What Is Brandy?
It may evoke wingback chairs and old library vibes, but brandy has a very important place in cooking and cocktails today.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Brandy used to bring to mind a snifter, a wingback chair and a wall of leather-bound books. But in today's day and age, brandy is more than just an after-dinner drink: it’s included in cocktails, sauces, desserts and more.
What Is Brandy?
Brandy is a spirit that is distilled from wine or other types of fermented fruit juice. Unlike Scotch, bourbon or tequila, there aren’t rules that govern the percentage of any particular fruit that must be used for brandy, and it can be made anywhere in the world and still be labeled as brandy. Brandy is 40 to 50% ABV (alcohol by volume), 80 to 100 proof. There are many different types of brandy, including grappa, fruit brandy, pomace, marc and eau-de-vie. Apple and grape-distilled brandies are often aged in wood, which can lend these beverages beautiful amber color. Other varieties of brandy aren’t often aged in wood and are therefore clear. Southwestern France, particularly Cognac and Armagnac, is traditionally known for producing the finest brandy.
What Does Brandy Taste Like?
Brandy is typically subtly sweet with a fruity flavor. The flavor of brandy will varry based on what type of fruit it's made from. As a general rule of thumb, brandies aged in oak will taste mellower with hints of vanilla.
How to Drink Brandy
Brandy is typically enjoyed neat (on its own), on the rocks (over ice) or mixed into cocktails including sangria.
If you're drinking brandy neat, a snifter is a good idea: that or any other glass that will fit in your hand so you can warm the brandy to make it more aromatic. Swirl the liquid, inhale the aroma and start taking sips. If you'd like, you can add a drop of water to open up the brandy further.
If you're drinking brandy on the rocks, use a large ice cube which will melt slowly instead of watering down your drink.
How Is Brandy Made?
All spirits are made in multiple steps, beginning with fermentation. In the case of brandy, wine is typically made from grapes but could be made from any fruit, which is why you’ll see peach brandy, apple brandy, plum or cherry brandy and many more varieties.
The next step is distillation, creating a liquid with a lot more alcohol than the wine.
The liquid then goes into barrels for aging. The length of time the brandy is in the barrel determines quality and price. After 3 to 15 years in the barrel, the brandy is blended to ensure that it has a consistent flavor from year to year. When the blend is just right, it’s bottled. A similar process is used for many spirits, and if you’re interested in learning more, check out our stories What Is Malt?, What is Tequila?, What Is Mezcal? and What is Bourbon?.
Brandy Vs. Cognac Vs. Armagnac
In a nutshell: all Cognacs and Armagnacs are brandy, but not all brandy is a Cognac or Armagnac.
Cognac is a spirit distilled from wine, but with a few more restrictions than brandy: it must come from grapes produced in the Cognac region of France, typically from a white grape called ugni blanc. The wine is distilled in a specific copper still, aged in barrels that are often used and old (but they must have only been used for wine, not whisky), blended and bottled.
Armagnac is the region next to Cognac, and the spirit produced there is also only grape wine-based. The major difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the type of still used for distillation.
What Does VSOP Mean?
Brandies are given designations on their bottles that indicate how many years the spirit was in the barrel before bottling. Unlike wine, which can (and does) age in the bottle, spirits can only age before bottling.
- AC is aged two years in the barrel.
- VS stands for Very Special; it's also sometimes labeled as 3-Star Brandy. It's been barrel-aged at least three years.
- VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale (also sometimes labeled as 5-Star Brandy) and it's aged at least five years. At least is the important part of the designation, as the better (read: more expensive) brandies are typically aged ten to fifteen years.
When shopping for VSOP brandy, expect to see prices comparable to less expensive single malt Scotch. Cognac will be similar to more expensive single malts.
What Are Substitutes for Brandy?
It’s a good idea to keep a bottle of medium-priced brandy in the back of the cabinet for cooking. And if it gets used up, try one of these options.
- Baking: scotch, dark rum, Apple Jack or bourbon
- Cooking: sherry, white wine or vermouth
- Sangria: Triple Sec or rum
- Non-alcoholic brandy flavor: apple cider, white grape juice, dilute peach, apricot nectar or brandy extract
Recipes with Brandy
Sweet potato pie is pumpkin’s year-round cousin, and this one is all grown-up with a shot of brandy.
Not all tiramisu has brandy mixed with the espresso, but ours does for even more caramelized flavor, so keep it away from the kids.
Adding brandy to deglaze the pan when making sauce is a classic technique. Be sure to pull the pan off the stove when adding the brandy to the skillet: you don’t want it to flame up.
Rose and berries would be a very delicate sangria if it weren’t for the brandy that brings some weight to the flavor and rounds it out.
The alcohol in the brandy burns off while you’re simmering and reducing it. Be sure to keep some water in the roasting pan: it will prevent the sugars in the glaze from burning and smoking up your kitchen.