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Brandy Education

  • 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.

  • Nick Faith 1933 - 2018

    Nick Faith VisitIt would be difficult for me to write another Technical Topic without mentioning Nick Faith who very sadly passed away on 26 September 2018. Nick was a friend whom I have known for more than 25 years. But he was more than that, He was a giant in the cognac industry.

    As a financial journalist Nick wrote regularly in the Financial Times and the Economist. He also wrote many books on drink.  His first, called The Winemasters, was published in 1978 and won the André Simon Award.   Another, and one of his finest was a rather grand full-sized book with many illustrations but actually, he was best known for his book simply called Cognac.  It was  first published in 2004 (the last edition was published in 2013) and is regarded by many as the Standard in the industry.  Here at Hermitage, we still use it occasionally for reference.  In 1996 he founded the International Spirits Challenge and in 2010 he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Bureau National Interprofessional de Cognac (BNIC), the ruling body of Cognac.  As a fellow traveller to the Cognac region, Nick loved to visit us here at Hermitage Cognacs and talk about the industry, tasting our cognacs and finishing up with lunch and a beer before I took him back to Chippenham to return on the train, another of his loves.

    Nick Faith will be sorely missed, not just as a great authority on cognacs but as an inspiration to the industry, he was one of the Cognac Greats.

  • The Role of Cellar Masters

    Probably only the big cognac houses have imported cellar masters.  Usually they are recruited from family firms whose skills and experience have, over the years, kept the industry in very good form.  Currently most cellar masters are male so, whilst explaining the role, I will use the pronoun ‘he’.

    Cellar masters

    In truth, the cellar master is a multi-skilled person whose understanding of the cognacs in his cellar starts with the fresh eau de vie. He needs to understand how it was made, including the quantities distilled, the distillation temperature and when the cut was made. This information will help him choose the correct barrels to use for both the initial storage and the long barrel ageing in his cellar. Most cognac houses have their own style of cognacs, normally recognisable by experts.  He will try to replicate that style throughout his cognacs.

     

    Modern cognacs are usually made for blending.  To do this they are poured out of their barrels into large wooden tanks which may hold as much 100,000 litres. Blending is a complex job and much emphasis is placed on the knowledge gained from the cellar’s historical background. Mixing cognacs requires a great deal of experience.  It does not follow that mixing two fine cognacs together will produce something of a similar quality. In some cases, especially when very high quality eaux de vie is used, the quality of the final blend is a total disaster.

     

    The cellar master’s role also includes an in-depth understanding of his barrels - their size, the oak used and what they have previously contained (the second stage of ageing is always in old barrels). He also needs to understand how much they were toasted and where he is going to keep them.  Many cellar masters move their barrels around the cellar to make full use of the humidity and to keep the cognac moving so it is exposed to every part of the barrel.

     

    Lastly, he tests the cognac by taking samples and checking the level of alcohol.  This is done by measuring the temperature and using an alcohol meter.  All official alcohol measurements are made at 20 degrees Celsius, so it is important to be able to calculate the actual strength at different temperatures. Small samples are taken to gauge the cognac’s maturity and balance at regular intervals as each barrel produces a cognac with a slightly different flavour and colour. The skill of bringing all these properties together takes many years to learn.  It is for this reason that the cognacs produced by family firms are often of a far higher quality than those from the big houses, which are highly blended.

  • Put A Cork In It!

    We tend to take the humble wine cork for granted but it is, in many cases, the critical factor in preserving our wines and spirits.  It protects them from the air outside their glass containers and preserves the qualities of the valuable nectars which are stored within. Many people will argue that synthetic or metal screw top closures are more effective and in the cheaper ranges, particularly of wines, they probably are.  Connoisseurs, however, still believe that natural cork has an important role to play.

    cork oak tree

    Cork is the bark of the Quercus suber or “cork oak” tree.  A medium-sized, evergreen oak that covers millions of hectares in Spain, Portugal and North Africa.  Unlike the frenzied yearly cycle of the wine industry, the evergreen oaks move like sloths, slowly expanding and growing the bark, known as orange bark. The cork oaks are first stripped of their bark 20 years after they are planted.  They are then shaved of their bark every 9 years after that for up to 200 years. The date of the last harvest is marked on each tree. The first layer is known as “virgin” cork and is used to make articles of home decoration and granulated cork for insulation. Only when the third layer is removed can it be used for making cork stoppers.

    corks

     

    On a cellular level, cork looks like a honeycomb of air pockets. These pockets make cork both watertight and fire resistant which is why it works so well to age wine.  Its molecular structure makes watertight seals easily but also lets tiny bits of air move in or out allowing the flavour and aroma to evolve and become more complex over time. This evolution can take many years but beware, whilst water molecules pass quite slowly through cork, spirit molecules are much smaller and pass through more quickly.  It is for this reason that many older cognacs always have a wax seal over the cork.  Natural ageing of cognacs must be in sealed containers as the gradual loss of alcohol can, over many decades, cause the spirit to degrade to such an extent that it can become completely undrinkable.

     

    The microcellular structure of cork enables it to retain its flexibility and elasticity so always remember to put the cork back in the bottle after use.  Also, never let the contents of your spirits bottle come into contact with the cork since this will degrade its structure more rapidly.

  • Armagnac XO Definition Changed

    Armagnac XOThe Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) has increased the minimum age requirement for Armagnac XO from 6 to 10 years, in line with a recent change to the cognac definition (see previous news story).  The regulatory body said that it hopes the changes will help to raise the “value of the appellation” and emphasise the “real differences” between its classifications.  The minimum age of an armagnac (and cognac) is now as follows:

    VS                                                                3+ years

    VSOP                                                          4+ years

    Napoleon                                                  6+ years

    XO                                                              10+ years

  • Brandy Bottle Valuation

    Brandy Bottle ValuationWe often have requests to do a Brandy Bottle Valuation and whilst sometimes a bottle can have a high value, most brandy valuations will disappoint most people.

     

    The term brandy is generic and covers any alcoholic drink reduced or distilled from a fruit. This includes Spanish brandies, grappa, marc and grape brandy (which can be used for semi-production purposes, for example fortifying port or sherry). This group of brandies will usually include the name brandy on the bottle but by law cannot include the names armagnac, calvados or cognac. If no identifying descriptions appear on the label we can assume it is a grape brandy which is not controlled by an authority and has minimal value.

     

    The main French brandies have tight controls on their production and storage.  For this reason, we know that if a bottle is labelled cognac, armagnac or calvados it will have been produced and aged in the approved manner.

     

    Cognac ageing to its optimum quality in oak casks can take many years.  In the case of cognacs from the top crus this can be up to 90 years.  Armagnacs and calvados take rather less time. The requirement for this long barrel ageing increases its cost of production and therefore value.  New oak casks cost around 700 euros each and storing the older casks, used for extensive ageing, requires sizeable, quality cellars.  On the other hand, grape brandies may only be aged for a year and heavily diluted with water.  Consequently, even quite good grape brandies only cost a couple of euros per litre to produce.

    1887 Favraud

    A highly valued cognac, armagnac or calvados will have one of these appellations named on the label together with an age statement or vintage.  The level of the brandy in the bottle, the quality of the seal, the shape, size and type of bottle, the colour and the clarity of the spirit are also important. Then of course there is the name of the producer or negoçiant and the region where the brandy was produced.  Much information about its value can be gained by knowing how it was distilled, the quality of the strata and sub-strata as well as the cellar in which it was aged.  If the bottle owner can provide a provenance for it, that also helps.

     

    If, on the other hand, your old bottle of brandy that has been stored for the last 50 years, does not mention cognac, armagnac or calvados on the label and does not provide an age statement of any sort, I am afraid that your bottle will be virtually worthless. It is also worth noting that retail values of old brandies are more than twice the trade or auction values since it can take many years to sell even a top quality bottle of fine cognac.

     

    If you have a bottle of brandy that you would like valued, please refer to our Valuation Service which can be found on the home page of our website.

  • Hermitage Cognac Quality Control

    There are many producers of cognac in the legal production area of France known as The Charentes and Charentes Maritime. Each one of them, quite naturally, believes that their cognacs are the best. The truth, however, is rather different.  Producers don’t advertise their presence so most have probably only ever tasted different cognacs in bars and restaurants. Indeed, I have spoken to some producers who didn’t even know that they had a distillery next door.  This lack of local industry awareness has, over the years, resulted in the development of our own cognac quality control.

    There are of course standards to which all cognac houses must rigidly adhere.  Variations in the product occur naturally with changes in the terroir, vines, distillation, cellars etc.  These changes can dramatically change the quality of each cognac.  As a rule, the higher the cru, the better the cognac, but one cannot rely on this as a guarantee of quality.

    As negoçiants we try to limit the cognacs we buy to those produced in the top cru, Grande Champagne. Here, hundreds of cognacs are produced, and each has a different taste, age, style, colour, method of production, ageing process, strength and balance. On top of that, our customers have varying tastes and needs and we try to accommodate them all. Finding the right cognacs is objective since we have our own cognac quality control standards which we have developed over the years.  These standards are not necessarily subjective however, since more than a third of all our cognacs have won gold medals or above in cognac competition.

    Cognac Quality ControlMaking sure that our customers really do get the best means that, after we have decided on a potential cognac, we still need to do several tests. The first is of course tasting. It is difficult to say how many cognacs we taste but on some days,  it may be twenty or even thirty, others, maybe only one or two.  One tends to gather considerable experience when tasting many different cognacs. Then we check the cognac for balance which means balancing the fieriness against flavour. Sometimes we need to reduce the cognac slightly which in some cases take quite a long time. We also check it for sediment as some distillers don’t filter their cognacs before we receive them at our bottling plant.  The alcohol level is also tested as legally, this must be quoted on the label.  This process also involves checking the level of obscuration (factors which mask the true alcohol content).  There is always some natural obscuration which cannot be avoided but in modern blends, the addition of sugar and caramel increases the level considerably.

    We really do try hard to provide our customers with the very best and we are proud of our collection of Hermitage Cognacs. Being a small, artisan producer is a huge benefit to everybody. If we were big, we would have to blend to supply cognacs with more commercial affordability.  Each cognac would lose its individuality and we would probably have to rely on younger cognacs to produce the required quantity.  We know Hermitage is always the best cognac available for our customers’ needs but it can be difficult to easily communicate that with every bottle we sell.

  • Why is the French 'Paradis' so special?

    Paradis gatesNot every cognac house has a Paradis – a designated area in the innermost recess of their cellar – but those that exist are steeped in history.  Back in the early eighties, having discovered a cognac which I really liked, I went to the Charente to try and discover its origin. I ended up in Cognac’s twin town, Jarnac, standing in front of an elegant wrought iron gate with an imposing key.  Behind it were about 100 very dusty bonbonnes, each with a chalk board describing what was in them.  What an eye opener - they contained cognacs which dated from as early as 1805. Each bonbonne (a sort of demijohn in a basket), contained about 30 litres of prized spirits and was sealed with wax to maintain its superior qualities.

    bonbonnes in a paradisMany cognac families select a few of their finest cognacs for storage in the Paradis.  The point when a cognac has gained all the benefit it can from the wood depends on many factors but ultimately, it is when the cellar master decides that it has reached its optimum quality.  At this stage the cognac is put into glass bonbonnes and sealed so that the generations of gentle maturation in the barrel are preserved. A cognac that has lasted in oak without deterioration for perhaps 60, 70, 80 or even 90 years is going to be good, very good and will have developed the much sought after rancio.

    There is little doubt that these cognacs will be superb masterpieces and truly exceptional amongst other cognacs, perhaps worthy only of paradise – the English translation of Paradis. I am sure that these fine old nectars should be preserved and locked away until their greatness can be recognised by true connoisseurs. The Angels have had their 'share', what’s left is worthy of far higher. If, when you next visit the Cognac region you visit an old cognac producer, ask if you can taste a cognac from their Paradis. If such a request is granted, savour it.  The cognacs in the Paradis will be the very finest that the house has ever made. If, on the other hand, your request is denied, try our Hermitage Marie Louise.  It’s a very fine example and has already won a number of very prestigious awards.

  • Super XXO Cognac Classification Approved

    XXO CognacThe big cognac houses are well aware of the similarity of their products so the need to spice up their ranges is always evident. We have seen recently the efforts by some to add a cask finish to their cognacs; sherry casks have already been used by one house.  But the latest craze is to try and produce a super XO cognac called XXO.  Hennessy, who have the biggest sales of XO cognacs, have already launched an XXO in the Far East.  They tried to register it as a Hennessy name thereby denying other houses the opportunity to use the term.  Unsurprisingly, other cognac growers were far from happy but after debate, an agreement has been reached allowing anybody to use the term for their super XOs.  Apparently, these new XXO cognacs will have to be aged for a minimum of 14 years. This seems a strange period to select since many of the smaller houses make XO cognacs up to 20 years old. It took a quarter of a century to change the XO definition from 6 to 10 years, perhaps it will take another 25 years to officially recognise this new, super appellation?  It’s an interesting point since many years ago, Brandyclassics negotiated with Otard to launch a super XXO cognac to the Chinese market.  It failed not because we couldn’t use the title, but because the Chinese customer thought it too flashy!

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