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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.

fruitGoing Ape for Fruity Flavors
Most brandies are made from grapes. However, some brandies are made from a wide range of other fruits.

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
Once aged, the brandy loses a bit of its fire and the “eau de vies” designation is dropped in favor of a regional name such as Cognac. All cognac comes from the Cognac region of southwestern France, and is made from white grapes (ugni blanc, colombard, and folle blanche) aged in oak.

The cognac is graded on an age system, starting with the youngest VS (very special) to "Imperial" grades of the oldest XOs (extra olds).

Cognac Aging Scale

All Cognac is graded on an aging scale from youngest to oldest. The designations are:

VS: Very Special – legally must be at least 2 and 1/2 years old, but most are 5-7 years old.

VSOP: Very Special Old Pale – legally must be 4 and 1/2 years, but most are aged for 5-13 years.

XO: Extra Old – legally must be 6 years old, but most are aged between 7 to 40 years.

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!

Regional Considerations
In addition to age, the other key factor is the region. Grapes from Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne are widely considered the best.

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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