What exactly is brandy?

And how is it different from, say, whiskey? Reader Jimmy, thanks for a delightful question. We here in the States drink precious little brandy and a result a lot of us wonder exactly what it is and what relationship it bears to other mysterious Continental spirits like cognac.

The word brandy — and I love this — is actually taken from a Dutch term that means “burning”. It’s nothing more than wine that’s been distilled into something quite a bit stronger. Wine is about 12% alcohol when it’s made. Distilled into brandy it can be up to 60% alcohol (120 proof), and that’s where the burning part comes in.

Looked at this way, brandy is indeed a lot like whiskey or any other distilled spirit. It starts out as a fairly weak alcohol solution. Heat is applied to it to cause the alcohol to evaporate and that alcohol vapor passes through a long tube where it cools, re-condenses into a liquid and drips into another container where it’s collected. (And shortly afterward consumed). Most of what isn’t alcohol is left behind in the original container.

Notice I said “most”. Because the alcohol molecules don’t leave the surface of the hot wine all by themselves. They take with them odd molecules of water, essential oils and other flavor-giving compounds, the result being that the refined liquor retains a distinct flavor of the fermented fruit juice from whence it came.

As you’re no doubt beginning to infer from my description, distilled spirits differ from one another primary in their source material. Brandy comes from wine. Whiskey comes from a mash, basically a fermented grain beer. Rum, from something very similar that’s made from sugar cane. Europe is known for brandy, and it’s no coincidence that wine grapes grow well there. Scotland and America, where grain thrives, make a lot of whiskey. Sugar cane likes the climate in the Caribbean, and that’s where rum is from.

Cool, no? Oh and if you’re wondering what cognac is, it’s a type of brandy named for a town in Western France. Hope that answers your question, Jimmy!

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13 Responses to What exactly is brandy?

  1. naomi says:

    I realize we’re called the most northern tip of the Caribbean, but New Orleans Rum is pretty good too (along with the other spirit makers which have appeared in the last two years).

    • joepastry says:

      Micro-distilling is all the rage these days so that makes perfect sense!

      Thanks, Naomi!

      - Joe

  2. Nokanen says:

    Nicely distilled information, Joe!

    If your into languages, you might enjoy the fact that the word for burning is pretty much the same in most germanic languages, f.ex. “brand” in German and Dutch, “bran” in Norwegian, “bränna” in Swedish and so on.

    The Swedish word for booze ie. distilled alcohol is “brännvin”, literally translated “burnwine”.

    • joepastry says:

      That pun hurt me, Nokannen!

      But thank you and terrific information!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  3. Jey says:

    I’ve lived in Wisconsin where brandy is pretty popular (apparently WI is responsible for 90% of brandy consumption on the world!).

    Didn’t know that it was distilled from wine! Must be why I like it so much! Thanks for enlightening read. :) now I think I’ll go have myself a brandy old fashioned.

    • joepastry says:

      In the WORLD? Are you sure? That would be truly amazing.

      But thanks very much and I wish I could join you, even though it’s only 10:00 in the morning.

      Bottoms up!

      - Joe

      • Jey says:

        Ah, I just looked it up, and I guess it’s a fake fact! Hah! Serves me right for trying to post from my phone without verifying. But it seems like a very popular fake fact. lol

        I guess it’s more like 15-20% in the US, so not quite as high.

        • joepastry says:

          That’s still mighty impressive, Jey. 15-20% of the brandy market is still a huge number. I wonder how Wisconsinites got to be such big brandy fans? Thanks for the great info!

          - Joe

  4. Melody says:

    I know i’m a bit late to this one but this is great information Joe!!! Being West Indian, I have mostly been exposed to rum & beer. Brandy & Whisky are ‘special stuff’ special people drink. Than being said, most every home that has a grandmother has a bottle of home made fruit wine. Now you got me wondering how i can make my own brandy..hmmmmm. :)

    Thanks for the info.

    Melody

  5. Tereza says:

    When I read that we in the US consume “precious little brandy” I thought, ” that CAN’T be right! Every one I know drinks brandy!” But then, I live in Wisconsin.

    • joepastry says:

      I’m going to have to research that, Tereza, because now I’m curious!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  6. Devon says:

    It should be noted that brandies are not distilled solely from grapes. Fruit brandies abound, such as Calvados, rakia, and slivovitz.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Devon!

      Yes it is indeed made from other fruit wines, good point. I had some homemade plum brandy in Hungary once that would curl your hair. Burning indeed!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

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