What is the Difference Between Brandy and Cognac? How do I Choose a Good Brandy?

Brandy is the collective name for spirits distilled from wine. The traditional name for this liquor is brandywine, and it is 30%-60% alcohol after distillation. Many varieties and labels of brandy and cognac are available, including those produced in France, the rest of Europe, and even North America and Australia. Here is a guide to help you buy brandy and cognac, and understand the difference between the two spirits.

Aging is an essential step in bringing out the flavor of brandy made from grape wine. Often the price of brandy is directly proportional to how long it has been aged, so you tend to get what you pay for. There are some fine tasing cheap brandies, but it depends on the grape and the distillery.

Cognac is a particular variety of brandy made from Ugni Blanc grapes. Wine from Ugni Blanc grapes is distilled twice in copper pots, and aged at least two years in oak barrels. In common usage, the word "brandy" often denotes any kind of brandy that isn't specifically cognac. In Europe, brandy can only be called "cognac" if it is made in the Cognac region of France. In the US, any brandy produced under this special process may be bear the label of cognac. The traditional system of grading congnac is as follows:

VS-very special, aged at least 2 years (the industry average is actually longer)
VSOP-very special old pale, aged at least 4 years (again, the industry average is longer)
XO-extra old, must be aged at least 6 years, though many high-end XO cognacs are at least 20 years old.

A similar rating system exists for brandy, with AC being younger than VS.

Fruit brandies are distilled from other fruit wines, such as apple, cherry, peach, or other berries and tree fruits. Their alcohol concentrations are comparable to brandy, but they are not aged for as long brandy and cognac. Applejack is an American apple brandy distilled from hard cider, and kirsch is a German brandy distilled from cherry liquor.

There is even a type of brandy made from the non-juice parts of the grape, called pomace. Pomace brandy is distilled from the fermented mash of grape pulp, skin, seeds, and stems. It may sound unappealing, but this unaged spirit has a good flavor, and is less sweet and fruity than brandywine.

Brandy may also be cut with clear hard liquor, such as vodka. Since the taste of brandy and cognac is distinctive and very strong, the resulting spirit has all the flavor of brandy, but is much cheaper. This was popular in parts of Europe when brandy was scarce, and is also ideal for some cocktails.

Taste several varieties of cognac and brandy to see what you like, and how much alcohol content you prefer. Attend local beer and wine tasting events where you can sample liquor, or enroll in a wine tasing class.

Don't forget to purchase special brandy glasses called "snifters." Snifters are tulip-shaped glasses that have a rounded bottom ideal for holding in the palm of your hand. The warmth of your hand helps release alcohol vapors, and the narrow opening helps keep those vapors inside the glass. The result is a stronger flavor. However, many people prefer to drink brandy chilled, which mellows the taste. This is a good way to drink high-proof spirits.

© Had2Know 2010