Kindred Spirits: Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados
Brandy has been described as wine taken to the next level. Less sweet than schnapps or wine but much more robust, a great brandy can serve as a unique after-dinner drink to enjoy alone or with a cigar.
Brandy is made all over the world from Armenia to South America, Germany and France. And while French cognac is the most famous worldwide, there are many other tempting alternatives to explore for those venturing into this world of "super wines" for the first time.
Germany, France, and the United States are known for un-aged fruit brandies in flavors such as kirsch (cherry), framboise (raspberry), poire (pear), pomme (apple), and prunelle (blue plum). These brandies are made from whole fruit, resulting in a robust fruit aroma.
These “eau de vies," or waters of life, are un-aged and still fiery. But they make for pleasant additions to coffee. When combined with cream and sugar, the fruit flavor is preserved and the brandy is more approachable.
When Brandy Grows Up
The cognac is graded on an age system, starting with the youngest VS (very special) to "Imperial" grades of the oldest XOs (extra olds).
If you like a young, fruity, fiery cognac, or are planning to mix the cognac then choose a VS. If you like something mellow, most people gravitate toward a VSOP. The XOs, while very smooth and nice, are by far the most expensive with a starting cost of about $100 a bottle and going up into the thousands!
In the U.S., the most common and reliable brands of cognac include the houses of Remy Martin, Hennesey, Martell and Courvoisier. More difficult to find—but well worth the search—are the independent, small houses of France such as Maison Prunier.
But cognac is not the only brandy produced in France.
Like cognac, armagnac is a French grape brandy. But unlike cognac, armagnac is distilled only once rather than twice and is aged in black oak barrels rather than white oak.
Armagnac also tends to be less frequently blended, giving it an earthier, heartier style than the smoother lighter style of cognac.
The last great aged brandy of France is calvados from Normandy. This is apple country, and this brandy is made from apples rather than grapes.
According to legend, the Vikings drank calvados as long as 1000 years ago. It is distilled twice like cognac, yielding a smooth sipping brandy.
Combined, these brandies will always ensure France a place in the pantheon of great brandies. But in the end, all brandies are kindred spirits… robust distillations full of character.
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