The name brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning "burnt wine." The name is apt as most brandies are made by applying heat, originally from open flames, to wine. The heat drives out and concentrates the alcohol naturally present in the wine. Because alcohol has a lower boiling point (172°F, 78°C) than water (212'F, 100°C), it can be boiled off while the water portion of the wine remains in the still. Heating a liquid to separate components with different boiling points is called heat distillation. While brandies are usually made from wine or other fermented fruit juices, it can be distilled from any liquid that contains sugar. All that is required is that the liquid be allowed to ferment and that the resulting mildly-alcoholic product not be heated past the boiling point of water. The low-boiling point liquids distilled from wine include almost all of the alcohol, a small amount of water, and many of the wine's organic chemicals. It is these chemicals that give brandy its taste and aroma.
Almost every people have their own national brandy, many of which are not made from wine: grappa in Italy is made from grape skins, slivivitz in Poland is made from plums, shochu in Japan is made from rice, and bourbon in the United States is made from corn. Beer brandy is better known as Scotch whiskey. It is universally acknowledged that the finest brandies are the French cognacs that are distilled from wine.
Brandies are easy to manufacture. A fermented liquid is boiled at a temperature between the boiling point of ethyl alcohol and the boiling point of water. The resulting vapors are collected and cooled. The cooled vapors contain most of the alcohol from the original liquid along with some of its water. To drive out more of the water, always saving the alcohol, the distillation process can be repeated several times depending on the alcohol content desired. This process is used to produce both fine and mass-produced brandy, though the final products are dramatically different.
It is unknown when people discovered that food could be converted to alcohol through fermentation. It appears that the discovery of fermentation occurred simultaneously with the rise of the first civilizations, which may not be a coincidence. At about the same time that people in Europe discovered that apple and grape juice—both containing fructose—would ferment into hard cider and wine, people in the Middle East discovered that grains—which contain maltose—would naturally ferment into beer, and people in Asia discovered that horse milk—containing lactose—would naturally ferment into airag. The first distilled liquor may in fact have been horse milk brandy, with the alcohol separated from fermented horses' milk by freezing out the water during the harsh Mongolian winter.
It is also not known when it was discovered that the alcohol in fermented liquids could be concentrated by heat distillation. Distilled spirits were made in India as long ago as 800 B.C. The Arabic scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as Geber in the West, described distillation in detail in the eighth century. Regardless of its origin, alcohol was immensely important in the ancient world. In Latin, brandy is known as aqua vitae, which translates as "water of life." The French still refer to brandy as eau de vie meaning exactly the same thing. The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic phrase uisge beatha also meaning water of life. People in the Middle Ages attributed magical, medicinal properties to distilled spirits, recommending it as a cure for almost every health problem.
The raw materials used in brandy production are liquids that contain any form of sugar. French brandies are made from the wine of the St. Émillion, Colombard (or Folle Blanche) grapes. However, anything that will ferment can be distilled and turned into a brandy. Grapes, apples, blackberries, sugar cane, honey, milk, rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, and rye are all commonly fermented and distilled. In a time of shortage, desperate people will substitute anything to have access to alcohol. During World War II, people in London made wine out of cabbage leaves and carrot peels, which they subsequently distilled to produce what must have been a truly vile form of brandy.
Heat, used to warm the stills, is the other main raw material required for brandy production. In France, the stills are usually heated with natural gas. During the Middle Ages it would have required about 20 ft 4 of wood (0.6 m 4 ) to produce 25 gal (100 l) of brandy.
The fine brandy maker's objective is to capture the alcohol and agreeable aromas of the underlying fruit, and leave all of the off-tastes and bitter chemicals behind in the waste water. Making fine brandy is an art that balances the requirement to remove the undesirable flavors with the necessity of preserving the character of the underlying fruit. Mass-produced brandies can be made out of anything as the intent of the people is to remove all of the flavors, both good or bad, and produce nothing but alcohol—taste is added later. Fine brandies are required to retain the concentrated flavor of the underlying fruit.
The Eighteenth Amendment made it a crime to make, sell, transport, import, or export liquor. It is the only amendment to be repealed by another (the Twenty-first). The Prohibition era (1920-1933) had been a long time in coming. From the mid-nineteenth century through the beginning of World War I, a growing movement demanded a prohibition on alcohol. When members of Congress finally bowed to pressure from prohibition supporters and passed a constitutional amendment, many did so under the belief that it would not be endorsed by the states. In fact, a clause was added to make it more likely not be sanctioned: if three-quarters of the states did not ratify the amendment before seven years had expired, it would be deemed inoperative.
The amendment was passed by Congress in December 1917 and ratified by three-quarters of the states by January 1919. The popularity of the amendment disappeared soon after it was put into effect. The Volstead Act of 1919 banned beer and wine, something few people had anticipated, and in the minds of many Prohibition became a mistake. Crime rose as gangsters took advantage of the ban on alcohol by making huge profits in bootlegging and smuggling. When Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for president in 1932, he called for the repeal of Prohibition. His opponent, President Herbert Hoover, called it "an experiment noble in motive." Roosevelt won the election and his Democratic party won control of the government. Within months the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed.
The quality control process for fine brandies involves trained tasters with years of experience sampling brandy. A large cognac house might have 10,000 barrels of brandy in its cellars, each of which must be tasted annually. Hence, most of the brandy "tasting" involves only smelling, as tasting several hundred barrels of brandy in a day would result in alcohol poisoning. The tasters usually "taste" each of the barrels at least once a year to assess how it is aging and to evaluate it for its blending qualities. Brandies that pick up off-flavors during distillation are discarded.
As mass-produced brandies are manufactured to be odorless and tasteless, the only real quality control required is to check their alcohol content. Because alcohol is less dense than water, the alcohol content of brandy can be checked with a hydrometer. A hydrometer is a glass float with a rod sticking out the top of it. The rod is calibrated so that a line on the rod will be exactly at the liquid surface if the hydrometer is floating in water. As alcohol is less dense than water, the hydrometer will sink deeper in alcohol than it will in water. By calibrating the rod scale with different blends of known alcohol content, it can be used to determine the percentage of alcohol in a water/alcohol mixture.
The waste products from brandy production include the solids from the wine production and the liquids left over from the still. The solids from brandy production can be used for animal feed or be composted. The liquid wastes are usually allowed to evaporate in shallow ponds. This allows the residual alcohol in the waste to go into the atmosphere, but the United States Environmental Protection Agency does not consider this to be a major pollutant source.
For the foreseeable future, the vast bulk of all the brandies will be produced in column stills. However, there is an increasing interest in luxury goods throughout the world. Not just fine brandies, but Calvados (fine apple brandy) and slivovitz (fine plum brandy) are getting increasing amounts of attention from collectors and ordinary citizens.
Faith, Nicholas. Cognac. Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 1987.
Harper, William. Origins and Rise of the British Distillery. Lewiston, U.K.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
Kummer, Corby. "Don't Call It Cognac." Atlantic Magazine (December 1995).
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Emission Factor Documentation for AP-42, Section 9.12.2, Wines and Brandy. (October 1995).