Most of your favorite alcoholic beverages are either distilled or fermented. Brandy, however, is a glorious join of both production methods. Like wine, brandy, in its initial phases, is a fermented fruit product; later, the fermented juice, a crude wine, is distilled. Most brandies are aged to develop the characteristics we associate with brandy, although pomace brandy, for example, is not aged.
Brandy is commonly made from various grape varieties, but berries, cherries, plums, pears and apples often form its base, too. The choice of the fruit is most often correlated with the brandy’s country of origin. As one might expect, a particular fruit will play a significant role in the flavor, texture and aroma of the finished spirit.
Defining the Type of Brandy
Each type of Brandy falls into one of three primary categories: grape, pomace, and fruit other than grapes.
Grape brandy is probably the most familiar to US citizens. To make grape brandy, grapes are crushed, and the juice is first fermented, then distilled, and subsequently aged in oak casks. In cask, the brandy develops some color, develops a smoother texture, and picks up aroma and additional flavor complexities from the wood. Vintners commonly blend batches and vintages to produce their ultimate bottled product.
French Cognac and Armagnac are perhaps the premier examples of grape brandy; both are made from Colombard, Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche grapes. True Sherries produced in Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera, however, give the French brandies a run for their money, and may have been the first brandies produced in Europe.
Pomace brandy begins life quite differently than grape brandy, even though it largely derives from the identical fruit. Pomace is made from the pulp, seeds and stems left over following the extraction of the juice by a crush. The pulpy mass is pressed to squeeze out the remaining juice.
Although some pomace brandies are aged, most are not. As a result, pomace brandy is cruder and less smooth than a grape brandy such as Cognac. Pomace brandies lack the complexities derived from contact with oak but, on the other hand, exhibit fresher, fruitier tastes and aromas. Italian Grappa is arguably the foremost example of a pomace brandy.
Fruit brandies are fermented from fruit other than grapes. One should not confuse fruit brandies with grape brandies that have merely been infused with the flavors of other fruits: fruit brandies begin with different fruit, such as apples, berries or plums. Except for the berry brandies, fruit brandies begin with fermented juice, like grape brandies.
Because berries are low in natural sugar, to make brandy from berries, the fruit is first soaked in spirits, and then distilled. From cherries in Bavaria’s Black Forest, we get Kirschwasser, and in Alsace, Kir. The same regions produce raspberry brandies, such as Framboise and Himbeergeist, as well as pear brandies. In Poland, Slivovitz is made from plums. French Calvados, a fruit brandy, is regarded by many as the king of the apple juices, and ultimate fruit brandy.
Even if the most authentic version of any of the major types of brandy emanate from highly specific geographic locales, excellent examples of each of the styles are produced around the world. While the French make Calvados, the Laird Distillery in humble Scobeyville, NJ produces a world-renowned Apple Jack that was plenty good enough for George Washington.
The United States, in fact, produces dozen of brandies incorporating the best of the Old World technique and some of its fruits, but has also introduced new spirits, such as brandy made from the domestic table grape staple, the green Thomson Seedless.