Words by Simon Difford
Brandy is distilled from fermented fruit (not grain). The name brandy comes from northern Europe, where ‘brand’ means to burn, and is a reference to the heat used in distillation. Most brandies are distilled from fermented grape juice (i.e. wine). However, they can also be distilled from other fruits - notably plums, apples and cherries. Most wine-making areas also produce brandy.
Some of the better known 'fruit brandies' are not strictly brandies at all. The sweet plum, peach, cherry and apricot brandies, for example, are made by steeping fruit in grape spirit and then sweetening. This means that they are technically liqueurs. Only if fruit is distilled during the production process can a fruit 'brandy' be formally categorised as a brandy.
Like other spirits, brandy is thought to have been originally drunk for its medicinal properties - and the folk belief in brandy as a cure-all is still around in the UK, where it is administered for shock or exposure in defiance of current medical thinking. The evidence suggests that stills were in use in Jerez as early as 900AD (thanks to the rule of the Arab Moors, who knew how to distil), while brandy was being made from wine and drunk socially in both Spain and Italy as early as the 13th century.
France, thought by many to be the home of brandy, thanks to cognac and armagnac, did not start distilling it until more than 100 years later. It is believed that the start of brandy production in France was partly due to Catherine de Medici of Italy, who married the King of France, bringing her taste for brandy to the French court.
To make brandy, the raw ingredients are fermented and the resulting 'wine' distilled. Most brandies apart from cognac and some Italian brandies tend to be distilled in continuous stills. These can be single-column stills, such as those used to make Armagnac, or multi-column stills offering speed and efficiency.
Fruit brandies are rarely aged, but a good grape brandy needs time to mature and develop its full flavour potential. Brandy emerges from the still colourless; years of ageing in wooden casks give the spirit a golden colour and mellow flavour (caramel is often added to further deepen the colour). Consistency in a brand's flavour is achieved by blending different batches together.