The iconic image of the St. Bernard rescue dog, with a miniature cask of brandy fastened to its collar, is more a case of artistic license than a liquor license. In the 1820 painting by seventeen-year-old English artist Edwin Landseer, titled “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,” two barrel-carrying dogs are depicted assisting a snowbound traveler. According to the artist, the barrels contain brandy. However, according to the monks who maintained the hospice erected in 1049 by Bernard of Menthon (canonized as “St. Bernard” in 1681 and declared “Patron Saint of the Alps” in 1923) atop the ruins of a Roman temple to Jupiter situated in what is now called the St. Bernard Pass, near the border between Italy and Switzerland, the breed of dog they are credited with developing in the early 19th century and that has been called the St. Bernard since 1880 never carried barrels of brandy (or any other liquor, for that matter) attached to their collars during their guide-and-rescue missions. So it seems the monks saved lives and spirits, since later scientific research would prove that administering alcoholic beverages to freezing victims is unwise, as alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, rushing blood to the skin and away from vital organs, resulting in a rapid decrease in overall body temperature. And that is not a good thing in cold weather! But even without the lure of legend, brandy remains one of the celebrated spirits in the world.
The historical record suggests that ancient Egyptians and Babylonians produced perfumes and aromatics using some form of distillation. While it is known that the Greeks were conducting chemical distillations by the 1st century C.E., those distillations did not involve alcohol. The medieval Arabs adopted distillation techniques from the Greeks, as evidenced by their writings dating back to the 9th century (with other evidence reaching back to the 8th century), but there is no evidence that the technology was applied to the distillation of alcoholic beverages. The earliest evidence of distillation in the Latin world dates to the 12th century, with the technology passing from the Arabs. However, by the 13th century, alcohol was being distilled from wine in Italy, with one of the earliest descriptions of the technique derived from the writings of Ramon Llull (1232-1315), the Majorcan writer and philosopher. From Italy, the practice of distilling alcoholic beverages spread to medieval monasteries, primarily for medicinal purposes. Since alcohol was first distilled from wine, brandy holds the distinction of being the oldest of the distilled liquors.
Brandy is a spirit made by distilling grape wine. It is distinguished from eaux-de-vie, which are distilled from pomace (see “Grappa” below), the mash of fruits including grapes, or from wine made from any fruit other than grapes. Eaux-de-vie made from non-grape wines are referred to as “fruit brandies.” Some brandies are aged in wooden casks, deriving color and flavor from them. Other brandies are colored, and some are both aged and colored.
Traditionally, brandy is consumed neat from a brandy snifter as an after-dinner drink. Cognac and Armagnac, both from southern France, are among the best-known brandies (see “Cognac” below).
The history of brandy is directly linked to the history of distillation. While there is evidence of brandy production dating back to antiquity, it was not until the 15th century, with advancements in distillation, that brandy began to be produced on a significant scale. A 1728 edition of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopædia describes a method for distilling wine into brandy. Initially, wine was distilled for preservation purposes and for ease of transport (the water removed during distillation would be replenished at the shipping destination, shortly before consumption). Distillation also had fiscal implications, as taxes were assessed by volume, leading to heavier taxation of wine compared to brandy, its “condensed” counterpart.
Great wine cultures tend to be great brandy cultures as well. The renowned wine-making regions of Western Europe (France and Spain) and Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Georgia) are known for producing excellent brandies.
ACE Brandy Spirits Distillation Equipment
Cognac is a type of brandy produced by distilling wine. To be legally labeled as “Cognac,” it must be made in the wine-growing region surrounding the French town of Cognac in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. It must be made from certain grapes, primarily “ugni blanc” (known locally as “Saint-Emilion” and as “Trebbiano” in Italy), Folle blanche, and Colombard. It must be twice-distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin and Tronçais (many cognacs are aged longer than the two-year minimum requirement).
After the grapes are pressed, the juice is left to ferment for two to three weeks. During this time, the region’s native wild yeasts convert the natural sugars in the grape juice into alcohol, resulting in a liquid with an alcohol content of about 7 to 8% by volume.
The white wine used to produce cognac is very dry, thin, and acidic. These qualities, while not ideal for drinking, are excellent for distilling and aging into Cognac.
Distillation typically results in a liquid with an alcohol content of around 70% by volume. The distilled liquid is then placed into oak casks, where it reacts with the barrel and ambient conditions, evaporating at a rate of about 3% per year. Because alcohol dissipates faster than water, the alcohol content drops to approximately 40% over time. The liquid is then transferred to glass containers called bonbonnes, where it is stored for subsequent blending.
Cognac is graded as: V.S. (“Very Special”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least two years in oak; V.S.O.P. (“Very Special Old Pale”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least four years in oak, though the average age is likely to be much older; and X.O. (“Extra Old”), which designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been aged for at least six years, but with an average age likely to be beyond 20 years.