Brandy is something of a hugely diverse umbrella term in the world of spirits, but a deliciously flavoursome one at that. To get technical for a second, largely speaking, to be classified as a brandy, the base ingredient of the spirit needs to be grape-based, with the exception of Eaux de Vie and fruit brandies such calvados, which uses apples or pears.
Historically the origins of the word ‘brandy’ are rooted in the Dutch name brandewijn – literally ‘burnt wine’, which dates back to the 12th century process of boiling wine down to reduce the volume in casks before transporting it overseas. The happy accident was that it ended up even more viscous, rich and utterly delicious, given the lengthy maturation in oak casks, which imparted both flavour and colour.
Because of the widespread nature of grape vines and the diversity of different varieties, grape brandy is produced pretty much everywhere around the globe now, so here’s our pick of a few of our favourites – including a few unusual brandies too. Look out particularly for Armagnac: this rustic cousin to cognac is one of France’s most underrated brandies and offers age and complexity at highly affordable prices.
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Armagnac Delord Hors d’Age 15 Year Old
Pass through the sleepy market town of Lannepax in the Bas-Armagnac region and you’ll probably miss this tiny armagnac house in the blink of an eye. But surprisingly the company produces around 100,000 bottles a year. What’s remarkable is that the bottling process, labelling and finishing touches (wax sealing and gold embossing) are all done by hand by a team of two or three craftsmen. Artisanal production at its best. This 15 year old has subtle wafts of elderflower, milk chocolate and dried fruit, mixed with maple syrup and candied orange notes on the palate.
Around £45, read more on the Armagnac Delord website.
Chateau Pellehaut Blanche
Around £23, read more on the Pellehaut website.
Chateau De Laubade VSOP
One of the most accessible armagnacs out there, this VSOP (a ‘very superior old pale’ brandy aged for a minimum of four years) brings a wonderful, light sweetness of honey, aromatic flowers and vanilla. Laubade combines some classic grape varieties from the Bas region (arguably the most premium) including Baco, Folle Blanche and Colombard, each one breathing life and character into the spirit.
Around £39.75, read more on the Chateau De Laubade website.
Hine H By Hine Cognac
Hine is somewhat reinventing the direction of cognac, away from the traditional view of a brandy balloon glass, cigar pairing and dusty leather armchair. As fine as these things might be under the right circumstances, a lighter, more refreshing side to cognac is on the rise and H By Hine has been designed with the cognac cocktail in mind, especially long drinks, where it excels. Try it over ice, combined with ginger ale and a slice of orange zest and be prepared to be converted.
Boulard Calvados VSOP
The first of our ‘anomaly’ brandies, calvados, is every bit a brandy, proudly French and is quite possibly Normandie’s finest export (save for butter and camembert.) Boulard’s VSOP is distilled from cider produced in the Pays d’Auge region and matured in oak for a minimum of four years, giving a rich, buttery texture, notes of green apples and a little sweet Tarte Tatin. It makes a mean Old Fashioned cocktail too.
Gonzalez Byass Lepanto Solera Pedro Ximenez brandy
Gonzalez Byass is widely known for its exceptional sherry. In fact, a trip to Jerez is certainly incomplete without a visit to the company’s huge facility, which includes what can only be described as an Ampitheatre of Sherry and a museum, paying homage to the artistry of this excellent fortified wine. Gonzalez Byass also produce an outstanding brandy, which, after 12 years in a Solera vat (a smart term for marrying vessel) it is then aged for a further three years in thick, sticky sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. Think notes of woody spice, intense dried fruit and tobacco. As complex as they come.
Around £58, read more on the Gonzalez Byass website.
Qollqe Italia grape pisco
Peru’s supreme grape brandy is a thing of beauty when turned into a refreshing pisco sour (the national drink) but it is an unfettered delight on its own, poured over ice or paired with tonic. Qollqe is one of Peru’s only pisco distilleries with a female master distiller and the Italia (made from a base of fragrant Italia grapes) is full of light elderflower notes, fresh green apple and lemon zest. Truly outstanding.
Around £45, read more on the Qollqe website.
Nardini Riserva grappa
The Nardini family have been making the finest examples of Italy’s national spirit since they began distilling back in 1779. Riserva is matured in Slavonian oak casks, produced from trees grown in eastern Croatia. The five years it has spent snoozing in oak have given the spirit a wonderful array of fruit aromas: from crisp green apple, fresh lemon zest and a perfumed nectarine note, with a honey influenced spicy palate. At 60% abv you’d be wise to add a drop of water to bring down the heat and release more flavour.
Around £47, read more on the Nardini website.
Van Ryn’s 12 Year Old Distiller’s Reserve brandy
With the wealth of great wine-making in South Africa, it’s no surprise that several category-defining brandies have started to emerge from the country and Van Ryn’s brandy arguably sits at the very top. Using a blend of Chenin Blanc and Colombard grapes, the brandy is distilled in a copper pot still, and then matured for 12 years, where it develops some very distinct fresh fruit notes on the nose, backed with a dark, rich spiciness and subtle earthiness on the palate.
Around £53, read more on the Van Ryn’s website.
Metaxa 12 Stars
Ok, so technically NOT a brandy. In the technical sense anyway. However we simply had to include this remarkable Greek ‘spirit drink’ (a clunky EU term) in this list, because it has all the hallmarks of a well balanced brandy: oak age and complexity, sweetness and delicate floral notes. Metaxa has nearly 130 years of heritage and is quite possibly the world’s oldest ‘bottled cocktail’, bringing together oak matured grape distillates, highly aromatic sweet wines from the Isle of Samos and a unique tincture of Mediterranean herbs, spices and rose petals. If you’re looking for a unique alternative to your traditional brandy, this needs to be near the top of your list.
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