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Sip & Savor: Brandy

Dec 21, 2011 10:38PM ● By Anonymous
In many cases, a gift of high-quality brandy is often appreciated, as long as their tastes run toward the aged spirit. You might be familiar with Cognac or Armagnac, two specific types; however, all brandy is distilled from wine and other fermented fruit juices. That’s why its name is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning “burned wine.”

As with any other sort of edible gift, buying brandy as a gift can be tricky because it often boils down to the drinker’s tastes. However, by learning the differences in types of brandies and what makes a particular type or brand more valuable, you’re more likely to pick out a present that the recipient will thoroughly enjoy.

Types of Brandy

As a gift, you’ll likely want to purchase either Cognac or Armagnac. Like Champagne, the label Cognac is highly regulated and can only be applied to a variety of brandy produced in the region surrounding the town of Cognac, France. This is serious stuff—Cognac must be made with a specific type of grape, be distilled twice in copper pot stills, and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. However, because Cognac matures as it ages, most brands stays in the barrels much longer than the requisite two years to create a better product. Popular brands of Cognac include Hennessey and Courvoisier. American brandy, similar to Cognac, nearly always comes from California and is sold under brands such as the Christian Brothers, E&J, and Korbel.

Armagnac is also produced in a specific region in southwest France—it is actually the oldest type of brandy distilled in the country— but in a much smaller volume and with a lower profile than Cognac. It differs from Cognac in the type of grape and stills used to produce the spirit. It’s also distilled only once; however, it is also aged a significant amount of time before being sold, which softens the flavor profile of the spirit.

Plenty of other countries produce brandy, including Spain, Armenia, Albania, and Germany, just to name a few.

You might be interested in a fruit brandy, created from fruits other than grapes (by definition, brandy means it’s distilled from grapes), such as apricots or cherries. You might have heard of Calvados, an apple brandy created in Normandy, France, or its American counterpart, Applejack. Don’t confuse fruit brandy with cloyingly sweet fruit-flavored brandy, which has coloring and flavoring added to it. While fruit brandies are typically savored chilled over ice, it might also be a nice gift for cooks or bakers, as it is often added to desserts and pan sauces.

Rating System

If you’re unfamiliar with brandy, the rating system that ranks the age and quality of the spirit will be very helpful. However, it’s important to note that its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac, so it’s not as helpful when selecting brandies made outside France. A brandy labeled A.C. has been aged in wood for two years, while V.S. means “very special,” and it’s been aged for at least three years in wood. V.S.O.P. means “Very Superior Old Pale,” having been aged in wood for at least five years, and X.O. is “Extra Old,” also called Napoleon or Vieille Reserve, and aged at least six years.

Bottles labeled “vintage” are one of the oldest types, meaning it was aged until it was bottled. The vintage date will appear on the label. The final rating, Hors D’age, means that the brandy is so old that the age can’t be determined. However, it is usually aged at least 10 years and is of very good quality.

If you’re still feeling stumped, ask for help. The sales associate at any reputable liquor store will be able to help you make a decision. If all else fails, ask the gift recipient what he or she likes the most — what you lose in the lack of surprise you’ll gain in thoughtfulness.

Pairing Cigars and Alcohol

Brandy, along with bourbon, is often paired with a good cigar on a chilly winter’s night— but those two aren’t the only options. Just as when you pair alcohol with food, the flavors of the cigar and alcohol play off each other, mingling to create an entirely delightful or a disappointing experience.

In general, the flavor profile of rum, whiskey, and brandy hold up best against a cigar, which leverages a strong dominance in terms of taste. Beer, wine, gin, and vodka just aren’t big enough bullies to compete for the attention of your taste buds. Wine is particularly tricky because pairing the two will cause changes in the acidity pH of your palate, leading to a distasteful experience. Beers are a little bit easier to work with; try pairing porter ale with your cigar, as a stout is too rich. In general, try to find cigars and alcohols from the same region, as they will likely have similar characteristics that make pairing a breeze—that’s why the pairing of a high-quality cigar and a glass of good rum makes perfect sense.

The Sidecar

Did you buy a bottle of brandy for yourself? Use it to create the classic cocktail, the Sidecar, invented in Paris during World War I.

11⁄2 ounces Cognac or Armagnac
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce lemon juice

Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes, and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.