The term “brandy” originates from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine.” The name is fitting because most brandy is produced by heating wine (traditionally over an open flame). The heat causes the alcohol naturally present in the wine to evaporate and concentrate. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point (172°F, 78°C) than water (212°F, 100°C), it can be boiled off while the watery part of the wine remains in the still. This process of separating components with different boiling points through heating is called distillation. Although brandy is typically made from wine or other fermented fruit juices, it can be distilled from any liquid containing sugar. All that is required is to ferment the liquid, ensuring that the resulting product does not exceed the boiling point of water. The low-boiling liquid that is distilled from wine contains nearly all the alcohol along with a small amount of water and various organic compounds found in wine. It is these compounds that give brandy its distinct flavor and aroma.
Many types of brandy are not derived from wine: Italian grappa is made from grape skins, Polish Sliwitz is made from plums, Japanese shochu is made from rice, and American bourbon is made from corn. Brandy made from beer is more commonly known as Scotch whisky. As we all know, the finest brandy is French cognac, which is distilled from wine.
Brandy production is a relatively straightforward process. The fermenting liquid is heated to a temperature between the boiling points of ethanol and water. The resulting vapor is then collected and cooled. The cooled vapor contains most of the alcohol from the original liquid, along with some water. By repeating the distillation process multiple times, one can remove more water and preserve the alcohol, thereby achieving the desired alcohol content. This process is used to produce both high-quality and mass-produced brandy, although the final products differ significantly.
Brandy Distillation Equipment
The exact origins of the discovery that food can be converted into alcohol through fermentation are unknown. However, it is believed to have coincided with the rise of the first civilizations. In Europe, people discovered that apple and grape juice, both containing fructose, would ferment into hard cider and wine, respectively. In the Middle East, they found that grains, which contain maltose, would naturally ferment into beer. In Asia, they discovered that horse milk, containing lactose, would ferment into airag. The first distilled liquor may have been brandy made from fermented horse milk, with the alcohol separated from the frozen water during the harsh Mongolian winter.
The technique of concentrating alcohol through heat distillation was also discovered in ancient times. As early as 800 B.C., distilled spirits were produced in India. In the eighth century, the Arabic scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as Geber in the West, provided a detailed description of distillation. Alcohol held immense importance in the ancient world. In Latin, brandy is referred to as aqua vitae, meaning “water of life.” The French still refer to brandy as eau de vie, which has the same meaning. The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, also meaning “water of life.” During the Middle Ages, distilled spirits were believed to possess magical and medicinal properties, and were recommended as a cure for various ailments.
The raw materials used in brandy production are liquids that contain some form of sugar. French brandies are made from the wine of St. Émilion and Colombard (or Folle Blanche) grapes. However, any fermentable substance can be distilled to create brandy. Grapes, apples, blackberries, sugar cane, honey, milk, rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, and rye are commonly fermented and distilled. During times of scarcity, people have resorted to substituting any available ingredient to produce alcohol. In World War II, for example, people in London made wine from cabbage leaves and carrot peels, which they then distilled to create a rather unpleasant form of brandy.
Heat is another essential component of brandy production, as it is used to warm the stills. In France, natural gas is typically used for this purpose. During the Middle Ages, it would have required approximately 20 cubic feet (0.6 cubic meters) of wood to produce 25 gallons (100 liters) of brandy.
The Manufacturing Process
The goal of a skilled brandy maker is to capture the alcohol and pleasant aromas of the fruit being used, while leaving behind any unpleasant flavors and bitter compounds in the waste water. Making fine brandy requires striking a balance between removing undesirable flavors and preserving the character of the underlying fruit. Mass-produced brandies, on the other hand, can be made from anything since the objective is to remove all flavors, both good and bad, and produce a neutral alcohol—flavor is added later. Fine brandies are expected to retain the concentrated flavor of the fruit used in their production.
Demonstration Against Prohibition
The Eighteenth Amendment criminalized the making, selling, transporting, importing, and exporting of liquor. It is the only amendment to have been repealed by another amendment (the Twenty-first). The Prohibition era (1920-1933) had been a long time in the making. From the mid-nineteenth century until the start of World War I, there was a growing movement advocating for alcohol prohibition. When Congress finally succumbed to pressure from the supporters of prohibition and passed a constitutional amendment, many did so believing that it would not be ratified by the states. In fact, a clause was added to make it more likely to be rejected: if three-quarters of the states did not ratify the amendment within seven years, it would be considered null and void.
The amendment was passed by Congress in December 1917 and ratified by three-quarters of the states by January 1919. However, support for the amendment quickly waned once it went into effect. The Volstead Act of 1919 banned the production of beer and wine, which caught many people off guard, and public opinion turned against Prohibition. Crime rates increased as gangsters took advantage of the ban on alcohol, making huge profits through bootlegging and smuggling. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, he campaigned for the repeal of Prohibition. His opponent, President Herbert Hoover, referred to Prohibition as “an experiment driven by noble motives.” Roosevelt won the election, and his Democratic party gained control of the government. Within months, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.