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Tippling Point | Brandy for Beginners: How not to get your drink mixed up

Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac! What’s the difference? Here is a guide to get your brandy right.

October 31, 2020 / 11:08 AM IST

Most probably some of you reading this have got them all mixed up - Brandy, Cognac, Armagnac! What difference do they have! Aren't they all distilled fruit wine destined to give you the usual euphoric kick, eh? You might be holding a bottle of Rémy Martin Louis XIII and wondering at the steep price that could turn all your savings into cinders.

(Google the word brandy, half of the results speak voluminously about a 90s female pop singer, songwriter, record producer, actress, and businesswoman, Brandy Rayana Norwood. But we are here for the exciting other half, right)?

Brandy, distilled from fermented fruit juice and derived from the Dutch word, Brandywine (burnt wine), has been nourishing mankind for centuries. Even though it appears in various countries like South Africa, Armenia, New Zealand, in diverse constitutions and names, perhaps none has explored the possibilities of the dark spirit - economic as well as aesthetic -like the French.

Go to Southwest France to see how they make tiny Edens out of the hellish drink.

Cognac and Armagnac are two popular varieties of brandies named after, well, no surprise, two brandy-producing regions of Southwest France. Of which, Cognac is considered the superstar by its popularity.

Specifically created in the Cognac region (if it is not, sorry, you're duped, what you are drinking is not Cognac) in France, the spirit earns its lifeblood from white grapes, especially a variety named 'ugni blanc.' Two rounds of distillation along with the inclusion of additives like boise (wood chips boiled in water), sugar and caramel (for colour) in the spirit are part of Cognac tradition. Big Cognac houses use additives to harmonize and perfect a consistent flavour profile in their spirits.

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When you read the literature on a Cognac bottle keep an eye out for these letters: - VS (Very Special aged for at least two years), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale, aged for at least four years) and XO (Extra Old) that has aged 6 years or more.

So who are the leading players out there?

Hennessey is the most popular. The 255-year old company founded by an Irish entrepreneur Richard Hennessy, today controls half of the world's Cognac production.

Thanks to the long chatter with the wood Hennessey brandy aged in French oak barrels has a sweet nutty taste. Your mouth will also tease apart notes of vanilla, fruits and spices.

For around 50 to 60 dollars, you get a bottle of Hennessy VS, but if you seek the ultimate go for the giant killer - a 250-year old bottle named after its founder, Richard Hennessy. But be warned. Even if the delicate taste of oak, tender fruits, and a bouquet of spice won't blow you away, the price definitely will. A bottle makes you dimmer by 5000 dollars!

Remy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier are some of the other popular Cognac brands out there. So what the hell is then Armagnac!

The ties between Armagnac and Cognac

Armagnac is considered as a poor cousin to Cognac, curse the lukewarm branding the former got. Again named after the region from where it is produced, Armagnac undergoes a single distillation against the double in the case of Cognac, to emerge as a drink with arguably more richness and depth than the other. So what are the major brands?

Visit Chateau du Busca, the oldest distillery in Gascony, which today is considered a French historical monument. Since the mid-17th century, the chateau has been making Armagnac from Ugni Blanc grapes grown in limestone and clay soils around Tenareze. If you are keen to taste one of the best in the world of Armagnac you need have to go any further than its Chateau du Busca 15-year-old Hors d’âge.

Laberdolive Domaine de Jaurrey Vintage Bas Armagnac with a 100-year-old history and Marquis de Montesquiou Vintage Bas Armagnac are some of the other stops that might not disappoint you.

Don't assume varieties of brandy end with just Cognac and Armagnac. All over the world brandy is made with curious names, exotic fruits, and unique methods. For example, go for Calvados if you want to know what yeast does with apple. Italy seeks a sunny and heady spirit from grapes to create a wonder named Grappa. Or you may try out Pisco, Peruvian brandy made from white grape juice.

Brandy is an endless journey with an infinite number of stops. Bon Voyage!

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog —- A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalis. The views expressed here are personal.)

Manu Remakant
first published: Oct 31, 2020 11:08 am