A Short History of Brandy
The invention of distilling wine is actually very old – they were likely produced over 1000 years ago in what is Turkey today. In the European High Middle Ages, they were mainly used for medicinal purposes and brandy only began its transition to high quality luxury goods at the onset of the early modern period.
Types of Brandy
The origin of the term brandy is somewhat disputed. It is an abbreviated form of the word brandywine, which itself derived from the Middle High German Brandewin or alternatively from the Dutch brandewijn. Whatever the case, they both translate to 'burned wine', and brandy has become the common term for this product in many countries around the world.
Up until the beginning of the 20th Century, brandies were often called Cognac, regardless of where they came from. In 1900, the German ‘Verband selbstständiger öffentlicher Chemiker’ (Association of Independent Public Chemists) first began to work on a definition for the quality of Cognac. The stipulation that resulted from their work was that the distillate was only allowed to be produced from wine or wine made from pomace – a low-alcohol and high-tannin beverage made from the remains following the pressing of the grapes. At the time, the chemists found the term Cognac-Brandy appropriate.
In 1908, a distiller from Rüdesheim in Germany, Hugo Asbach, registered his spirits under the brand name ‘Weinbrand’, an act which would prove greatly important after the First World War: The Treaty of Versailles included the so-called Champagne paragraph, which granted brand protection to certain regions of origin in France. From that point on, only brandy produced in the region of the same name were permitted to call themselves Cognac. In 1923 the term ‘Weinbrand’ was adopted into the German Wine Law and is, to this day, the legal term of quality and origin for quality brandy wine produced in Germany.
The EU Definition of Brandy
Today the term ‘brandy’ is protected in Europe by EU law. The alcohol content of these spirits must come solely from wine. The original wine distillate has to have between 52 and 94.8 percent by volume (% vol.), and the saleable brandy at least 36 % vol. Any ethanol additives originating from other agricultural products are prohibited in the production of brandy. Flavour additives are also prohibited, unless these are part of a traditional production method in the brandy’s country of origin. The colour of brandy is not a quality criterion as the addition of up to 3 % vol. sugar or caramel is admissible.
According to EU regulations, brandy must be matured in oak casks. The minimum period of maturation in casks with a capacity of under 1000 litres is 6 months, and for larger casks it is a full year. If a brandy is marketed as ‘old brandy’, it has been cask matured for at least 12 months. Brandy with the quality designation V. S. O. P. - Very Superior Old Pale – have gone through a cask maturation period for at least four years. Pomace distillates are no longer relevant for the classification of brandy.
Special Regulations for German Brandy
Since 1998 special regulations have applied to German brandy. The classification as German brandy must be denoted by an official inspection number. The maximum distillation limit is 86 % vol. (in contrast to the 94.8 % vol. stipulated by the European Union), and the matured brandy must have an alcohol content of at least 38 % vol. The wine used to produce German brandy must be made exclusively of grapes that originate from an EU country. German brandy must be matured in oak casks of less than 1000 litres for a minimum of 12 months. German wine law allows the addition of traditional sugars up to 20 g per litre of the end product as well as macerations of almonds, prunes and walnuts as flavourings. Caramel is explicitly prohibited. (EU wine law allows the addition of various sugars as well as an unlimited amount of caramel and flavours derived from oak maceration.)
How is brandy made?
Brandy is made in two steps. In principle, any wine can be used to make it. However, certain practices have become traditional in different countries – in some of them, the grape varieties used to make the brandy wine have to be officially approved. In the first step, the wine is distilled into so-called ‘low wines’, which still contain a great deal of undesirable substances. The distillation of the spirit to be later matured is somewhat more complicated. The process separates the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ – the harmful and unpalatable parts - from the ‘heart’, which is the clear spirit that is then transferred to the oak casks.
While it is stored in the cask, the brandy comes into contact with oxygen, which contributes to the development of its flavour. The natural colourants and flavours from the oak cask are also passed on to the brandy. The master distiller balances colour and flavour of a vintage year by blending the products of various casks. Finally, the wine spirits of various vintages, sometimes also different grape varieties, are composed to make up a brandy that reflects the flavour of its brand name – a process the French call the ‘marriage’. With very few exceptions, every brandy is blended.
Brandy – So Many Ways to Enjoy It!
Straight brandy is best enjoyed from a snifter at room temperature, which allows its aroma to unfold optimally. In its pure form, brandy is a pleasure that stands alone, but it is also wonderful along with or in coffee or as a digestif. It is often served ‘on the rocks’ as a long drink with fruit juice, cola, tonic or soda and is a staple component of many elegant cocktails.