In our house, it is approaching the time where my husband goes looking for the bottle of brandy. Not because he likes to drink it but because tradition dictates that Christmas pudding is served with brandy sauce and he’s never met a tradition he doesn’t like! Must be a chef thing. Anyway, that got me thinking about what to do with the rest of the bottle and also the subject of the difference between brandy and cognac, which I do like to drink. Here’s what I found.
Getting into the spirit
Brandy is a spirit that is made by distilling wine and is a classic after dinner drink. It can be anywhere from 35 to 60% alcohol by volume (that’s 70 to 120 proof if you are in the US) and is often aged in wooden casks to bring out the flavour. Confusingly, brandy can also be liqueurs that are distilled from pomace or mash or wine or any other fruit, with these also being known as eaux-de-vie.
Brandy has probably been around as long as distillation but it was first discussed in the form we know it back in the 15th century. It seems to have been a happy accident – wine was distilled to preserve it for transportation and was stored in wooden casks. It was discovered that afterwards, it had a different taste and brandy was born.
What’s in a bottle of brandy?
There is a close tie between the production of wine and the production of brandy so many big wine producing areas are also known for their brandies.
- Armenian brandies have been made since the 1880s and come from the Ararat Plain area. bottles are aged anywhere from three to twenty years.
- Armagnac is made from grapes from the Armagnac region of France and is distilled in copper stills then aged in oak casks from the Troncais Forest. This stuff has serious history and was mentioned as early as 1310 in a recipe book.
- Cognac (my favourite) likewise comes from the Cognac region of France and is double distilled using pot stills. There are some big names in cognac including Martell, Remy Martin, Hennessey and Courvoisier.
- Greek brandy is made from Muscat wine
- Kanyak is a Turkish variety of cognac that is also known as ‘burn blood’ because it is used to keep people warm in winter
- Pisco is a colourless of amber brandy from Chile and Peru
- Stravecchio is an Italian brandy from the north of the country that uses grapes such as Sangiovese and grignolino.
There is also a grading system used for brandy, cognac and other varieties that works to show how aged the spirit is. It is somewhat unregulated but gives a good idea of the kind of strength and flavour inside the bottle.
- V.S. or very special is a blend that is the youngest, stored for at least two years in a cask and is denoted with three stars
- S.O.P or very superior old pale is also known as Reserve and is a five star, stored for at least four years in a cask
- XO or extra old is also known as Napoleon and has been stored for at least six years
- Hors d’age or beyond age is at least ten years old but can be older than this
As befits any classic spirit, there are any number of cocktails associated with brandy, ranging from traditional classic through to new concoctions.
Claimed to have been invented in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, as well as few other places, this is one of the easier brandy cocktails. All you need is 20ml fresh lemon juice, 20ml Cointreau or triple sec and 40ml cognac in a shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of orange.
The Corpse Reviver
Always loved the name of this one and again there are lots of stories as well as a few variations. A classic one uses 60ml cognac, 30ml calvados and 30ml sweet vermouth (Martini) over ice in a shaker then strain into a cocktail glass. Drink then fall asleep…
With its highly original name, the Brandy Cocktail calls for a couple of speciality ingredients but that can be picked up in a good supermarket. Take two ounces of brandy, half an ounce of orange curacao liqueur and 2 dashes of both Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s bitters then garnish with lemon peel.
Brandy Old Fashioned
This one is an adaption from a whiskey classic and uses 2 ounces of brandy, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 1 sugar cube, 2 slices of orange, 2 cherries and some lemon-lime soda to fill. To make it, take the sugar cube, splash it with a little soda and the bitters then add the fruit. Muddle and add ice then the brandy. Stir well and top with soda.
Another Christmas tradition that involves brandy is egg-nog – not everyone’s thing but a fact all the same. It makes a great party drink or a share with carol singers drink, assuming they are all adults and you like them enough to share that much booze with them.
To make eight portions:
- 6 large eggs, beaten
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 cups milks
- 1 cup brandy
- ¼ cup rum
- 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- 2 cups whipping cream
- Whipped cream for the top
Whisk the yolks with the sugar until creamy and dissolved then add the cream, milk and alcohol. Once combined, add the nutmeg and vanilla and chill. Serve with a sprinkling more nutmeg if you want.
As mentioned, the reason for the bottle of brandy in our house is to make brandy sauce for the Christmas pudding. You can also swap out the brandy and replace it with rum.
- 2 oz. butter
- 2 oz. plain flour
- 1 pint milk
- 4 tbsp. brandy
- 2 oz. caster sugar
Melt the butter and stir in the flour then cook for two minutes. Add the milk and bring to the boil, stirring then simmer for around 10 minutes. Add the brandy and sugar, stir and serve over pudding.
There are also lots of other things you can make with a bottle of brandy and there’s the showmanship factor where you can set it on fire to flambé things – but don’t use cognac for it as it doesn’t work so well. Once you have a bottle, it seems impolite not to look for other reasons to use it or simply enjoy a nice shot over ice while you relax on Christmas evening.