What Is Brandy?

In our modern era, whiskey and vodka are the most popular spirits but that hasn’t always been the case. Historically speaking, brandy actually held that title for a long time. An incredibly broad category of distilled spirits made from fruit, it’s made via the easiest path from raw material to distilled bottle of alcohol — which means that pretty much every culture around the world has a version of brandy. Today, we’re going to cover the basics of brandy, hopefully giving you enough information to orient yourself and start finding your way through these delicious bottles.


Brandy is considered to be a digestif, an after dinner drink designed to settle your stomach after a particularly filling meal. As such, some of the more popular versions of these spirits are either served as a shot or appear on the dessert menu at the restaurant. But there are plenty of examples of brandies being used in cocktails, such as the sidecar or the vieux carre (a Louisiana original).

Raw Materials

The defining characteristic of a “brandy” (as opposed to any other kind of distilled spirit) is that the raw material used to create the spirit is fruit.

Alcoholic beverages are created through the process of fermentation, which is when tiny little bacteria called yeast consume sugar in a liquid and convert that sugar into alcohol (among other things, but lets not be pedantic). So before you have alcohol, you first need sugar.

With something like corn or rye, the starchy components in the grain needs to be converted into sugar through some tricks of organic chemistry. But with fruit, that sugar is naturally occurring. There are no intermediary steps to take, all you really need to do is add fruit to a barrel of water with some yeast thrown in.

The type of fruit used is typically the biggest differentiator between the different kinds of brandies.

In the French tradition, grapes are the biggest source of raw materials for brandy (as you might imagine, from such a prodigious wine producing country). Some of those grapes are picked fresh and pressed to release the juice inside just as one would when making a wine, and that typically goes on to be used in cognac or armagnac production. After being pressed (either for wine or brandy), the leftover grape skins are called “pomace” and can still be used to create a French brandy called “marc”.

Grapes aren’t the only source for French brandy, though — they also use apples and pears, which are often combined in different ways to create a specific type of brandy called calvados.

Over in Italy, another wine producing region, they also have a process for using the leftover pomace from wine production to create their own distilled brandy called grappa.

Across the Atlantic, the countries of Peru and Chile both follow a similar pattern of using grapes grown in their countries to create pisco.

While most Asian spirits use rice and other grains for their raw materials, there are a couple notable brandies that have developed in the Eastern hemisphere, as well. Maesil-ju is a Korean example, made from local plums that have been soaked in soju, a local rice-based liquor. India also has a version of brandy called feni, which is made from cashew apples (and taught me that cashew nuts are actually the seeds of a fruit — the more you know!)

Here in the United States, brandy has been an integral part of the culture since the earliest colonial days. An apple-based spirit called applejack was popular in the colonies, and even distilled by George Washington himself from time to time.


Once a big barrel of sugary liquid is produced, the next step is to allow those yeast cultures to do their magic and convert the sugar into alcohol.

This is a process that happens naturally, as ambient yeast in the air just naturally floating around is enough to start things off. But in most cases, the distillers will use a lab grown or cultured strain of yeast that they have used before and know well. The yeast used for fermentation can have a significant impact on the flavor — and especially since brandy typically has a light and fruity flavor profile, any flaws from the yeast can be quite noticeable.



There are some wild differences in the distillation process among these various types of brandy.

Generally speaking, the goal here is to heat the fermented fruit punch that was just created and selectively capture the vapors coming off that boiling brew, only grabbing the portions that are tasty and delicious and leaving the potentially harmful chemicals behind. It also allows for the concentration of alcohol in the liquid, which makes it more potent.

Of all the distillation processes, French cognac is probably the most straightforward. They use a traditional copper pot still that is directly heated with fire to heat the fermented liquid and then a worm tub condenser to cool it back into a liquid. In the Armagnac region, they use a column still instead of a pot still, which is closer to what most American bourbon producers use and a little bit more technologically advanced. And for the cognac and armagnac variations of French brandy, all distillation must take place before April 1st each year.

And then we get weird.

In Peru, for their pisco production, they also use a pot still but with a bit of a twist. For one version of their pisco called “mosto verde”, instead of allowing the yeast to completely eat all of the sugar in the liquid, they stop the fermentation early so that there’s still some sugar in the liquid. That slightly sugary and alcoholic liquid is then distilled, which is a significant challenge as the sugar has a tendency to burn or to boil over in the pot, both of which could mean disaster for the batch.

With Italian grappa, instead of creating a clear and free-slowing liquid, the whole darn mixture of grape skins and other associated detritus is placed directly into the still in large chambers. This not only allows the distiller to get every last drop of spirit out of the raw material, but it also infuses more flavors into the resulting spirit.

And originally, American applejack didn’t even use distillation at all. In the earliest incarnations of the spirit, they used a process called “jacking” where they allow the fermented apple juice to freeze, and the frozen chunks of ice were then removed. This had the same effect of distillation — increasing the alcohol content by removing the unwanted water — but without all the fussy and fiddly complications of actually using a still.



For a surprising number of the spirits that fall into this category, there actually isn’t any maturation that takes place. Or, at least, very little.

In most cases, you’ll rarely ever see a matured grappa. This Italian brandy simply sits in an inert vessel for a little while after distillation to allow things to settle and mix appropriately, and in most cases that’s it. There might be a little bit of added sugar at the end as well.

Peruvian pisco has a similar story. Once distilled, the spirit sits in an inert vessel for about three months before it can be bottled and shipped for sale. Over the border in Chile, things are done a bit differently, though. Their pisco can be aged for only 60 days in an inert vessel, and then either 180 days or a full year in wood barrels before it is finally ready.

Also nice and straightforward is American applejack, which does spend some time in a barrel (just like American whiskey).

Where this starts to get complicated and annoying is Spain and France.

In Spain, they have a version of a grape based brandy called Brandy de Jerez, which differentiates itself from others mainly in the maturation process. Instead of simply sitting in one barrel, they instead mature their brandy using the solera process (which is complicated enough that we needed a dedicated article to explain it).

France is less complicated, but more annoying. As mentioned, cognac and armagnac distillation must take place before April 1st each year, and each batch of spirit is called a “coupe” or a “cut”. Spirits are placed into oak barrels to age, blended and mixed throughout the process, and as the spirit attains the appropriate flavor profile the aging process is stopped by placing it into inert glass jars.

For these French brandies, the age of the spirit is clearly marked on the bottle using terms like “V.S.” or “V.S.O.P.” but what makes me irrationally annoyed is that the definitions of those terms change based on whether you are looking at a cognac, an armagnac, a clavados, or even a rum. Depending on which version of brandy the French are producing, the term “V.S.” can refer to a spirit that is 1 year, 2 year, or even 3 years old.


For those who just want a quick overview of brandy, that’s probably a good place to stop for today. This was just a quick intro to the basics, and you hopefully have some direction for where you want to start exploring next. But stay tuned, as we’ll be doing some deeper dives into these different spirits over the coming weeks!


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