"He Who Aspires To Be A Hero Must Drink Brandy":
The History of Brandy
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the history of one of his favorite spirits, Brandy. He will look at its origins involving the French and the Dutch, its production and growth in popularity around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its recent “rediscovery” by a new audience looking for an alternative to Scotch and Bourbon.
Find out more about the fascinating history of brandy, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
“HE WHO ASPIRES TO BE A HERO MUST DRINK BRANDY”:
THE HISTORY OF BRANDY
I went into a bar the other day, and I ordered the most expensive bottle of Cognac and I drank it all in one sitting.
Oh, wow. How was it?
Well, it was fantastic, but as I said to the barman, I shouldn’t have done that with what I had.
Why. What did you have?
A dollar fifty.
Hi everybody, I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about what is my absolute favorite of the “dark spirits.” That is, in case you were getting worried that I was getting a bit Harry Potter for a moment, the category of brown distilled spirits with that kind of caramel-y color that includes Rum, Scotch Whisky, Bourbon, and other American whiskies, as well as the subject of today’s episode.
It is a spirit that currently has a global market of over $66,000 million worldwide. And, yet, despite its ongoing popularity, it is also a spirit that I find has one of the most confusing reputations of any alcoholic beverage I can think off.
Many of the people with whom I discuss it might immediately dismiss it as a rather dated and stuffy post-dinner drink for old men with chronic gout. While others might only recognize it through the mention of some of its key brands in the lyrics of rap songs.
Ahem, as I believe an artist by the name of a Mr. Snoop Dogg put it in a song entitled, “Hennesey ‘N Buddah.”
“I pour a tall glass of Hennessy want some
Do you want to have a sip with me
Or would you rather try and trip with me trip with me.”
Now, aren’t you glad that I didn’t try to rap that quote? Me too.
And, some I am told really only know it through the appearance of rugged brandy smugglers as the protagonists in popular romance novels. Although I have to admit I did not spend time researching this.
And yet, this misunderstood spirit is also one that has an incredibly broad spectrum to offer the drinks enthusiast. Its offerings range from the famous classic spirits, distilled in the old-world wine producing countries such as Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and, of course, France. To new expressions made in countries such as Chile, Peru, Australia, and South Africa. As well as superb versions made in countries from where you might least expect them, such as Armenia, Israel, Mexico, and The Philippines.
And even here in the United States, where it is mostly produced in my home state of California.
The spirits under this banner can range from the deep, mahogany-colored wood aged spirits perfect to provide an after-dinner drink or nightcap at the end of a weary day, to those examples that are crystal clear and distilled from a wide variety of fruits and herbs or from the residual skins or “pomace” of wine grapes. They also form the key components of some of my favorite cocktails, such as “The Metropolitan,” “The Vieux Carré” or “The Vieux Carre,” and the original version of “The Sazerac.”
It’s also a spirit that I hope and believe is going to come right back into fashion in years to come in the same way as we have seen happen for Bourbon and Rum. So yes, folks, I’m sure that you all already know what it is that we are going to be talking about in this episode. That’s right.
Today’s Eat My Globe is all about the remarkable history of brandy.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
So, as always, why don’t we start off this episode with a definition of our subject?
Our friends at Merriam-Webster define brandy as,
“an alcoholic beverage distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice.”
This is a broad and slightly confusing definition but one which, as we shall see, gives us a wide range of topics to talk about in this episode. From the deep rich brandies distilled from wine, with which the word brandy is most usually associated, to clear brandies that are made from other fruit juices or the “pomace” – that is, residue – of juiced fruits.
The definition is, however, a useful starting off point for a story that will take us to almost every wine producing country in the world, including as I mentioned in the introduction, France, Portugal, Greece, Spain and even countries such as Armenia, as well as taking us around the globe to countries such as the Philippines, where brandy sells in huge quantities. For example, one brand, Emperador Brandy, which is based in the Philippines, claims to be the largest selling brandy brand in the world.
It’s also a story that will take in the United States where we will talk about not only, as I said, one of if not the oldest American distilled spirit, but also look at some of the best versions of the brandy being made anywhere in the world today.
And, as well as the United States, it’s also a story that will take us to countries such as Peru and Chile and Italy, as we look at all of the categories that come under that overall term, “brandy.”
So, now we have seen a dictionary definition of brandy, it’s probably worth looking briefly at how brandy is made.
Brandy is made by the distillation of the mash or wine of grapes. It is also made from other fruits, for example, from apples that go to produce Calvados – one of my favorites – from the area of the same name in the Normandy region of France, and Applejack produced here in the United States. Or plums, that are used to produce “Slivovitz,” a brandy that can be found across much of central and Eastern Europe.
You can also, as I said, get brandies that are made from distilling the residue such as the skins after wine making occurs, and these would result in brandies such as Grappa in Italy, and Marc in places like Burgundy. You will also find brandies in places like Peru and Chile, where they are called, “Pisco,” a drink that most people might know being used in the cocktail, “Pisco Sour,” but also has some versions that are aged and meant to be sipped as you might enjoy any other brandy.
Now, most brandies are produced at 80% Proof, and that equates to 40% ABV, which stands for alcohol by volume. That compares to an average for wine at somewhere around between 11% and 13.5% ABV, slightly more here in the US. And, an average of around 4.5% for beer, again slightly more here in the US.
And here’s a great one for those fans of Eat My Globe food facts that you can use to bore people with at dinner parties. In the earliest days of distilling spirits in Europe, there was no way of scientifically checking the alcohol content of the spirit. Instead, dealers would pour some of the spirit over a small amount of gunpowder that they would then set on fire. If the alcohol content was sufficient, the gunpowder would ignite when lit. That would show that it was “above proof.” In turn, giving us that term, “proof,” that we use today. Isn’t that a fun one? I love that fact.
And what about the etymology of that word, “brandy,” itself? It may be surprising to many that the origins of that word, brandy, does not have its origins in France, perhaps the country I think most people associate with brandy. In fact, the word, brandy, is derived from the 17th century Dutch word, “Brandewijn” – sorry my Dutch friends if that’s a horrible pronunciation, my Dutch isn’t terribly good – which literally meant “burnt wine” referring to the distilled nature of the product where the wine is literally cooked during the initial distilling process. This became anglicized to “Brandewine,” which later was truncated to the word brandy that we use today.
So what, you might be asking, do the Dutch have to do with brandy?
Now, if you are new to the podcast, you may not yet have listened to previous episodes on the history of two other fine spirits, gin and Scotch whisky. In those episodes, particularly the episode on gin, I discussed the long history of the art of distilling, from its first appearances in ancient times through its development in the Arab world to its arrival into Europe in the 11th century. If you really want to get more in depth about this history, I really recommend you go and listen to those episodes and then join us back here. We’ll be waiting for you, with a glass of brandy in hand.
The earliest known distilling that we have record of in Europe comes in the 12th century in Salerno, Italy. There, it was part of the experiments of alchemists – those who strove to turn base metal into gold. And, it is believed that it is similar alchemists who took the art into France and around Europe in the 13th century. However, it was not always welcomed and in the 14th century, when alchemy was declared heretical, so too were many of the things associated with it. In 1380, Charles V of France made it a crime to own distilling equipment, which was associated with alchemy.
However, people continued with their experiments and, by the end of the 15th century, we see the separation of distilling for alchemy and that for medicinal purposes, and we also begin to see the practice of distilling wine to make a spirit known as “Aqua Vitae.” It’s a term that literally meant, “Water of Life,” and referred to the benefits of drinking the distilled spirit as a medicine. We still see that connection today, with the word, “Whisky,” being derived from the Gaelic word, “Usquebaugh,” which meant the same, and the drinks known as “Eau de Vie,” which was the French expression for the same thing.
These first Aqua Vitae would have been, as I said, distilled for medicinal purposes. They were also known as “Burning Waters” or “Aqua Arden” perhaps because of the burning sensation of the distilled alcohol gave in the mouth when it was drunk.
At this time, the medical practices feature the theory of the four humors, promulgated by Greek physician Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE, and codified by Galen in the 1st CE. Part of this notion of the humors was to examine the impact of warmth and cold. The idea being that warmth and cold must be balanced. The notion of taking a warming medicine, particularly for those who lived in the colder countries in Northern Europe, was seen as beneficial. People began to take these Aqua Vitae or brandies as a general tonic, and even began the day with a good glug to get things moving. I think that’s a splendid idea.
However, the move of distilled drinks moving from being solely viewed as medicines to becoming a drink taken for pleasure was a slow process, and for a considerable period, distilling remained in the hands of the medical profession, be they the doctors or apothecaries. In 1506, the town of Colmar in Northeastern France, was already known to be licensing distillers and receiving taxes from them for their brandy sales. And in 1514, Louis XII of France granted the right to distill brandy or Eau de Vie to the Guild of Vinegar Makers and became the start of the period that we begin to see the process of distilling move into a more public domain.
It was not terribly long before people began to relish the side effects of drinking this “medicine” and they began drinking it whether it was for an illness or not. Rather too much so, it would appear. So much so that in 1493, a doctor in the city of Nuremburg wrote,
“In view of the fact that everyone at present has got into the habit of drinking aqua vitae, it is necessary to remember the quantity that one can permit oneself to drink and learn to drink it according to one’s capacities, if one wishes to behave like a gentleman.”
They obviously didn’t listen and, in 1497, the city fathers of Nuremburg prohibited the selling of Aqua Vitae on feast days because of people becoming too drunk. Arguably, the first case of drunk and disorderly on record, and definitely proof – if you will allow me the pun – that the love of distilled alcohol had begun in Europe. However, there were other numerous attempts to either ban or at least limit the amount of alcohol consumption for fear of its impact on people’s health.
A police ordinance in 1530 during the reign of the Holy Roman Empire noted that many crimes stemmed from drinking to one’s health.
“The abuse and mischief of pledging healths has increased everywhere, becoming more and more entrenched and extensive, leading to blasphemy, murder, manslaughter, adultery and other such misdeeds.”
So no cheers to your health, then.
Now, much of this concern came from the newly emerging Protestant church who were concerned not only for the damaging effect to one’s health of over-indulgence in strong spirits, but also to its spiritual impact. That is not to say that Protestants did not drink, but there was a very definite push towards personal reform and excess in alcohol, as in many other areas of life was frowned upon.
Ironically, however, the success of the Protestant church across Northern Europe, in particular, actually helped the spread of the popularity of alcohol, rather than hinder it. As Protestantism spread, it brought with it a move to dissolve the monasteries and the religious institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. This meant that many of the people who lived in such institutions were forced to leave and seek both housing and employment elsewhere. Quite a number of them were distillers, who were part of the monastic process of cultivating land and making products to raise funds. This included alcohol such as these spirits, wines and beer. And they began to take their spirit making skills with them into the regular world away from the religious institutions. Consequently, this made the availability of spirits much wider, and again, particularly in countries with a cooler climate.
As author Fernand Braudel says of the love of brandy,
“The sixteenth century created it; the seventeenth consolidated it; the eighteenth popularized it.”
And we definitely see this as the love of brandy slowly began to spread across Europe. We see mentions of “Acuavite” in customs tariffs in 1596, in Venice, and by the end of the 17th century, we also begin to see it appear in one of the other great brandy making nations, Spain.
However, it was the Northern European countries that were the true promoters of brandy drinking. The Germans and particularly, the Dutch, both favored brandy. Again, perhaps because of the warming effects of the spirit on cold winter nights. However, for the Dutch, it also had an added benefit. They were perhaps the biggest players in the wine trade of the period and shipped wines from all over Europe.
One of the biggest problems the Dutch faced was the spoilage that occurred to wines on often long journeys to their ports, from where they would be sold on. To try and overcome this potential spoilage, the Dutch took on board the still relatively new notion of distillation. The plan being to rehydrate the wines once they reached their final port of destination. The distillation would protect the wines over the long journey. I have to say, I have never tried brandy with anything more than a drop of water in it. So it might be worth trying rehydrating some. I don’t know how it would taste.
However, the end result of the distillation found favor in its own right. The commercial production began in earnest and they dubbed this new beverage, “Brandewijn” or “burned wine,” which referred to the heat applied during the distillation process.
As demand grew, the Dutch, looking at the cost effectiveness of shipping wines, decided that it would be more efficient to distill the wines where they were produced, and began to install distilleries there. Other wine producing regions also started getting in on the distilling action.
Two areas now carry what are perhaps the two most famous names in the world of brandy. Those of the French town of Cognac, a town in the Charente region of Western France, and that of Armagnac, originating from the Gers region in the Southwest of France.
Armagnac is perhaps less well known than its rival Cognac and certainly produces a great deal less brandy. Indeed, Cognac produces 10 times more than Armagnac. However, it actually predates Cognac in terms of production of the distilled spirit and is considered France’s oldest eau de vie with some saying it dates back to the 10th century although others say closer to the 14th century.
Armagnac is distilled in pure copper continuous Armagnac alembic stills using a combination of up to ten grapes. Although primarily four grapes known as: Colombard, Baco, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc that are used. All distillation takes place during the winter and must be finished by March the 31st. The brandy is then aged in large 400 liter barrels often made from local oak. It is sold in vintages based on the year the grapes were harvested. The taste – a combination of one of the single distillation and the impact of the wood from the barrels – is described by Herve Bache Gabrielson, the President of the Bache Gabrielson Cognac House, as,
“strong, rustic, generous and robust.”
If you have never tried Armagnac, it is particularly worth doing so, particularly if you enjoy it as a taste comparison with samples from other great areas of French brandy, Cognac.
Cognac is in the region of Charente and Charente-Maritime in the west of France. This was a region which archaeological evidence showed had been producing wines back to the period of the Roman occupation in the 1st century CE. During the Middle Ages, the Dutch, who had arrived in the region to trade salt, also started bringing wines from the area. It was here, in the 17th century, where the Dutch first began that process to distill wines to protect them during shipping and en route to their final destination.
They developed a process of double or “Charentaise” distillation. The tradition has it that in the 17th century, a gentleman named Chevalier de la Croix-Maron developed the process of double distillation. The story goes that he dreamt that the devil was punishing him by cooking him in a cauldron. The dream continued with the devil being forced to cook him again when the first cooking failed. When he woke up, as the story goes, the Chevalier was inspired to
“extract the ‘soul’ of eau-de-vie with a second distillation.”
Et voilà, we have Cognac.
At first, this extra distillation in the Charentaise method was implemented to further reduce the volume of the wine, both preserving it and making transportation more efficient. However, double distilling the spirit had an unexpected consequence of making the spirit itself very palatable without rehydrating, and ended up creating the unique character that has made Cognac the single most successful brandy producing region. It now sells over 211 million bottles a year, worth about 3.4 billion Euros, based on figures from 2019.
Brandy once distilled was kept in oak barrels, made with wood from the Limousin and Troncais forests of France. When there were delays in shipping, the spirit might be held in these barrels for an extended period of time, and it was then that the extra discovery of age improvement by storing in barrels came to be recognized.
Cognac comes under a geographical control that was designated on May the 1st in 1909. Grapes planted in vineyards of about 75,000 hectares are used in making Cognac. The permitted grapes to make Cognac include Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, Sémillon, Ugni Blanc and up to 10% of Folignan, although 98% of grapes grown are Ugni Blanc due to their resistance to rot. Similarly to Armagnac, which must be distilled in the winter up to March 31, Cognac too must be produced between October the 1st to March the 31st each year. The reason being that as weather begins to warm in Spring, the wines from the region would have sulfites added to keep them more stable, and Cognac must be made with sulfite-free wine. After the spirits have aged in the barrels, they are classed as Eau de Vie. And, it is when they are blended with other Eau de Vie that they can then be designated as Cognac.
Now, for those of you who are confused by the classifications that you might see on a bottle of Cognac, before we move on with the history, let me just give you a brief run down that I hope will be helpful when you head out to buy a bottle.
The first is “V.S.”, or “Very Special” or “Three Star” brandy. It is the youngest and least expensive. According to the excellent, “Difford’s Guide,” the three stars represent Halley’s Comet. The youngest Eau de Vie in the bottle will be 2 ½ years old.
The next is called “V.S.O.P” or “V.O.” Cognacs. The youngest in the blend must be at least 4 ½ years old. In 1817, Hennessy created this classification based on an order from the future King George IV of England, who requested a “very superior old pale” Cognac. So the V.S.O.P. style and classification has royal pedigree.
The House of Courvoisier created the next brandy designation – “Napoléon” – when they laid aside some brandy for the legendary Corsican general. The youngest Cognac in the bottle must be no less than 6 ½ years old.
And finally, you’ll find “X.O.,” also called, “Vieux,” “Hors d’age” or “Extra.” That must have Cognacs that are no younger than 6 ½ years old although they are more likely to be nearly 15 to 20 years old. Maurice Hennessy created the term “X.O.” or “Extra Old” for a range of Eau de Vie that he blended for friends and family.
An “XO” Brandy is really special. So do give it a try.
So, now you know.
Oh, and before we move on, here’s another one of those great facts for all those people who like to bore people at dinner parties. I don’t know how true it is but it’s certainly a fun one. If you have ever encountered seafood cooked in “X.O.” sauce while dining at a high end Chinese restaurant, this does not actually contain any of the fine brandy from which it takes its name. The story goes that a cook at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong in the 1980s created it using dried seafood, a particular type of Chinese ham and other seasonings. They named it “X.O.” to reflect the very expensive ingredients in it and to equate it with the high priced brandy that was a popular dinner drink with the wealthy Hong Kongers. The term “X.O.” was Hong Kong slang for something that was considered luxurious. So there. I love these little facts.
Right, now back to the history.
Cognac became the first region of the world to begin producing spirits on an industrial scale and closely followed by the British with their production of gin. In 1617, we see the first mention of Cognac in a sales contract from a merchant from the French coastal city of La Rochelle offering brandy that was guaranteed to come from Cognac. In 1624, two Dutchmen entered into a contract to build a distillery in Tonnay Charente. And in 1643, Augier became the first Cognac House established.
Cognac became increasingly popular, and in part that is because of what Nicholas Faith calls in his book, “Cognac: The Story of the World’s Greatest Brandy,”
“Cognac’s emergence as the superior form of a routine drink would have been impossible without the existence of a market sufficiently rich and fashion-conscious to pay the premium price inevitable for a drink which was far more expensive to produce than comparable spirits made from grain.”
That market for Cognac was, not surprising to me . . . England. In 1660, the English monarchy was restored after a period under the dour revolutionaries including Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. As well as the arrival of Charles II to become King of England, the country was ready to have some fun again. While alcoholic consumption had continued during the Civil War, the burgeoning café society of London at this time began to develop a passion for more luxurious beverages. These included Sherry from Spain, Port from Portugal, Champagne from France, and for the purposes of our story, Cognac.
An advertisement in the London Gazette in 1706 declared that,
“thirty-four ‘Pieces of Old Coniack Brandy’”
were on sale in Southampton.
In 1688, Protestant William of Orange, or William of Orange became King of England, as part of what is known as the “Glorious Revolution” to depose former monarch, the Catholic James II. As part of his campaign against Catholic France, against which there was much suspicion, he began to put severe restrictions on the trade in Brandy. This was one of the reasons for the increase in drinking gin in England during that period.
In the 18th century, we also begin to see the rise of a sophisticated smuggling trade. Not just in Brandy, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, but also in cloth, tea, and wines. All trying, to escape the customs revenue of almost 30%. At the beginning of the 19th century, we also see the restriction of Brandy entering England during the period of the Napoleonic Wars.
However, while there were certainly challenges to its prominence, the period at the beginning of the 18th century would see the opening of some of the greatest producers of Cognac. Those that opened in this period included Martell, which opened in 1715, Remy Martin in 1724, and Hennessy in 1765. There are currently about 280 Cognac producers.
Around 1875, the blight of phylloxera hit the vines of the region and much of France. This vicious bug would wipe out most of the vines of Europe, and such was its impact on the vineyards of the Cognac region that, in 1877, the bugs would wipe out all but 42,581 hectares of the 280,000 hectares of Cognac vineyards. With hardly any wine grapes to distill, this led to counterfeit Cognac being sold on the market.
According to findings of an analytical commission headed by The Lancet,
“In spite, however, of the large importations of the spurious article into this country – for it commanded a ready sale on account of its relatively low price – genuine Cognac brandy was always procurable, but there was an unwillingness to pay the higher price for the honest article.”
Indeed, the wealthier classes in Britain began to look for alternative spirits to serve their drinking pleasures. The whisky marketers had to promote their spirit as a fitting substitute for brandy. And, of course, we do have an episode on Scotch whisky in Season 3. They were able to make Scotch whisky palatable by using used sherry barrels to age their whisky. This made the end result considerably more smooth and as a result it became eminently palatable to the Victorian tastes. Another option they turned to was Sherry from Spain – we have a great episode about Sherry in season 4 of Eat My Globe, by the way – if you want to learn more about it. The end result was that brandy, even when it was to return, had suffered a decline in popularity from which, perhaps, it has never recovered.
That being said, brandy still did remain popular not just in Britain, but around the world where these days, Cognac, alone, is sent to about 160 countries.
Before we go on to look at how brandy came to the United States, I do want to mention some of the other countries in Europe that produce excellent brandies. Now, obviously, it would be impossible, and slightly boring, for me just to read off a list of brandy producing countries. So, here are just some of my favorites for you to seek out if you really want to do your own brandy tasting. So, forgive me if I leave out any of your own favorites. And, it’s also worth saying that each of these brandies have their own fascinating histories, and while I can touch on those only briefly here on the episode, we will add some links to the annotated transcripts for you to do your own research if you wish.
Remaining in France for a moment, I’d like to mention what I think is my favorite brandy of all, Calvados. This is an apple – and very occasionally pear – brandy from the Normandy region of France and whose smaller output compared to say, Cognac, can be traced at least back to the 18th century law by Louis XIV prohibiting the export of Calvados outside of Normandy. There are about 300 apples that are permitted to be used in the making of Calvados. These varieties are classified as “Bitter,” “Tart,” “Sweet” and “Bittersweet” and it is the selection between these that gives each Calvados its own unique characteristics.
From the legendary Burgundy wine producing area of France, comes another of my favorite brandies. “Marc de Bourgogne.” It is spelled M-A-R-C but pronounced as if it rhymes with “bar.” Marc is a clear brandy made out of the leftovers of making those splendid wines and includes elements such as grape skins, seeds and stems that are left over after pressing the grapes. Like Cognac and Armagnac, Marc, too, must be distilled by March the 31st. This spirit has been made in the region since the 17th century. In a letter received by the Duke of Burgundy in 1698 regarding Marc distillation, he is told,
“A good product is obtained from a thing that was good only to burn.”
Marc have their own A.O.C. or “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” as a protected product of the region. The wine residue is distilled in copper pot stills and then the spirit is aged – in wooden barrels for a minimum of two years. And for fans of Epoisses cheese, Marc is used in washing its rind. Genuinely splendid stuff – both the Epoisses and the Marc de Bourgogne. Do seek them out.
Likewise, the brandies of Spain are not to be overlooked. These brandies are produced from two areas. “Penedès” brandy which comes from Catalonia. and “Brandy de Jerez” in Andalucía. Now, if Jerez sounds familiar to you, it is because it is the birthplace of Sherry, which in fact draws its name from “Xerez” with an “X” or “Jerez” with a “J.” 95% of Spanish brandies come from Jerez. Wonderful things they are.
The Arabs brought distillation to Spain in the 8th century but no reference to Spanish brandies appeared until the 16th century. As Spain colonized many countries, it is unsurprising that they would have brought their brandies to their then-colonies and indeed, today, Spanish brandies are popular in the Philippines and in Mexico.
All Brandy de Jerez and some of the Penedès Spanish brandies are aged using a system known as the “Solera” system. It’s a complicated method that involves racking wines in tiers or “Criaderas.” As wine is taken from barrels of older spirits, it is refilled by the same amount of the spirit of the next oldest wine and so on and so on to the top tier. This creates a unique aging system and one of my favorite styles of brandy that is perfect to be served neat but great with food.
Finally, before we move on to talk about the history of brandy in the Unites States, I want to mention one more particular brandy that was allegedly the choice of Winston Churchill, no less – although other sources claim that his favorite brandy was Cognac. In any event, I am talking about Ararat Brandy from perhaps the unlikely country of Armenia. The Yerevan Brandy Company has been producing brandy since 1887, when Nerses Tairyan and his cousin Vasily Tairov imported “Charante” Cognac distillation technology from France. They sold up to a Russian company in 1899, and it was these new owners, Shustov & Sons, along with their master blender, Mrktich Musinyants who created the first fine brandy from the company. In 1902, this brandy known as the “Fine Champagne Select (Otoborny)” won the “Grand Prix” at the Paris Exhibition, which gave it the right to be called “Cognac,” even though that is a designation only usually held by the brandy from France. However, that right was rescinded after World War II. While Ararat are not as well known in Europe and the USA, they were immensely popular in the Soviet Union and remain popular in the former Soviet countries today. If I remember correctly from our visit to the Yerevan Brandy Company distillery during a memorable trip to Armenia, a barrel reserved for Vladimir Putin is put on show in the museum which you can see during the short tours they run there.
As the story goes, Stalin allegedly tried to influence Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the “Dvin” brandy made by the Yerevan Brandy Company at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Churchill was allegedly so taken by the brandy that he asked Stalin to send him 400 bottles of the brandy every year. According to the BBC, that part about Stalin delivering cases to Churchill was apparently true. Although Churchill’s alleged statement about his secret to long life,
“Cuban cigars, Armenian Brandy and no sport”
is apparently unsubstantiated.
So, those were a brief history of some of my favorite European brandies, but let’s finish off this episode by looking at brandy’s role in the drinking culture of the then-American colonies and now the United States of America.
When colonists arrived on the Mayflower, they had brought brandy with them. And as they survived in their new home, they started using peaches to make ciders. But due to their new home’s climate and difficulty in transporting cider without spoilage, they decided to distill the peaches. And according to cocktail historian, Dave Wondrich, so was born the first true American spirit – the peach brandy. By 1798, even George Washington was producing peach brandy using peaches from his orchards.
The oldest commercial brandy distillery in the United States was opened by Scottish immigrants, the Laird family, in Monmouth County, New Jersey. It was operated by the first arrival, William Laird, from Fyfe, Scotland, in 1698. He was believed to have been a distiller back in his homeland and used the abundant fruit of his new home, apples, to create a brandy called applejack. The term “jack” refers to “jacking,” which is the method of production where the apple juice is frozen and then the ice crystals are removed which concentrates the final spirit.
William’s drink became immediately popular, and by 1760, they even received a letter from George Washington asking for a recipe for Applejack for him to use on his own abundance of apples. William’s great grandson formally incorporated the distillery of Laird & Company in 1780.
The Laird Distillery itself today still only makes about 40,000 cases of spirit a year. However, in recent years, apple brandies have been making a small comeback, and a number of distilleries in the United States are making applejack and other styles of apple brandies that are definitely worth trying.
I should also note that these days, most brandies in the US are California-made, and my home state has been making brandies for about 200 years.
Brandy distilling in the United States is forming a small, but important part of the craft distilling movement that has brought so many different varieties of Bourbon, Gin, and Vodka to our bars. Producers such as Copper & Kings, Spirits of French Lick, and even a revitalized Laird’s itself are making some exceptional spirits and again I really recommend you seek some of them out. If you are looking for one particular suggestion, I am a real fan of products from a West Coast distiller, Osocalis. And their Apple Brandy produced in a Calvados style is a constant on my bar shelf. And these are not paid endorsements by the way. I just genuinely like them.
Well, of course, all of that discussion of brandy means that I now have to go and have a glass or two. However, before I do that, I thought it might be fun to finish by looking at how brandy or, specifically, Cognac became the go-to spirit of your popular U.S. rap impresarios.
Now it probably won’t surprise any of you to know that I am not quite au fait with matters rapular. However, research showed me that artists such as Busta Rhymes, who told us to “Pass the Courvoisier,” or Drake, who cited Hennessy Cognac in his song, “One Dance,” were among many who cited Cognac in their lyrics. So much so that there was even a study carried out by the Pittsburgh School of Medicine into the mentions of alcohol in songs between 2005 and 2007. They found that many of them mentioned alcohol and many by brand name.
Songs name-checked Hennessy 17% of the time. For the record, the others on the list were Patron Tequila, which appeared 29% of the time, Grey Goose Vodka, which appeared 19% of the time, and Cristal Champagne, which appeared 7% of the time.
The reason is far more than I had first imagined, that of it just being a drink with a touch of luxury about it. In fact, it has a lot of links to African American identity, where both men and women are seen to choose Cognac as a drink of choice. And, memories of seeing their older relatives with bottles of Hennessy on ice provoked memories that artists were keen to recreate in their songs.
In a really good article on Vine Pair, writer Bianca Holman explains that African Americans first documented drinking brandy while in France during the Second World War. Hennessy took note of this potential new audience and began to advertise in African American publications such as “Jet” and “Ebony.” It also began to recruit people from that community to positions of leadership in the company. It paid off and Hennessy’s sales soared in the community. In fact, in 2013, young African Americans purchased 60 to 85% of the total number of bottles of Hennessy sold in the United States. A colossal amount when you consider that Hennessy was and is the most popular Cognac in the country. The link to connecting to the expansion of African American music was an obvious one, and in 2013, Hennessy brought multi-platinum recording artist Nas in as one of their brand ambassadors.
So, the next time you listen to a song called “Hennessey” by a gentleman called 2pac – and there’s a language warning there for those of you, like me, with a nervous disposition – you will be able to share this remarkable part of the brandy story.
In the meantime, I am now really in need of my own glass of brandy. So, what shall it be? An elegant Cognac, a robust Armagnac, a smooth Calvados or, a clear Marc de Bourgogne? Perhaps one of each. After all it is research.
See you next time folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 17, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.