Brandy is a distilled spirit made from virtually any fermented fruit or starchy vegetable. Distilling concentrates and helps purify the ethanol alcohol created by the fermentation; ethanol is an intoxicant used socially for millennia. The best-known brandy is distilled from grapes.
To make brandy, a mash of grapes or other suitable sugary or starchy produce is allowed to ferment, converting the natural sugars into alcohol and thus forming a sort of wine. This is then distilled to make a stronger spirit, which will retain some of the flavour characteristics of the original material.
Generally, any area that has a glut of fruit will make a sort of brandy from it. Calvados is apple brandy, slivovitz is plum brandy. Marc, as in marc de Bourgogne, is a brandy made by further fermenting the skins from grapes after they have been pressed to make wine.
An eau-de-vie is a brandy (usually colourless) made generally from a single fruit, which might be raspberries or other soft or orchard fruits.
Many liqueurs are fruit-based brandies that are sweetened and that sometimes also have other flavourings added.
It's worth noting that Cognac is a distinct type of brandy with a protected name, made exclusively from grapes grown in the Cognac area of France. When you ask for Cognac, make sure this is what you get – a brandy is not a Cognac. Armagnac is another superior type of brandy, made in that geographical area of France.
Wherever alcohol is sold.
Choose the best
You get what you pay for. Cheap brandies might well be made from grapes but will not have been aged for any guaranteed length of time; read the label carefully. The most expensive brandies can cost thousands of pounds and these will usually be blends that contain rare and ancient examples. Spanish and Greek brandies have other flavours added.
Cognacs are aged for at least three years in oak barrels, which add colour and flavour. Some of it evaporates into the air, which is called the angels’ share.
No matter how much you pay, brandy does not mature or change further once bottled, the way a wine might. A tightly sealed bottle will last for years but once a bottle is opened the alcohol will very slowly evaporate. Therefore, it’s never a good idea to keep a bottle with a dispenser inserted for more than a few weeks or to leave one hanging about half full. If you are a slow drinker, it’s a good idea to decant a bottle into smaller ones, which can be tightly sealed until needed. Cool storage is best, whatever the size of your bottle.
Unlike gin, vodka or whisky, brandy is great in all kinds of food. However, if you are using it in actual cookery or to flame something, there’s no need to use something very expensive and you should never use Cognac, unless added at the last minute, as heat will destroy the fine flavours.
A small amount of brandy is an essential secret ingredient in cold, seafood sauces, especially those containing tomato, and in anything to do with cream or creaminess, from meringue fillings to sweet and savoury sauces or rich custards for Christmas puddings.
Flaming brandy to get rid of the alcohol but leave the flavour is showy and, if you are cooking, the alcohol evaporates anyway. If you do want to flame brandy, it must be heated slightly before you ignite it. Heat it too much and the whole lot will explode dangerously. Once it is flaming, gently keep moving the pan so that all the alcohol is available for burning.