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Brandy Education

  • Judging Cognac

    Judging CognacIn many ways, the concept of a fine cognac is down to the taster’s perception based on what he has tasted in the past and the flavours to which he has become accustomed in his daily life. But defining those flavours is secondary to understanding what is required of a cognac in order to describe the various properties that bring that flavour about. However, it is probably fair to say that we all like smooth and individual cognac flavours, uninterrupted by other, less desirable properties such as aggressiveness, bland flavours and overpowering sweetness caused by syrups.  When judging cognac professionally, the key skill is understanding of the desirable and not so desirable properties that can be found in it. Excluding the initial considerations of colour and aroma, my first consideration is the balance, followed by the complexity and concentration and depth of flavour. All of these are critical in defining what we seek to provide; award winning cognacs.

    A cognac that is unbalanced has many aggressive and fiery qualities that hide the style and flavour. In some cases, it may be very difficult to create balance as this is usually created by long ageing in the barrel where it gently mellows.  Young cognacs will not have developed flavour nor had time for the alcohol to reduce naturally, so will not be balanced. Where this happens, additives are used to hide the strength but, they also add sweetness to the brandy.

    The term “complexity” is often taken negatively.  In fact, it refers to a very varied mix of flavours which develop as a result of the reaction between the wood (tannins) and the alcohol in the cognac. Over time, more and more flavours will develop but it is not enough to just have a wide range of flavours, we also look for depth and concentration. It is the depth of the cognac that provides us with the most exciting tastes which are often referred to as “Rancio”. This is a richness but also an intense mustiness that one might associate with an old Madeira wine.

    Much of what we do here at Hermitage is to seek out cognacs with all these characteristics. We look to achieve Gold Medals with all we supply but it is not easy as the availability of cognacs which meet this high level of perfection is very limited. Our cognacs are at the very top of the luxury group, there are other groups with much lower standards, many being associated with generic blends and we judge them on a completely different level. There will be good cognacs at every level but there comes a point which is difficult to exceed.

  • Should All Wine Brandies Be Regulated?

    Wine BrandiesThe term “brandy” refers to a spirit distilled from a fruit.  This includes armagnac and cognac as well as a host of other wine brandies made from the indigenous fruits of the region from whence they come. The rigorous controls produced by the various regulatory bodies of each of the two main French wine brandies mean that their products will always be of a recognised quality.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with grape brandies which have no rules to follow.  Most are distilled on large commercial stills from unspecified grape varieties and sold after as little as one year’s ageing.  In addition, their distillation range is not controlled, any grapes can be used and, in some cases, only the residue of the skins, pips and leftover flesh is distilled.

    Many years ago, brandies were made in the wine producing regions, around Bordeaux and Saintonge, where wines were plentiful. The resulting wine brandies were of lower strengths, as the grape varieties used lacked acidity, and they failed to meet with the approval of the traders buying for their European customers. Only the wine brandies from the Charente, ie cognacs, were of an acceptable standard as rigorous quality controls were already in place.  Over the years these regulations have been continued to be refined to meet increasingly higher standards.

    It is right, therefore, that Lucien Bernard, in his discussion with Vinexpo News recently, seeks to create standards that enable us to compare the quality of all wine brandies. We see in the marketplace many cheap grape brandies poorly made with all manner of different grapes, methods of production and storage. We also see some brandies being passed off as cognacs.  This is particularly true in China where counterfeit brandy is shipped in volume, mixed with small quantities of cognac and falsely labelled with respectable cognac producer’s names.  Sadly, we will never be able to control these rogues and it is down to local governments to bring them under control.

    However, there are also some very fine brandies on the market. Some of the Spanish brandies, made under the Solera system, a method which allows for the topping up of barrels which may have contained their famous sherries, are superb. Other good brandies, such as those from Greece and America and the Italian Grappa, also have production controls. Controls on the production of wine brandies is therefore both necessary and desirable as it will improve the quality of the brandies produced and reduce the rogues who seek to cash in on the market that deserves so much better. I’m with you Lucien!

  • Sediment in Cognac

    The cognac industry is quite touchy about the appearance of a bottle of cognac.  In the world of high value spirits, sediment is not desirable as it can either lie on the bottom of the bottle or cause cloudiness of the spirit. But is it really a problem?

    sediment in cognacWell, we all understand that cognac is aged in oak casks.  Initially it is put into new ones and then, after about 6 – 12 months, it is transferred into old ones.  When the casks are new, they are toasted to destroy the harmful tannins in the wood.  At this stage, only the good tannins are available in the wood allowing the cognacs to develop their colour and flavour. Many cognac producers will ask for a specific grade of barrel toasting to suit the desired quality of the finished cognac. Repeated use of the new barrels means that over time, they will become old barrels and so used for long term cognac storage.  However, as the tannins in the wood are used up, the inside surface of the barrel will gradually degrade leaving a cloudiness in the cognac.

    The level of cloudiness will depend on the age and size of the barrel, the type of oak used and the level of toasting initially agreed between the cooper and distiller. The strength and cru of the cognac are also factors.  Cognacs produced from the Champagnes mature more slowly than those from other crus.  The spirit remains stronger in the barrel for longer, producing a cloudy effect and in some cases, containing minute particles from inside the barrel.  As a result, older cognacs, which may have been in their barrels for 40, 50, 60 or more years, may have levels of sediment in them and must be filtered. In most cases, sediment appears at the tail end of the barrel and because it can be very fine, can be missed when bottling. No producer wants to see sediment of any level in his cognac although it is harmless and will gradually settle in the bottle over time.

    When filtering is used to remove the sediment it can be costly as it is slow and some of the cognac is lost during the process. All cognacs do have a minute solids content which is not visible but is part of the cognac.  But remember, the longer it has been in the barrel the finer the cognac will be!

  • How Did Double Distillation Become Part Of The Cognac Process?

    double distillationThere are all manner of theories, assumptions and legends relating to the actual birth of cognac. Many relate to Chevalier de la Croix Maron, an aristocratic wine taster and Lord of Segonzac. Legend has it that on returning home from the Crusades, he found his wife in bed with his neighbour. He shot them both. But afterwards Maron could not sleep as he was plagued by dreams of Satan coming from the dark and roasting him not once but twice over a fire. One night after waking from another roasting he sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers wound round a glass of his favourite drink, burnt wine. He wondered if this recurring nightmare might be a message from above.  Looking into his drink he asked his servants to distil the wine again and so provided it with a magical smoothness.  Another story tells of the Chevalier finding a hidden barrel of peasant brandy in the corner of his cellar. It was too crude for his aristocratic palate, so he ordered it to be distilled again.  The pure fruitiness of the double distilled brandy delighted him, and the practice of double distillation had begun.

    It is probable that the second story is nearer to the truth. The art of distillation was founded by the Moors as they travelled from the South through France. Originally, they distilled perfumes in pot stills, but they taught the peasants in Gascony how to distil their wines.  Using pots heated by wood fires they extracted the vapours and then allowed them to condense back into strong and fruity spirits.

    The Cognaçais also learnt the skills of distillation in order to prevent their wines from becoming rancid during the long journey along the Charente river to the port of La Rochelle.  On reaching their destination they were bartered for leather, timber and copper (which was used to make their burnt wines). Wines were also distilled to reduce their volume prior to shipping to foreign ports.  It was found that distilling them a second time not only reduced them further but also gave them a higher quality and finer taste.

    It is also said that Chevalier de la Croix Maron took some barrels of the double reduced wine, or brandy as we know it today, to the local monastery. The monks tried some but disliked its fiery taste. Years later they opened another barrel and found that the brandy had turned golden and the flavour had changed to be rich and fruity.  The benefits of barrel ageing had accidentally been discovered.  It seems that the Chevalier de la Croix Maron has much to answer for in the origins of cognac!

  • The Effect of the Cellar on Ageing Cognac

    CellarsWe place much emphasis on the ageing of cognacs as it is critically important that they gain the maximum maturity whilst in their oak casks. We have spoken before about the barrel size, shape and type of oak but the actual cellar chosen for storage is also vitally important.  The conditions of storage can make, or break, a fine cognac.

    French cellars used to house cognac are typically quite small, perhaps only housing a couple of hundred barrels.  Most are also old and damp, often old stores or farm buildings, perhaps old chapels or buildings that would normally be thought unsuitable for storing such valuable spirits.  Many do not even have a proper floor, just the earth, perhaps where animals have been kept during cold winter months, but it is these old buildings that provide the finest conditions for cognac ageing.

    Good barrel ageing extracts the useful substances from the oak barrels. Tannins form around 5% of these substances but others, including lignin and hemi-cellulose, are also useful.  As these substances gradually dissolve in the maturing spirit, they impart the agreeable sweetness found in some older cognacs. It is therefore very important that cognac spends as much time as possible in contact with these useful elements found in the wood.

    There is of course a limit as to how long these substances last in the relatively neutral oak barrels so it is important to ensure that the barrels are stored in the finest conditions.  The humidity of the old stores in the Charente ensures that the barrels are largely damp on the outside.  This prevents the smaller spirit molecules from escaping and retains them in the oak for a longer period.

    An agreeable climate in the Charente provides more suitable ambient storage in these old stores than in purpose made warehouses on other shores.  ‘Early landed’ cognacs are brandies which are stored in bonded warehouses abroad and have customs documents proving when they were made.  The provision of this additional storage may be an advantage but both the length of time the cognacs are stored and the conditions in bond may fall some way short of ideal.  Only by constant, expert monitoring can it be established when a cognac is ready for bottling and indeed if the storage conditions have allowed the cognac to gain the full benefit from the barrel.

    We hear of all sorts of ideas for brandy storage but whatever is happening on the outside of the barrel, there are only two factors which affect ageing inside: temperature and humidity.  It is the reaction of the old oak barrel and the cognac that will provide us with the finest cognacs.  It therefore seems strange to me that some brandy houses want to age their cognacs in unusual places. A rather well-known Norwegian house has chosen to age a barrel of their 40 year old cognac in a fort in the mouth of the Charentes for a few months “to see how maritime weather affects the finished product”. If the barrels are stored correctly and tightly sealed with a cork which is waxed over to prevent the ingress of air, what difference will the maritime weather make?

  • The Importance of the Cognac Cellars

    Cognac CellarsThe concept of barrel ageing is said to have been conceived by wine merchants when shipping their wines from the harbour at La Rochelle. The weak and commonly sweet wines that were shipped along the Charente from Cognac often became rancid.  The wine merchants therefore reduced their volume by distillation, before shipping abroad in oak barrels. After their arrival in foreign ports it was noticed that the clear distillates within had coloured and gained in flavour.

    Many centuries later we have learnt much about ageing our cognacs. The considerations of barrel age, size and wood are regarded by many as secondary to the dampness and location of the cellar.  Dampness in the cellar helps the cognac to mature in the barrel for longer as it reduces evaporation of the spirit through the wood.  There are thousands of cellars in the Cognac region which also hosts two major rivers.  The Charente passes through the middle and the Ne passes round the southern half of the top cru Grande Champagne.  It is therefore reasonable to believe that many of the finest cognac cellars are situated close to these rivers, taking advantage of the increased humidity.

    However, ideal damp conditions can be created in other ways.  Many old stone-built stores were converted outhouses which had had their floors ripped out, thereby removing any damp course between the building and the earth.  New custom-built stores, mainly owned by the big houses, are complete with humidifiers which regulate the atmosphere.  A more questionable method of creating damp barrels is to spray them with water but this is usually only employed during very hot conditions.

    Of course, wherever they are kept, the atmosphere inside a sealed barrel is unlikely to change.  The temperature may alter slightly, and the amount lost to evaporation (known as the Angel’s Share) may differ but otherwise the quality of the cognac should remain the same.

  • Cognac As A Digestif

    digestifBrandy has long been used for medicinal purposes, both internally and externally. We read that it was often used in Nelson’s Navy as an antiseptic, sometimes as an anaesthetic and even before then, as a digestif to sooth the effects of eating too much or too rich food.

    A ‘digestif’, taken after a meal to aid digestion, is widely regarded as a means of reducing discomfort. Indeed, good cognac, if consumed in moderation has many health benefits.  Cognac contains antioxidants which can lower cholesterol levels in the blood, thus helping to keep the heart healthy.  According to Lybrate, the online medical service, cognac contains polyphenol compounds which help to reduce inflammation in the cardiovascular system resulting in lower blood pressure. Unlike other alcoholic drinks, pure cognac such as Hermitage, does not contain any carbohydrates.  It does not cause bloating and can be safely enjoyed, knowing that it cannot be converted into fat. However, the same cannot be said of commercially blended generic brandies which contain additives, such as sugar.  It has been proven that cognac also has excellent anti-inflammatory properties making it effective in relieving respiratory issues and improving heart health. The absence of carbohydrates can help in weight management and its antioxidant properties are said to assist anti-ageing.

    When Admiral Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar they brought him home in a barrel of brandy, I still give him a wink as I go past his column in Trafalgar Square and I will now ensure I take a small measure as my digestif every evening.

  • The Spirit of Christmas - The King of all Spirits

    Spirit of ChristmasBrandy, or perhaps to be more precise, cognac, has become the official tipple of Christmas in most of Europe since the early 19th century. Perhaps it is worth noting that of all the European countries to take it on board, Britain has taken more of the sublime liquid than any other. The Irish too have championed various brandies, Richard Hennessy being the most renowned purveyor.
    In past years cognac has never really reached the same dizzy heights as the malted spirits that now dominate the shelves of the supermarkets.  Christmas is usually the only time the bottle of cognac is retrieved from back of the drinks cupboard to pour over the festive pudding and set alight, a practice which only diminishes the role of cognac. We probably have Charles Dickens to blame for that as one of his characters, Mrs Cratchit, came “bowling in with a pud blazing with a half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. Romantic as it may sound setting fire to good cognac merely diminishes the credibility of The King of all Spirits.
    But cognac is so much more, it is the most complicated, but most interesting, spirit produced. Even more interestingly, many of the finest have been in barrels for very many decades. Mostly, cognac comes from a single grape variety.  There are more than 4000 vine growers in the Charente (the region where it must come from) but even so, every cognac has different characteristics and flavours. It is the history of each and every one, from grape to bottle, that has kept me interested for 50 or more years. I will be drinking a very special cognac at Christmas, not poured over the pudding but in a small tulip shaped glass. I won’t be hurrying it but enjoying its many complex flavours and depth of rancio.

    Happy Christmas.

  • Many Different Types of Brandies

    We all know that every cognac is a brandy but not every brandy is a cognac, well most of us do, but what different brandies are there out there and what are they like?

    Different BrandiesWell, cognac is the finest of them all and the best known.  It must be made in line with all sorts of regulations to ensure that quality is maintained and that it is properly distilled and aged. The other well-known French brandies are armagnac and calvados.  Armagnac is distilled on a continuous still as a single distillation and tends to be quite fruity in flavour.  Calvados on the other hand is made from a cider and can have quite a pear drop flavour as it is necessary to add pears for greater acidity to help the distillation.  However, there are other French brandies too.  One is from Alsace which is traditionally made from their Gurwüztraminer grapes and of course there is Marc made in the burgundy region usually from the heavy lees which probably include the skins, pips and any other leftovers.  A little less known is Champagne Marc. This is distilled from the champagne grapes which are pressed whole and distilled. It is quite fruity and distilled at a low rate of about 52 degrees.  It is quite normal to add sugar which of course can make it quite sweet. Other French Brandies come from the Cote-du-Rhône, Provence and Jura where there is a long tradition.

    Next best known is Spanish brandy. This is made in the solera fashion which is a top-up system of ageing. Producers can take up to 20% off the bottom of the barrel and replace it with new eau de vie on the top. Spanish brandies are also aged in casks that have contained other drinks, usually sherry. They are said to be the oldest brandies in the world using traditions passed on by the Arabs.

    The Italian brandies are relatively tightly controlled, and only specific wines can be used. They are distilled at quite low alcohol ranges to preserve the fruitiness of the brandy.  Italian brandies are not to be confused with Grappa, often referred to as the peasant’s drink. Grappa was traditionally taken with coffee and used for all sorts of medicinal purposes, even disinfectant.

    German brandies are made from grapes imported from either France or Germany, they often contain macerated fruits as well as caramel and sugar syrups. Probably the best known is Asbach.

    American brandies are generally thought of as a fall-back beverage from the millions of bottles of wines that are produced.  They are mainly made in Califonia from the generic grapes of the region and can include all sorts of additives including caramel, sugar syrup and prune juice.  Consequently, they are similar in flavour to the Spanish style brandies.

    In Latin America there are a range of brandies including Pisco, a pure brandy made from the indigenous grapes of the region. Pisco takes its name from ‘pisku’ which in Quechua, the language of the Incas, means flying bird.  This is a good description for this light and volatile spirit.

    Other brandy producing nations are Australia, South Africa and Greece (where Metaxa is produced).  Also, Israel who is the only producer of Kosher brandy.

  • Calvados - Apple Brandy - The Forgotten Treasure?

    calvados is apple brandy Calvados really is the finest example of apple brandy so it is a mystery that it isn’t more popular.  Traditionally rustic, being based on the common old farmyard apple rather than the noble grape, perhaps it is too old fashioned for the influential trendsetters?  And what about geography?  Normandy is poorer and more rural than the elitist areas of Champagne and Cognac. The region staged countless wars and its fields are the final resting place of thousands of young men.  But the trend is gradually changing.  New calvados embassies are opening across the world. Indeed, official figures show that in 2017, 57% of the 6m bottles of calvados sold were exported.  Its popularity as a cocktail ingredient has certainly helped.  One of London’s most stylish and up-and-coming bars, Coupette, puts calvados cocktails at the very heart of its menu.  What is a surprise though is that mixologists are using not just calvados from the top cru, Pays D’Auge, but aged and more expensive vintages too. Calvados is a delicious, versatile and refreshing spirit. It goes well with food, tastes good neat, and can be the base for sophisticated cocktails.

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