Welcome to Brandy Week 2020! It’s not the most popular spirit week. But that’s just because brandy’s never gotten the traction gin and bourbon have in the United States. It’s also a broad name for a lot of unique spirits. While you may love one kind of brandy, like Cognac, you might blanch at another, like Pisco. Brandy Week is for everyone! We promise. If you are brand-new to brandy, we recommend sampling local spirits before expanding worldwide. No matter where you live, there’s a brandy unique to your region.
What is Brandy?
Brandy is any liquor made from distilled fruit. Often, that distilled fruit is grapes. As you know, fermented grapes turn into wine. So, you can think of brandy as distilled wine. Different regions around the world refer to brandy with unique names. Cognac, Calvados, Armagnac, konyak, Pisco, ouzo, or kanyak are all brandy, just from different places.
Some brandies are aged, flavored, or sweetened and diluted into liqueurs. Local brandy is produced according to regional traditions. The original brandy comes from the Dutch. Legend has it that the Dutch wanted to save space on their ships when transporting wine to their colonies. They turned to distilling, which removes water, raises the ABV, and reduces volume. Merchants would pay fewer taxes because they were transporting a lower volume of the “burnt wine.”
In theory, they would add the water back into the distilled spirit when they arrived at their destinations. That makes little sense for several reasons. (Not least among them that diluted brandy tastes nothing like the original wine.) Luckily, the colonies found they preferred the taste of the more economical spirit, and brandy was born.
If you’re a whiskey and scotch drinker, brandy is a sweeter spirit than you’re used to drinking. Some brands change the oak barrel for aging their brandy every year–a far cry from how bourbon ages. You can taste the fruit base in brandy, along with the familiar oak barrel flavors like caramel and spices. Because it’s sweet and tastes great warm, it’s the perfect spirit for filling a flask for outdoor winter activities.
When you’re traveling, ask the bartenders for the local brandy. There are so many traditions, unique processes, and exciting fruits that you’re guaranteed never to get the same spirit twice. We’ve seen pawpaw, apricot, plum, and even jackfruit brandies at bars.
What Can be Mixed with Brandy?
Because brandy covers such a wide range of unique spirits, you won’t encounter a lot of cocktail recipes that call for “brandy.” Cognac is the spirit of choice for many classic cocktail recipes. Still, if you have a local spirit you love, substitute it into the easy brandy cocktails we list below.
You don’t have to break out the cocktail shaker and mixing glass to drink brandy though; it’s often great on its own or over ice in a rocks glass. The traditional way to consume brandy is from a snifter and warm, but we’ll get into that later. There are plenty of ways to enjoy brandy besides drinking it straight.
Here are some great simple mixers you can try out at home:
Citrus juice: try fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, or grapefruit, and a splash of sparkling water. This two-ingredient cocktail will cut through brandy’s sweetness.
Sparkling wine: while it’s a high-ABV mixer, a splash of brandy topped with champagne is an easy brunch cocktail. It’s the basis for the classic Champagne Cocktail.
Hot chocolate: in the fall and winter, reach for the brandy. It’s a classic partner with all your fall favorites, including in hot apple cider or as a hot toddy.
Soda: (or pop, depending on your heritage.) We can’t in good conscience tell you to mix your brandy with Coke or Pepsi. Instead, try high-quality sodas like Fentimans, Orangina, or Rishi Sparkling Botanicals.
Easy Brandy Cocktails
Corpse Reviver No. 1
If you’re anything like us, you’ve been using the Corpse Reviver No. 2 as a hangover buster for years. Try this when you’re craving something sweet and fruity instead of tart and herbaceous.
1-ounce Calvados (apple or pear brandy)
½ ounce sweet vermouth
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until very cold. Strain into a child coupe glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
Beloved by grandmas the world over, a sidecar is boozy, tart, and rimmed with sugar.
1 ½ ounce cognac
¾ ounce Grand Marnier
¾ ounce lemon juice
Rim a chilled coupe glass with fine, raw sugar. Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Strain into the coupe and garnish with both lemon and orange peels.
Maybe you’re picking up on the fact that brandy drinkers like to party. Give the Bacchanalian a try–it might become your preferred nightcap.
2 ounces cognac
1-ounce merlot (or whatever’s leftover from dinner)
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce agave
Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice–strain into a wine or Saison glass over ice.
The preferred cocktail in supper clubs throughout the Midwest; try mixing up one (or three) for a winter happy hour.
2 ounces cognac
1-ounce dark creme de cacao
1-ounce heavy cream or eggnog
Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake hard. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with nutmeg.
It’s like a Manhattan. It is a Manhattan, but with brandy.
2 ounces brandy
1-ounce sweet vermouth
½ ounce brandied cherry syrup (optional)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until cold and diluted. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
If you’re looking to show off some clout in a cocktail bar, order a Vieux Carre and watch the bartender either panic or become your best friend.
¾ ounce rye whiskey
¾ ounce cognac
½ ounce Benedictine Liqueur
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir to chill and dilute. Strain into a rocks glass, either neat or over a sizable chunk of ice.
This drink’s perfect for the reluctant bruncher. You know, the person who can’t abide a French 75, but still wants to join in on the bubbly fun.
1 sugar cube
2-4 dashes Angostura bitters
4 ounces sparkling wine (prosecco, champagne, whatever…do you!)
Place the sugar cube at the bottom of a flute and soak it with bitters. Then, add the brandy and stir. Top with champagne and garnish with a maraschino cherry.
How to Warm Brandy?
Brandy tradition says to enjoy the spirit warm. There are plenty of theories as to why. Foremost among them is because it reveals the spirit’s nuance and character. Kind of like how bourbon’s best enjoyed by adding two drops of water to “open it.” If you’re more of a rocks glass person than someone comfortable swirling a snifter, we understand. You can enjoy brandy without all the fancy accoutrements.
You want to use the gentle warmth of your hand to release the aromatics–put the sniff in “snifter.” Some brandy sets will sell you a candle for the same purpose. But if you overheat it, all you’re going to smell is evaporating ethanol. Instead, wrap your hands around your rocks glass and give it a gentle swirl.
The release of all that barrel aging into delicious honey, vanilla, and spice aromas is a great motivation for adding brandy to your hot apple cider and mulled wine this winter. Don’t heat the brandy on the stovetop. Add it to the mug and let the warm cider or wine heat the spirit. You’ll get all the delicious barrel aroma, plus cider spices.
Brandy and The Home Bar
Fall and winter are a great time to expand your home bar to include a few bottles of brandy. While Cognac is a classic, remember what we said about starting local? Distilleries in your area may release a brandy made from local fruit for the fall. Most liquor stores have a “local” shelf to find spirits made in the area. Then, take an international approach, exploring the broad category of “brandy” by trying spirits from around the world. You can experience other cultures without leaving your living room.
Cognac is famous for a reason. It’s made from strict French traditions and regulations. It’s also a home bar essential if you’re a DIY mixologist. But you can substitute Armagnac or Calvados in any of our easy brandy cocktail recipes. Home mixology is about making the drinks you like, with the spirits you love.
Finally, decant your brandy. For a spirit that best reveals itself when warm, giving it a few days to stretch outside of the bottle will make it more endearing. This Brandy Week, expand your knowledge of the spirits world and maybe find a new favorite. Bourbon, whiskey, and scotch will still be there next week. When you expose your palate to new liquors, you’ll learn to taste your old favorites in a novel way.