To know brandy is to love brandy

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 6:29 PM

Class, today we're going to start with a pop quiz. First question: What do cognac, pisco, Armagnac, Calvados, kirsch, poire Williams, slivovitz and eau de vie have in common?

Answer: All of those spirits are brandies.

Second question: In which of the following places can one make brandy: France, United States, Spain, Italy, Armenia, Chile, South Africa, Peru, Portugal, Greece, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova?

Answer: All of the above (as well as just about anywhere else in the world).

Third question: What is the worst kind of glass in the world to drink brandy from?

Answer: a brandy snifter. (Yep, it's true. Snifters concentrate the alcohol and cause a hot burn. Always use a tulip-shaped glass).

Raise your hand if you knew all three correct answers (before Googling, of course). If you didn't, don't feel too bad. I find that most people are confused and unsure of exactly what we're talking about when we talk about brandy.

That said, I think our general lack of brandy awareness here in the United States is a shame. Even though I've written about brandies many times - extolling the virtues of cognac, pisco, Calvados and others - I still don't see most drinkers gravitating toward brandy.

The sales pitch for brandy often quotes a famous line from Samuel Johnson: "Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy." Who doesn't want to be a hero, right? And too often, brandy is sold at prices that would make a hero faint. But brandy can run the gamut from cheap homemade firewater to centuries-old nectar auctioned off for five figures or bottled in designer crystal.

Perhaps a quick primer is in order. Brandy (derived from the Dutch brandewijn, or "burnt wine") is simply a spirit that is distilled from fermented fruit juice. That fermented fruit juice is most often wine - from which cognac and Armagnac are made in France, pisco in Peru and Chile, and brandy de Jerez in Spain.

But the fermented fruit juice also can come from apples (Calvados), cherries (kirsch), plums (slivovitz) or pears (poire Williams). Wherever there are vineyards, there is brandy. Wherever there are bountiful orchards, there is usually brandy. The differences, in most cases, boil down to differing local ingredients and the length of time the brandy spends aging.

Now, you might reasonably ask: What's with the schoolmarmish tone this week, Spirits dude? Well, I'm seeing two very interesting developments in the world of brandy, and I want to make sure everyone can follow along. Both developments might just make brandy more accessible to the average consumer.

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