

No French Kissing

If you’re a clever monkey, you’ve just noticed that the classifications for Cognac and Armagnac are not in French but in English. Actually, you’re a cheeky monkey; a true Frenchman would now change the subject. But let’s linger: the British owned a fairly big chunk of France for about a half millennium. During that time, they were avid fans of everything alcoholic they could buy. Sure they had beer back home, but just try making wine in England. Well, actually, with global climate change, it’s getting easier but we are waaaaay off subject.

If the rules of brandy are built upon minimums of barrel aging, don’t be misled that the oldest Cognac or Armagnac is the best. You see, describing a brandy as better or worse based upon time in barrel misses an important differentiation: barrels give certain smells and flavors; time in a old, humid cellar gives other smells and flavors. Naturally, you will want us to be specific about which smells and flavors we’re talking about and, well, that could take some time. It’s very complicated, and that’s exactly why we like drinking this stuff: it’s very complicated.

Time in a Barrel

We’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. These are distilled wines, made from grapes, so they probably will smell like grapes, duh. But grapes have their own little collection of fruits, and aging brandy adds a bunch more fruits too; usually dried or cooked. The longer you age a brandy, the spicier it gets, but some barrels are spicier than others: old barrels aren’t spicy; new barrels give pepper and clove and such to a spirit. In general, barrels give a confectionary element to spirit: caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, perhaps toffee or maple. Barrels also add spiciness to spirits, whether baking spices (allspice, anise, cinnamon, clove, mace and nutmeg, for instance) or cooking spices: black pepper, cardamom, chicory, coriander, cumin, ginger and turmeric.

Time in a cellar (but only if you’re in a porous container like a barrel) makes whatever fruit is in the spirit seem even more dried and concentrated. Nutty aromas grow in strength and even clarity as the spirit gets older; there are more and more notes of almond, pecan, cashew and walnut. Strange and unexpected notes emerge as the spirits slumber in these ancient cellars: chocolate, toffee, dried rose petals. Wait! There’s more (late night TV voice)!  Now think: really old furniture. You know, like a room filled with old antiques.

Wait a minute, you think whoever’s writing this has been out on the loading dock, don’t you? You do. Admit it. Whatever; you don’t have to believe me, just get some old brandy and stick your schnoz in that for a few hours and you will see. It’s really there.

Let’s get back on task, shall we? Brandy can be and is made everywhere in the world when wine is made. But brandy tastes different in different places with places like Cognac and Armagnac just being totally sweet places to age brandy.

Being A Bit Tart Is Good

The soils of these two classic regions are different; their cellars have good smells. Most importantly, the grapes grown on these soils make for tart grapes and that tartness helps these spirits last and even grow in the barrels too.

In Cognac, this tartness arises because the soil has a high limestone content: the best regions (Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies) are rich in limestone and even limestone’s oldest iteration, chalk, and the wines they distill are really tart (it doesn’t hurt that they harvest the grapes relatively unripe, so think even more tart, or tarter, which is actually a kind of sauce, but we’re waaay off-subject again). In Armagnac, that kind of soil can be found alongside sandy, almost beachfront soils (both regions are right up against the ocean), especially in Tenereze or Bas Armagnac (bas means lower, as in, right next to the sea).

Prior to Cognac’s emergence as a place for brilliant brandies several centuries back, the region produced salt in the flats along the oceanfront. The Dutch international traders needed brandy too and as long as they were in the area for salt shipment, you might be able to pawn off some brandy. Those Dutch were knowledgeable buyers and they quickly decided that the brandy in Cognac was special.  They began bottling the Cognac they bought here, calling it Coniak Brandy because the place was called Cognac and because the Dutch word for burnt wine is branndiwijn, which sounds a lot like “brandywine”. We’re content to shorten that to brandy.

The Sailors Called Her Brandy

The Dutch had their reasons: their empire was flung far, from the northern portion of South America, to a little piece of India, and especially in the southern Pacific, in present day Indonesia. Moving wine that far was a laughable ambition; not so brandy. Perhaps shockingly, one of the early strategies was to distill the wine at the source (say France) to concentrate it, and then once it arrived at its far-off destination, add water back to it. Voila, wine! Eh…not so much.

Lots of people made brandy; make no mistake, but the Cognacais quickly got out in front of everyone else. Maybe it sounds like marketing noise but Cognac’s lead seems fitting: as we have noted before, the chalk content of its central regions generate acid levels in the base wines that render it rather undrinkable, but that ensure that a certain amount of fruit (tart citrus, green pear, that sort of thing) lasts after years and even decades in barrel.

Me Too! Me Too!

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for other brandy producing regions to feel a certain amount of envy if not resentment. Coniak Brandy was discovered in the early 1600s and by the mid 17th century was lauded as the world’s finest. But south of the town of Bordeaux, and 150 miles south of Cognac, Armagnac was distilling brandy a century or two before Cognac thought about it.

Today it’s hard to imagine that Cognac was the latecomer to the party. Cognac sells almost a case of twelve bottles of Cognac for every bottle of Armagnac sold. Why? Cognac’s connection to England has already been explained (ownership has its prerogatives); Armagnac has no such historic tie to the Island Empire or its many former possessions.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

Wow; we got your attention with that title, didn’t we? Actually, I think you probably just skipped a few paragraphs and then realized you may want to take some damned test about this crap someday and thought, okay, fine, whatever. But this is really, really interesting (to maybe three people) because France was once Catholic while England was Protestant. We’re not going to get into ism’s and schisms but that means that Cognac, being owned by England for a while, was Protestant too (or Church of England, whatever, we are overstaying our welcome here). After France got that chunk of the country back, briefly she decided to overlook the fact that some of her people were worshipping at the wrong altar, as it were. But in 1790, the Edict of Nantes was revoked and that meant you (and we’re looking at you, people of Cognac) were welcome to a choice: turn Catholic or die.

Lots and lots of conversions at that point, but some people simply fled the country. A disproportionate number of those scampering French Protestants were from Cognac. When they arrived in Stockholm or New York or London or Copenhagen or a hundred other cities, they needed to work. Amongst their limited skills were the sale of Cognac: Dad or Auntie or sister or grandfather back in Cognac still made Cognac, so some of them got into the export/import business. It’s from that moment that we see an uptick in Cognac exports and it continues to grow to this day, with the Far East a very successful source of new customers. Chalk it up to unintended consequences.

Who is More French?

But here’s the interesting part: if you wander outside the tourist restaurants in any French town, a request for Cognac may be met with a classic Gallic shrug. Indeed, in the Frenchiest of bistros you may struggle to even find a bottle of Cognac. You will however see many different brands of Armagnac. Cognac is not what the French drink; Armagnac is their brandy of choice, as it has been for centuries.

Apples, Apples and More Apples

While we’re at it, let’s throw Calvados in too, because that too is a distilled wine product made in a demarcated area of France. Indeed, we should also acknowledge that wine is considered to be a fermented beverage based upon ANY kind of fruit, not merely grapes. So according to the U.S. government, fermented cherry juice is cherry wine, and so on with all other manner of fruits. Once you distill that wine, you have brandy (brandy is burnt wine, right?), and hence brandy is made from apples (Calvados and applejack), cherries (Kirsch – German for cherries – or Kirschwasser), raspberries (Framboise – the French word for raspberries), Fraise for strawberries and on and on.

Typically, we’ll see only unaged versions of these alternate brandies: Calvados and Applejack are the great exceptions, popular in some quarters, particularly France and New England, respectively. The old school of Applejack production was about as rudimentary as you can get: leave some apple cider outside to freeze in a Nor’Easter and what remains unfrozen is the concentrated form: alcohol. Thankfully, this method is relegated to history in the main: concentrating alcohol through freezing doesn’t allow the skillful cutting of heads and tails (see Lesson Three – Distillation, if you must), and rather unhealthful levels of methanol are left in the brew.

Calvados producers will utilize many different kinds of apples to gain complexity as well as ensure some flexibility and an economic advantage over the market. But the vast majority of these apples are good for one thing only: alcohol, because they are not particularly delicious apples for eating. Indeed, these “spitters”, as the old American parlance described them, were what Johnny Appleseed was sowing in his famous walks in the wilderness. The famous Christian man was planting apple trees to enable Americans to make alcoholic cider and enjoy one of God’s great bounties.

Historically, far more cider was consumed than Applejack, but there seems to be a rise in consumption of both products today. Still, it’s sorely wished by the BARmen that more and better Apple brandies were widely available in the marketplace; perhaps someday soon.

And a Few Pairs of Pears

The French are pretty fond of their version of this remarkable brandy too, more so than Cognac. Calvados is the name given to the traditional apple brandy producing region; but where once the region was only a subset of the Norman portion of northwest France, now Calvados is produced throughout Normandy, The Pays d’Auge (or the Auge Valley countryside) has always been thought to represent Calvados’ pinnacle achievement, but an area to the west called the Domfrontais (around the town of Domfront) is making some pretty mean stuff too.  Domfrontais tends to utilize a lot of pears in addition to apples.

Sure, we just told you Calvados is an apple brandy but we also told you the French have their own views of the sacrosanctity of laws. They’ve been using pears in Calvados for years, and why not? If they’re trying to make something complex, then maybe throwing a few pears into the vat alongside all those apples is a good thing. And using lots of different kinds of apples. Somewhere between 300 and, uhm, 8000 different kinds of apples, so they say. But they’re French.

And now for a few label terms; if you’re not thinking of taking our little Certified Drinks Expert test later you may want to cover your eyes and scream. If the Calvados label says “Fine”, “Three Star” or “Originel”, then it’s been aged in French oak for at least two years. If it says “Vieux” (that means old) or “Réserve”, then the Calvados was aged in barrels for at least three years. If it says “Vieux Réserve”, not only is someone just being too damn tricky, but the Calvados has been aged at least four years in barrel, just as it would be if it were labeled “V.O.” or “V.S.O.P.”

And then, because you haven’t learned near enough French, we should tell you about  “Hors d’Age”, “Extra”, “X.O.”, or “Age Inconnu” (we love that last one, it means “Age Unknown” but it sounds like Age In Canoe, which is very cool); each of those must be aged for a minimum of six years in French oak.

As noted earlier, Pays d’Auge is a place where Calvados is made but when you see its name on a label, you know that not only has it been distilled in that place, the apples had to be grown there as well (other areas may allow imports) and it must be distilled only in pot stills. Again, the other regions opt for more flexibility and often use continuous stills.

Brandy from Everywhere

We think that great brandies can be made anywhere wine is made. France has a significant lead but we’ve tasted lovely brandies from Australia, South Africa, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Germany and, well, we could go on (with sufficient drink, we usually do) but we reserve a paragraph or two for American and Spanish brandies.

Spanish brandy

A century ago, you could buy bottles of Coñac de Jerez, but that was a bit misleading; Brandy de Jerez is the correct name. Still, we shouldn’t toss aspersions about; the U.S. still allows sparkling wine producers to call their otherwise humble plonk “Champagne”. Here’s a tip: if you see “Serve well-chilled” on the side of the bottle; it ain’t really Champagne. Of course the brandy producers of Spain thought the word Coñac helped, but knowledgeable consumers today know that Brandy de Jerez requires no assistance from a borrowed name. It represents an almost over-the-top version of brandy: rich, honeyed, figgy, and often slightly sweet, even treacly (that’s a British word for treacle, something like molasses. We just looked that up and we are so proud.)

Whereas Cognac can be noble and elegant, and Armagnac can be complex and wild, and Calvados almost always has a rustic, earthy character, Spanish brandy is fat. Make that phat. Phaaaaat. Fill in your own image here, son (and daughter), shit is phat.


Ryan Demonstrates How To Make a Sidecar.

Run a lemon wedge along half of the outside of the cockail glass
Carefully rim the outside of the glass with sugar then set aside
In mixing glass add;
1.5 oz of VS Cognac
3/4 oz Lemon Juice
1 oz Cointreau
Add ice and shake
Strain into cocktail glass