DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON said that "he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy." Dr. Johnson was talking about brandy's inebriating effect, not its taste. If he made the remark today, there are many who would think Dr. Johnson was talking about price, assuming that he was referring, as he undoubtedly was, to cognac, the king of brandies.
All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac. Cognac, located near the west coast of Europe, produces the best brandies in the world. The combination of grape, soil, the pot distllation process and the storage in French oak casks produces a superior product. Understandably, cognac has also produced a superior price, often upwards of $20 a bottle.
But almost every country that produces wine produces brandy, so there are many less expensive and worthwhile alternatives to cognac. The Post explored them in a tasting of 14 brandies. All the brandies were made from grapes. There are, in addition, brandies made from apples, plums, cherries, pears and so on.
Interestingly, high-quality brandy does not require high-quality wine. The best cognacs, for example, are made from thin and highly acidic wines.
To make brandy the wine is distlled, much like whiskey. It takes up to 10 casks of wine to make a cask of brandy. After distillation, the brandy is stored in wooden casks. It is the quality of the wood (in Cognac it is French Limousin oak) as much as anything that imparts flavor to the brandy.
In Cognac and the rest of France the number of stars and terms such as V.S.O.P. reflect by law a specified amount of aging in the wooden casks. For example, V.S.O.P. brandies must be at least five years old. Some other countries, but not all, regulate designation on the bottle. Brandies are essentially blends and there are no vintage designations.
Brandy does not develop once it has been bottled. But, it does not deteriorate either, at least until the bottle is opened. Then it deteriorates very slowly, much more slowly than wine.
In The Post tasting, most of the panel were experienced cognac and brandy drinkers. A 20-point-maximum scoring system was used. It was based on the frequently used University of California (Davis) system, but it was modified to account for the consumption of brandy rather than table wine. The brandies were tasted blind -- only coded small carafes were put on the table. The comments are from different tasters, which accounts for a certain lack of consistency.
In any tasting there is a difference of agreement on the quality of any tasted item, but sometimes the disagreement is unusually great. That was the case, most of all, with the Courvoisier V.S. cognac, which many people placed at or near the top, others at or near the bottom. One person who gave it a low score did so, he said, because it was atypical of the group. Other controversial brandies were the Bardinet and the F&J. Even if their scores may not be among the highest in average, they had some strong supporters. Wines which scored consistently were generally near the top of the list -- Asbach Uralt, Stock V.S.O.P. and Fundador.
While Asbach Uralt came out first by a comfortable margin, Raynal and Stock were considered best buys. After the tasting (but before the unveiling) the tasters were asked to guess which was the cognac. Only the Courvoisier and the Asbach Uralt were mentioned more than once.
The brandies were purchased at Calvert Liquor Shop, 2312 Wisconsin Ave., NW ("C" on the chart) and at Woodley Wine & Liquors, 3423 Connecticut Ave., NW ("W" on the chart). Each carried most of the brands, but when both did, the one with the lower price is indicated. Most of these brandies, however, are widely available at liquor stores throughout the area.