By Ron Fisher
Brandy has an image problem. When you think of brandy, you see an older gentleman sitting in a paneled library after dinner sipping from a snifter. When you think of whiskey, on the other hand, you picture a cowboy walking into a saloon, grabbing a shot, throwing it back in one gulp and saying, “Thanks, I needed that.” Given a choice, most of us would rather be the cowboy, and therein lies the problem with brandy.
The brandy folks could really use a lesson in marketing, because it is much more than an after-dinner drink. While it is well-known in several drinks already – the Sidecar, which we will delve into later, and the Brandy Alexander, a hangover-in-waiting which we will avoid — brandy is a seldom-used yet very versatile spirit, and you can substitute it for other liquors in almost any cocktail: for rye in a Manhattan, for bourbon in an Old Fashioned, or for gin in a French 75.
But first, let’s clear up some of the confusion surrounding this liquor. Brandy is any spirit distilled from fruit, rather than from grains (whiskies) or sugar (rums). A good way to think of brandy is: liquor made from grapes. Cognac is by far the best known and can only come from the Cognac region of southeastern France. Armagnac is another brandy from France, while grappa comes from Italy, and pisco from Peru. California produces brandy, as well.
One would think that the French invented brandy, but it was actually clever Dutch traders in the 16th century who had the idea of boiling out the water from wine (distilling) to make shipping easier, with the intention of adding the water back at the destination. That process didn’t work, but the flavor imparted by the wooden casks it was transported in turned out to be pretty good by itself, and the Dutch gave the product the name <brandewijn>, or ‘burnt wine.’
To be thorough, brandy does not have to start with grapes. There is brandy from apples (calvados, applejack), cherries (kirsch), and plums (slivovitz). Schnapps from Germany is a brandy, but schnapps made in the U.S. is not – it is a cordial or a liqueur – sweetened, flavored hard liquor. Just so you know.
Which brandy to buy can be tough to figure out, and here brandy makers do themselves a disservice. As with many other spirits, brandy requires aging (in wood) to bring out the qualities and mellow the flavor, but rather than just tell you how old it is, the Cognac and Armagnac labels use a series of letters to spell it out. The most common are: VS – Very Special, or sometimes “three star”, minimum two years old; VO – Very Old, minimum four years; VSOP – Very Special Old Pale, sometimes “five star”, five to six years; and, XO – Extra Old, eight to ten years. Brandy makers use a few other codes, but these four will get you through the maze.
Our purposes are to use brandy in cocktails, so buying too good a bottle would be a misallocation of resources. A decent variety from California, or a VS or VO from France, can be had for around $20, and will work quite well in a cocktail. If you want to do double-duty – have a brandy that can be mixed or consumed straight – you can find a VSOP in the low $20s. You can venture up from there (Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier), but save that one for your paneled library. In a well-stoppered bottle, brandy keeps indefinitely.
The Sidecar is one of my favorite drinks – it is easy to make and it never disappoints. A typical reaction to the first sip is a quizzical look, a smile, and a “Wow, that’s good!” The Sidecar’s provenance is World War I Paris, and this basic sour cocktail uses four ingredients: brandy, lemon juice, Cointreau, and a sweetener. The combination of the brandy and the orange liqueur give it a very mellow flavor, which is offset by the sharpness of the lemon juice.
2 oz. brandy
1 oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. Cointreau/Curaçao
Simple syrup/agave nectar to taste
Put all the liquids in a shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange peel.