Brandy is often seen as a sophisticated spirit, one that most often consumed in the evening as a digestif. However, brandy is now seeing some increases in popularity, with more drinkers interested in what the spirit tastes like and even how to make brandy for themselves.
Brandy itself tends to be fruity with some sweetness. Oak notes are typically present too, as the spirit is often aged in oak for at least a few years. The aging adds to the complexity of the spirit, while mellowing out some of the flavors, creating a spirit that’s easy to enjoy.
That said, brandy expressions often taste very different from one another. This is partly because brandy can be made using any type of fruit as a base and partly because of differences in production processes and aging. As such, each bottle of brandy is a fascinating experience in its own right.
You may be able to do so with the right license, but these aren’t realistic for individuals. Because of this, the steps highlighted in this article are for informational purposes only.
What Is Brandy Made From?
Brandy is created using fermented fruit juice. Wine is the obvious choice here, given that it is already fermented and is easily available. You can even make your own wine using cheap wine kits, then use this as the base of your brandy.
However, any type of fruit can be used to make brandy, such as apricots, grapes, pears, apples, cherries, and the like. Some people use a combination of different fruits to give their brandy a stunning flavor profile.
You need a decent amount of fruit to make brandy, so it’s best to stick to seasonal fruit. This way you can get a large amount of fruit without needing to pay too much. You might already have an abundance from your own fruit trees. Or, perhaps a neighbor has a bountiful crop they’re willing to share.
Some home distillers find that mixed fruit and plums are particularly good for brandy, while apple brandy needs to be aged before it develops a decent flavor. This is partly because apples have a mild flavor. Of course, your brandy will vary depending on the specific type of apple you use.
Brandy relies on fermented fruit. You have a few options here.
The first is to create a fruit mash, combine this with yeast, and ferment it. This process is the same as making wine, except that you can do it with any type of fruit or combination of fruit. For example, the video below starts off with 44 pounds of fresh peaches.
Fermenting fruit juice can work as well, including apple juice or grape juice you buy from the grocery store. When doing this, you’ll need to focus on a high-quality product that tastes good. Make sure there aren’t any preservatives or additives in the juice, as these could easily mess with the fermentation stage.
You could also skip this step by simply buying fermented fruit juice instead. Wine is the easiest option here. Ideally you would choose decent wine, as this would lead to the best quality brandy. However, some home distillers have had surprising luck with even dirt cheap boxed wine.
Distill The Juice
The next step is distillation, which is generally done using a still. There are multiple styles and sizes of stills, all with their own features (some are even small enough to use on your stovetop).
Before distilling, it’s important to do some background reading about temperatures, cuts, and fractions. This information will help you understand how to get the best brandy out of your still.
A particularly important part is separating out the heads and the tails of your distillation. These fractions contain high concentrations of undesirable compounds, which can make your brandy taste strange or even make it unsafe. Separating out these parts helps to ensure that the finished brandy tastes good and will age well.
The site distiller.com provides important information about these different fractions, while this video provides fascinating tips for making decisions about cuts. You’ll also need to experiment, as distillation is an art rather than a science.
Brandy is often aged, traditionally in oak barrels. The initially clear distillate takes on an amber color during this process, while the flavor mellows and develops some oak tones.
Even without oak, aging your brandy can improve the flavor profile. Still… the oak does provide characteristic brandy flavors and your spirit won’t taste quite the same without it.
That said, home distillers often skip the aging step and simply drink their brandy soon after it is made. This is particularly common when the brandy already tastes good and the distiller didn’t make much of it. Sometimes, it’s simply hard to wait.
Finally, if you’re making multiple cuts of brandy or have been aging in different barrels, you might choose to blend your brandy. Doing so creates a more balanced flavor profile and an even better final product.
Other Ways To Make Brandy
While distilling traditionally relies on some type of still, there are various ‘poor man’ approaches that allow you to make brandy much more simply, including those in the sections below.
Before we go into them, there are some crucial caveats.
First, these approaches often don’t separate out the heads and tails of your brandy. This can mean there’s too much methanol in the finished brandy, which could make it unsafe (especially if you drink a large amount of it). And, safety aside, ad hoc methods of making brandy are never going to taste as good as brandy that has been carefully distilled.
Additionally, the legal definition of distillation is based on how you’re concentrating alcohol, rather than the use of a still. As such, even very low key methods of distillation might be illegal. Be sure to check the laws in your area first, as there’s still a ton of debate on this topic.
The video below shows an interesting approach for making brandy from store-bought wine. Their setup means that you’re basically boiling the wine and separating out the components through condensation.
While the video title suggests that this process takes 30 seconds, you’ll need at least an hour, probably more. It even takes more than a minute to simply watch the video.
Video commenters who tried this approach had some success, but mention that the brandy didn’t taste good at all. Most fruit flavor was gone, essentially giving you clear alcohol. That outcome isn’t ideal, given that the flavor of brandy is one of its key characteristics.
Freeze distillation is most often associated with applejack, but you can use it to make other types of spirits too, including brandy. The idea is that you’re concentrating the base alcohol by repeatedly freezing it and then removing the ice.
The easiest way to do this with wine is to place the wine in a container that allows for expansion, then freeze it (ideally in a chest freezer). Once the wine has fully frozen, you can take it out of the freezer and allow it to defrost.
As the wine defrosts, you can pour the liquid into a different container. Keep going until you have a colorless block of ice in your bottle. That ice can then be discarded. You can then repeat the steps multiple times, until your wine no longer freezes.
The process does increase the alcohol content and flavor intensity of wine, eventually giving you homemade brandy. While this won’t taste the same as a distilled product, it can still be delicious.
You can produce brandy without using a still, like in the two approaches above. However, those processes are essentially different forms of distillation.
The only other option is to ferment fruit juice, add spices, and age it, to get a flavor profile that’s similar to brandy. This approach is sometimes referred to as making brandy without distillation, but you’re actually just making fruit wine.
Distilleries use a still-based approach that’s similar to how you would make brandy at home. However, some of the equipment and processes have been changed to allow them to scale up the work. This often includes the use of a column still, which allows for continuous distillation.
The exact approaches used vary depending on the type of brandy and the goals of the company. In particular, companies that focus on fine brandy tend to use more unusual types of fruit and may use a pot still instead of a column still to produce their brandy.
Cognac is an interesting case here, as this type of brandy must be distilled twice in copper pot still, then aged for two years or more. This means that column stills cannot be used at all.
Now that we know how brandy is made, it’s worth talking a little about the different styles. These are particularly relevant if you’re buying brandy, but might apply to brandy you’re making at home as well.
- Very Special (VS). This brandy has been aged for at least two years and is often relatively inexpensive.
- Very Special Old Pale (VSOP). Here, the brandy has been aged for four or more years. It’s more expensive than VS brandy, but can still be used in some brandy cocktails.
- Extra Old (XO). XO brandy has been aged for six years or more, giving it a richer and more complex flavor than the previous expressions.
- Hors d’Age. This type of brandy is much harder to find, as it has been aged for 30 years or more. It’s best reserved as a sipping brandy, so you can enjoy all the flavor nuances.
Because brandy is often a blend, the age statement on the bottle is based on the youngest spirit in the mix.
Types Of Brandy
Cognac is easily the most well-known style of brandy and must meet specific requirements to be classified as such. In particular, cognac must come from grapes grown within the Cognac region of France and must be twice distilled using copper pot stills.
Armagnac is another popular brandy style. It’s also made in France, this time in the Armagnac region.
The brandy is typically distilled using column stills and goes through just one distillation, rather than two. As a result, armagnac generally has a stronger flavor than cognac and is considered more rustic.
While cognac must always be aged for at least two years, armagnac can be sold unaged instead. The unaged version is called blanche d’armagnac (or blanche armagnac) and tends to be more vibrant than the aged version.
Other Types Of Brandy
Cognac and armagnac certainly aren’t the only types of brandy. There are many other styles, including brandies made in Spain, Peru, Chile, and America. There are generally fewer requirements for such brandies, which can lead to more differences between them.
For example, in the United States, most requirements for brandy focus on how the spirit is labeled, rather than production characteristics. As part of this, products can only be called just brandy if they are made using grapes.
Other types of fruit brandy requires qualifiers, like apple brandy, strawberry brandy, or plum brandy. Products made using multiple types of fruit can be called fruit brandy, with a qualifier that describes the specific types of fruit used.
Making brandy at home follows similar processes to other types of distilled spirits, including vodka and whiskey. The big difference is that brandy uses fermented fruit juice as the base ingredient, rather than grains or another source of starch.
Brandy is also a delicious spirit that is worth enjoying regularly. Its popularity is likely to continue increasing too, as more people discover just how good it can be.