We’re Crushing on Brandy — Here’s What You Need to Know About the Flavorful Liquor

published Sep 27, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Closeup Glass with Alcohol in Cocktail Bar
Credit: Mpak ART studio

When you hear the word brandy, as it relates to liquor and various distilled spirits, you’re likely reminded of its vibrant maple syrup-like hue and the fact that it’s a traditional ingredient in sangria. You may have even enjoyed it once or twice as an after-dinner digestif while in France or Spain. Let’s dive into what it is, how it’s made, and how to enjoy it. 

Quick Overview

What Is Brandy?

Brandy is a liquor made from fermented fruit or distilled wine. Brandy is typically aged in oak barrels and often has subtle notes of vanilla, cinnamon, caramel, and maple.

What Is Brandy and What Does It Taste Like?

Brandy is a spirit produced from distilled wine or fermented fruits, most commonly grapes, although there are varieties made from apples, pears, raspberries, and strawberries. The taste of brandy varies widely depending on what fruit it is made from, how long it has been aged, and its ABV. In general, though, many people often describe brandy as having notes of vanilla, cinnamon, maple, anise, licorice, and orange. 

While many French brandies, such Cognac and Armagnac, are commonly consumed as digestifs, other types of brandy, such as those produced in California, are commonly used like other liquors and spirits in the United States. In other words, it’s common for brandy to be used to make mixed drinks and cocktails such as a Brandy Alexander, Brandy Old Fashioned, and a Brandy Manhattan. 

Brandy is largely made in countries where wine production is popular, including France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as wine-centric regions of the U.S. such as Napa Valley and Modesto, California. The color of brandy varies depending on its stage in the aging process as well as any additives it may include, although it often comes in pale green, light brown, golden, and amber shades. 

A Brief History of Brandy

Just like with any popular liquor or spirit, brandy has a rich background, which encompasses various states and countries and decades of libation-related history. It is believed that the creation of commercial brandy for recreation dates back to the 16th century, according to Brittanica

Brandy in general, however, was first produced in the early 1300s in France, according to the Scientific American. At this time, brandy was used for medicinal purposes and developed the name l’eau de vie, which is French for “water of life.”

Many believe the word “brandy” derives from the Dutch word brandewijn, which means “burnt wine.” This is understood as a reference to the distillation process. Brandy is made from distilled wine or fermented fruits, such as grapes, although there are varieties made from other fruits like apples and pears. Calvados, for example, is a popular apple brandy produced in the Calvados region of France.

Today, much of the world’s best brandy varieties are from France, such as Cognac and Armagnac, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Spain and Portugal. Additionally, a considerable amount of brandy production in the U.S. is produced in the vast wine country of California’s Bay Area. In fact, brands such as Germain-Robin and Argonaut, which function under distributor E. & J. Gallo Winery, have produced California brandy for decades.

What Is the Difference Between Brandy and Cognac?

Many people often use the terms brandy and Cognac interchangeably, although they refer to different things. 

  • Brandy is a spirit made from distilled wines and fermented fruit.
  • Cognac is an extremely popular variety of brandy that comes from the Cognac region of France and is made particularly with  grapes.

Due to Cognac’s widespread visibility and popularity, it’s often thought of as synonymous with brandy. Brandy can be made from several different fruits and in many different regions, whereas Cognac must be made with a specific type of grape from the Cognac region.

This phenomenon is similar to how many people outside of France often think of Champagne as an umbrella term for all types of sparkling wine, when it really only refers to sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region. This is largely due to the fact that France in particular has a very long history of wine and spirit production.

Is Brandy a Liquor or a Wine?

Brandy is a liquor produced from various fermented fruits or distilled wine, although the finished product itself is not considered wine. Certain types of wine, however, particularly fortified wines like sherry, vermouth, and madeira, typically have brandy added to them. A fortified wine is any wine that has a fruit-based (typically grape) brandy added to it.

How Do You Drink Brandy?

Because brandy is considered a digestif, it’s commonly consumed after dinner to help facilitate and help with digestion. In this case, brandy is usually enjoyed by itself (known as drinking it “neat”) in a traditional brandy glass known as a snifter. 

Cognac is particularly great for drinking neat. Other types of brandy, such as California brandy, are great served neat or as part of a mixed drink, such as an Old Fashioned, Brandy Sour, Brandy Manhattan, Vieux Carre, Brandy Alexander.