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!