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Brandy’s Influence Runs Deep

Cognac, Armagnac, applejack, schnapps—in whichever form brandy is found, these spirits made from fruit have no parallel in the glass. While whisk(e)y, tequila, and rum get lots of love these days (deservedly so) from cocktail lovers and spirits drinkers, brandy is evolving and emerging on its own terms, slowly building a fan base to take this timeless spirit into the future. We’re taking a closer look at today’s world of brandy.

Brandy Essentials

To create aged grape brandies with good complexity, myriad variables come into play. Here are a few to consider.


Cognac rules allow the use of six varietals. But by far the most prevalent is Ugni Blanc. This late-maturing variety that produces wines with high acidity and low alcohol makes up around 98 percent of all the region’s plantings. (Colombard and Folle Blanche are a distant second and third.) 

In Armagnac, 10 varietals are allowed. Ugni Blanc weighs in closer to 55 percent of the plantings. And Baco is the first runner-up, with its earthy character well-suited for long aging. The fragile-yet-floral Folle Blanche has long been an essential Armagnac grape, and Colombard is sometimes used for its spicy character. 

Almost all Brandy de Jerez is made from the Airén varietal grown in the La Mancha region in central Spain. And in California, the options are wide open. Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Zinfandel all find their way into various brandies and blends. 


When talking about brandy terroir, it’s essential to consider the two growing regions delineated under French law: Cognac and Armagnac.

The Cognac region’s vineyards cover around 195,000 acres, split into six growing areas, or crus, with soil types ranging from chalky to clay, flint, and sand. Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne are both predominately chalky, producing brandies that are typically more floral and slow-aging. Borderies has more of a mix of soils, known for eaux de vie redolent of violets and irises. Fins Bois, the largest cru, offers intense touches of fruit and flowers. And Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (the latter bordering the Atlantic Ocean) have sandy soils and make fast-maturing brandies with a fruity expressiveness.

In Gascony, Armagnac has milder maritime influences from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. And the terroir offers an intriguing mix. Bas-Armagnac, the primary department for production, has sandy soils with touches of clay and iron-rich pockets, known for delicate and fruity spirits. The mix of clay and limestone found in Armagnac-Ténarèze helps contribute to the region’s powerful, full-bodied eaux de vie. And Haut-Armagnac—the easternmost department, responsible for a tiny fraction of Armagnac production—is known for its mix of clay and limestone soil types. 


As with bourbon or Scotch whisky, most brandy is aged in oak. But which kind? American brandies like Copper & Kings and Argonaut utilize former bourbon barrels (sometimes in combination with barrels of French oak). Meanwhile, Spanish producers must use barrels that formerly held sherry as part of the Brandy de Jerez solera system. French law mandates the use of oak barrels for aging Cognac and Armagnac.

Raise Them Right

It’s not by accident that the French term for preparing a brandy for the world also translates to “raising” or “nurturing.” While the term is also used in winemaking, élevage in brandy is a very distinct and complicated process and has marked differences from the ways spirits such as whiskies are matured. And note: Distillers around the world follow different procedures and traditions. (For example, Spanish producers use a solera system similar to that used by sherry.) The examples given here are common to French producers. They may be borrowed by other producers in whole or in part.

Like whisky, most brandy is placed into an oak barrel after distillation (some of it straight from the still, but some are first blended with other eau de vie before heading for the oak). However élevage is a dynamic process, with spirits being regularly evaluated for progress, and handled according to the blender’s wishes. A particular eau de vie may start off its maturation in a new barrel, which can impart more wood character. It will then be evaluated a year (or two, or three) later, blended into a coupe with other spirits the blender deems similar, and shifted to older barrels. 

And where are these barrels kept? “Dry” cellars (the most prominent type) have low humidity, which over time—given the different rates of evaporation for alcohol and water—results in spirits with a higher ABV, a sharper texture, and more wood-influenced flavors. “Wet” cellars have higher humidity, producing spirits lower in ABV but with smoother, richer, fruit-forward character. 

Ultimately, the blender deems a particular barrel or coupe as ready to enter the world. And this is where the artistry of blending comes in. Dozens or scores of different eaux de vie may find their way into a final blend, sometimes accented with touches of bonificateur (a common, though secretive, practice) before bottling.

Check out the March/April 2022 issue for more about the world of brandy.

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