The following article first appeared in the Coloradoan newspaper, which kindly asked me to write a column on the spirit of my choice.
Brandy is the brown-eyed beauty of distilled spirits — the one from whom you can never quite get away, despite her flawed and fugitive nature.
What I like most about brandy is what I like most about people: the almost inexhaustible versatility.
The Dutch didn’t invent brandy, but the name comes from a Dutch word: brandewijn — or brandywine — which means “burnt wine.”
Most (though not all) of the world’s brandy comes from wine. And yet it’s significant to note that brandy can be made from any macerated fruit or fruits — apples, for instance, or pears, or apricots, or cherries, and many other things as well.
It’s not precisely known when in human history people discovered that we can convert food into alcohol through the process of fermentation. It is ancient. A strong argument can be made that the first distilled spirits were horse-milk brandies, whose alcohol was separated not through heat distillation but through cold distillation — which is to say, by freezing water out of the fermented horse milk during those long Mongolian winters.
Brandy, understand, is the genus under which many, many species are subsumed.
The French call fruit-based brandies eaux-de-vie (pronounced: oh-du-VEE), which means “waters of life” (as, incidentally, do the words “whisky” and “aquavit” and “vodka”).
Most brandy, like whiskey, is aged in barrels, the wood from which imparts a great deal of character and color and flavor to the brandy. You are perhaps familiar with the terms V.S. (for Very Special) and V.S.O.P. (Very Special On Pale) and X.O (for Extra Old). These are labeling terms that refer to the length of time the brandies have been aged.
Distilling brandy is a bastard art, very seductive to some, but make no mistake: she can break your heart.