What is brandy?
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. Most commonly, brandy is distilled from grapes.
To make brandy, a mash of grapes or other sugary or starchy produce is left to ferment, converting the natural sugars into alcohol, like a kind 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 brandy from it. Calvados is apple brandy, while slivovitz is plum brandy. Marc, as in marc de bourgogne, is a brandy made by further fermenting the skins from grapes after they’ve been pressed to make wine.
An eau-de-vie is an often colourless brandy made from a single fruit, which might be raspberries or other soft or orchard fruits.
Many liqueurs are fruit-based brandies that are sweetened and sometimes 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.
How to use brandy
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. You should never use cognac, unless added at the last minute, as heat will destroy the fine flavours.
A small amount of brandy is ideal in cold seafood sauces, especially those containing tomato, and in anything creamy, from meringue fillings to sauces, or rich custards for Christmas puddings.
If you 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’s flaming, gently keep moving the pan so that all the alcohol is available for burning.
How to store brandy
Brandy does not mature or change further once bottled, the way a wine might. A tightly sealed bottle will last for years, but once 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 that can be tightly sealed until needed. Cool storage is best, whatever the size of your bottle.
Where to buy brandy
Wherever alcohol is sold.
Choose the best brandy
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. 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 that add colour and flavour. Some of it evaporates into the air, which is called the angels’ share.
See our brandy review for the best options.