Brandy begins life as a wine. Its name derives from the Dutch term brandewijn which, literally translated, means “burnt wine.” However, following the initial phases of making the rough wine, the production of brandy diverges, taking its own course and becoming something quite different from its vineyard cousin.
Aficionados of the spirit, however, approach its evaluation in much the same way that wine connoisseurs approach their favorite beverage. Brandy is not merely something one drinks, like a cola. Brandy tends to be judged, appreciated and relished, discussed as if its distillation were more a matter of fine art than artisanship.
As with all art appreciation, degrees of subjectivity and simple personal preference permeate one’s appraisal. Nevertheless, brandy evaluation has benchmark criteria against which specific examples of the spirit are measured. Brandy’s relatively high alcohol content, compared to wine, masks its nuances to the uninitiated but, through training and practice, one can learn to appreciate the often subtle, yet distinctive differences among brandies.
The Process of Judging Brandy
Begin your study of brandy with a clean, clear, air-dried snifter. The shape of the glass is not mere convention. Snifters promote the circulation of brandy’s aromatic vapors, upon which much of the spirit’s flavor depends.
Drink With Your Eyes
Pour only a few ounces into the snifter. Note the color, whether it strikes you as rich amber, honey or perhaps more pale, like hay. Eventually, one learns to associate distinct flavors with each shade and hue. No color is superior to another; rather, color will lead one to expect commonly correlated flavors.
Sniff From the Snifter
With your nose a couple inches above the snifter, inhale slowly. Do not snort. Focus on the aroma. You many notice more than one. Tilt the glass slightly. Gently swirl it. Breathe the vapors once more. Relax, and let your mind associate the aromas with others you know. You may be reminded of sawdust or oak, of grass of something generally herbal, maybe you sense a faint sweetness, think of a bowl of fresh nuts, or simply smell alcohol.
At first, many people merely smell alcohol but, over time, slowly develop an ability to sense aromas behind or wrapping around the alcohol- odd as that may sound to you with your nose over your first few glasses of brandy.
Tasting the Brandy
Lest you begin to wonder why brandy is thought of as a drink, rather than a smell, it’s now time to taste it.
Taste. Brandy is sniffed and sipped, rather than gulped and chugged. Otherwise, it will knock you on your butt. You can get that done cheaper, if that’s your goal. Organized brandy “tastings,” in fact, commonly involve more spitting than swallowing…at least until well into the event…!
It might feel silly at first, but sip just a little bit, and let it roll around your tongue. Allow vapors to rise right up into your sinuses. Note the location of your sensations in your throat, on your tongue, in your nose. Focus on the flavors and sensations. See if they match what you were thinking about when you simply sniffed, rather than tasted. See if, now that you’ve had the glass in your hand for a few minutes, you notice something about the brandy that you had not noticed before.
Although brandy is a beverage, it is a complicated drink, involving the eyes, nose and throat to fully appreciate the depths of its aroma, appearance and taste. It begs to be savored, rather than pursued. Brandy is a time-honored after-dinner event, fit for calm reflection, as much as it is a drink.