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Learning about Brandy

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • The Different Tastes of Calvados

    In many ways calvados is the newest brandy of France.  It only became recognised as such in 1942 when the appellation controleé regulations officially gave calvados a protected name.  The area around the Valley d’Auge and the land extending east past Lisieux became the principle production area.  Here, the Jurassic limestone soil is ideal for growing the various apples required to make calvados.

    A range of different apples are used initially to create the finest cider - bitter, bitter sweet, acidic and sweet.  These apples have low levels of acidity so a small, firm, Perry pear is also added.  This addition, usually 12 – 15 % of the total, is essential as it increases the acidity of the cider to the level required for distillation.  Consequently, calvados can often have a pear drop taste which many people dislike.

    Of course, the flavour of calvados from each distiller will differ.  The distillation techniques, apple varieties, condition of apples when harvested and ageing process will all have an effect.  Sometimes a finish is also added.  This term describes a process where, in the latter stages of ageing, calvados is stored for a limited period in a barrel that has previously held another spirit or wine.  However, many producers find this technique abhorrent as it masks the true identity of their spirit.

    The pear drop aroma and taste is most noticeable in young calvados.  With long barrel ageing it is significantly reduced because the calvados builds a richness which masks the pungency of the Perry pear.  One of the best examples of this is the 1969 vintage by Dupont, a firm that has worked hard to nurture quality in their fine spirits.

    calvados tasteThe firm of Chateau du Breuil has developed a different method of masking the pear drop effect. They only harvest naturally fallen apples which have started to go brown.  At this stage the water content of the apple has dropped and the sugar content is at its highest.  These apples produce a sweeter cider and ultimately a sweeter calvados with baked apple aromas and flavours.  The period required to age in the barrel for the flavours to mature is therefore reduced.  A fine example of this type of calvados is the Chateau du Breuil 15 Year Old.

  • Specific Cognac Tastes Defined

    Cognac Tastets

    The cognac wheel that was introduced by the BNIC has proved to be an ideal source of information when considering aromas from a given cognac or brandy. It divides aromas into seasons considering each in terms of: Spring delicacy, Summer fullness, Autumn richness and the hardness of Winter.  Flavours can be defined in a similar manner but perhaps with more defined headings.  For years I have considered cognac tastes as falling into 4 different categories.  The definitions are more easily defined than those of aromas. Of course, there are thousands of different perceptions of flavour which are recognised in the tastes of cognac.  I have taken some of the flavours which have the widest description of each taste. My 4 brandy and cognac taste categories are: Fruit, Savoury, Sweet & Rich, and Nuts & Spice.  These can be subdivided to help identify the most likely descriptions of brandy flavours.  Tasting brandies can be subjective.  This list is designed to provide a level objectivity with which to identify different cognac flavours.

     

  • Organic Cognac Production is Increasing

    Today, less than 1% of the Cognac appellation is farmed organically, but the number of producers using these methods is increasing.  To make organic cognac a farmer must cultivate his grapes organically for at least 3 sequential years.  That means no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers.  Instead farmers must rely on pre-war farming methods.  For example the use of copper and sulfur, nettle and horsetail infusions, mechanical weed removal and manure and compost fertilisers.  The application of manure and freshly grown fertilisers such as barley and faba beans certainly enriches the precious "terroir".  Organic farmers claim that their cognacs produce different aromas.  We have yet to be convinced but public demand for the green "organic" certification is on the increase.  Even the big houses ask their producers to not use weed killer and employ more sustainable farming methods.  So, although only a few have chosen to qualify for certification, many more, such as Chateau de Beaulon are employing some organic methods, which can only be good for the "terroir" in the years to come.

  • Spirits Education for the Customer

    Trade Training"I am delighted to see that more and more businesses are recognising that education and well-trained staff are the foundations to better customer service and stronger profits," says the CEO, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).  The WSTA concur stating that "consumers are increasingly favouring more premium brands". We have always maintained that spirits education is key to the sale of our luxury brandies.  There is a specific Trade Training page on our website and regular newsletters and Blogs ensure up to date industry news is frequently publicised. Those wishing to go one step further will be interested in the new improved Level 2 WSET Award in Spirits.  Also trying to educate the customer is the #ForwardDrinking campaign which launches next month.  It aims to target industry taboos such as 'retros' (when brands pay for bar listings) and 'pay-to-play' schemes (when brands offer monetary incentives, or otherwise, to gain a retail listing).  Maverick Drinks, who initiated the campaign, said "We don't want people using our product because there's a deal attached, we want them to use it because it's a great spirit".  Hear, hear, just what we were thinking.

  • The DOs and DON'Ts of Drinking Fine Cognac

    Adding Water or Mixers

    I wrote in my last Technical Topic about adding water to cognac, supposedly to enhance the flavour.  Of course, we discovered that when drinking fine cognac, this is not the case.  However, some people do like to add some form of mixer(s) to their brandy.  For example, sugar and cream are added to change the flavour completely.  In this instance, it is not a good idea to use an expensive cognac.  Cognac is a rich drink and usually has a complexity of different flavours.  This makes the experience of replicating an exact recipe more chance than judgement. Then there is this question of ice - but think about this. If water is difficult to mix with a spirit, a piece of solidified water is going to be even harder.

    warming brandyAdding Heat

    So, you ask, why don't we warm cognac to enhance the flavour? Well, you can, but we don't drink cognac like wine.  Big mouthfuls are a rarity as the strength of cognac is three times that of wine and a small sip quickly develops to body temperature. We have been asked on many occasions about the use of brandy warmers and before we dump this silly idea, let me just explain.  Driving the alcohol off by heating the cognac will, in most cases, totally destroy the flavour as the alcohol acts as a flavour carrier.  When a cognac has 'gone off', it is because the alcohol has laminated from the spirit.  This means that it sits on the surface of the cognac and escapes as soon as somebody releases the cork. Where this has happened, one never needs to ask if it has gone off!

    Cognac by the fireWhen to Drink?

    Much of the real appreciation of a fine cognac comes by tasting it at the time of day when one's taste buds are at their most receptive, usually around 11am - noon. Some people prefer to taste cognac as an aperitif before a meal.  Certainly, it makes some sense to taste cognac as opposed to whisky before a meal if you are also drinking wine as one doesn't mix grape and grain. But for me, when looking for a small digestif to finish off a nice meal, drinking fine cognac is the best way to recapture the enjoyable events of the day.

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