A guide to the popular after-dinner drink
Today, we’re going to delve into the world of brandy and distillation. You say, “Why brandy? I thought this was a column about wine.” Well, what most people don’t know is that brandies are mostly derived from wine. Brandy is from brandywine, derived from Dutch brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine.” The spirit is produced by distilling wine, the wine having first been produced by fermenting grapes. Brandy generally contains 36 percent to 60 percent alcohol by volume and is typically taken as an after-dinner drink. While some brandies are aged in wooden casks, most are tinted with caramel coloring to imitate the effect of such aging.
As most brandies are distilled from grapes, the regions of the world producing excellent brandies have roughly paralleled those areas producing grapes for viniculture.
At the end of the 19th century, the western European market — and by extension their overseas empires — was dominated by French and Spanish brandies, and Eastern Europe was dominated by brandies from the Black Sea region, including Bulgaria, the Crimea and Georgia. In 1880, David Saradjishvili founded his cognac Factory in Tbilisi, Georgia, which was then part of the Russian Empire and a crossroads for Turkish, Central Asian and Persian trade routes. Armenian and Georgian brandies, which were always called cognacs in the era, were considered some of the best in the world, often beating their French competitors at the International Expositions in Paris and Brussels in the early 1900s. The storehouses of the Romanov Court in St. Petersburg were regarded as the largest collections of cognacs and wines in the world — much of it from the Transcaucasia region of Georgia. During the October Revolution of 1917, upon the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolshevik Revolution actually paused for a week or so as the rioters engorged on the substantial stores of cognac and wines. The Russian market was always a huge brandy-consuming region, and while much of it was homegrown, much was imported. The patterns of bottles follow that of western European norm. Throughout the Soviet era, the production of brandy remained a source of pride for the communist regime, and it continued to produce some excellent varieties, most famously the Jubilee Brandies of 1967, 1977 and 1987. Remaining bottles of these productions are highly sought after, not simply for their quality, but for their historical significance.
Types of brandies
There are three main types of brandy. The term “brandy” denotes grape brandy if the type is not otherwise specified. The other two are derived from fruit and spirits. For our discussion today, we’ll concentrate on grape brandy.
Grape brandy is produced by the distillation of fermented grapes and is best consumed from a tulip-shaped glass or a snifter at a cool room temperature. Often, it is slightly warmed by holding the glass cupped in the palm or gently heating it with a candle. Such heating, however, may cause the alcohol vapor to become pungent so that the aromas are overpowered. Brandy, like whiskey and red wine, exhibits more pleasant aromas and flavors at a lower temperature, such as 61 F.
In most homes, this would mean that brandy should be cooled rather than heated for maximum enjoyment. Furthermore, alcohol, which makes up 40 percent of a typical brandy, becomes thin as it’s heated and more viscous when cooled. Thus, cool brandy produces a fuller and smoother mouth feel and less of a “burning” sensation.
A batch distillation typically works as follows: Wine with an alcohol concentration of 8 percent to 12 percent and high acidity is boiled in a pot still. Vapors of ethanol, water and the numerous aroma components rise upward and are collected in a condenser coil where it becomes a liquid again. Because ethanol and various aroma components vaporize at a lower temperature than does water, the concentration of alcohol in the condensed product — the distillate — is higher than in the original wine.
After one distillation, the distillate, called “low wine,” will contain roughly 30 percent alcohol (ethanol) by volume. The low wine is then distilled a second time. The first 1 percent or so of distillate that’s produced, called the “head,” has an alcohol concentration of about 83 percent and an unpleasant odor, so it’s discarded. The distillation process continues, yielding a distillate of about 70 percent alcohol, called the “heart” and is what will be consumed as brandy. The portion of low wine that remains after distillation, called the “tail,” will be mixed into another batch of low wine for future use.
Distillation does not simply enhance the alcohol content of wine. The heat under which the product is distilled and the material of the still (usually copper) cause chemical reactions to take place during distillation. This leads to the formation of numerous, new volatile aroma components, changes in relative amounts of aroma components in the wine, and the hydrolysis of components such as esters.
The Cork Guy
The Cork Guy is a local connoisseur of all things wine whose taste buds are especially adept at unraveling the mysteries of the vino world. We hope you will enjoy his visits to Coast Monthly. You can reach the Cork Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org