The Iconic History of Brandy (Spoiler Alert, It’s French!)

Most often enjoyed straight or in a number of classic cocktails – such as the Metropolitan – brandy is a sweet, fruity liquor perfect for a cold winter evening. Brandy has a fascinating history, from its medicinal origins in 14th-century France to its many modern-day international varieties. The liquor itself is also closely tied to the development of the modern distillation process. 

Brandy even has a connection to the first President of the United States – George Washington famously distilled peach brandy at Mount Vernon, recreated bottles of which are currently available for purchaseContinue reading to learn more about the long and iconic history of this cozy French liquor.

What is Brandy?

The most simple definition of brandy is that it is a type of distilled wine. One of the first liquors to be made using the distillation process, brandy is typically made from grapes, but other fermented fruits can be used in the process as well (as mentioned above, with Washington’s peach brandy). Fun fact: it takes about nine gallons of wine to make one gallon of brandy. 

Typically, brandy has about a 35 to 60% ABV. Most brandies are aged in wooden casks, which contributes to the liquor’s amber color. However, brandy can also be darkened with caramel. 

The Dutch word brandewijn is the origin of the word ‘brandy,’ and it literally translates to ‘burnt wine.’ Enterprising 16th-century Dutch sailors gave brandy its name, after discovering that they could lighten their ships’ loads by boiling down their barrels of French wine. 

The story goes that the sailors originally planned to reintroduce water to the barrels upon arrival. They instead discovered what the French already knew – that distilled wine was, in and of itself, a delicious beverage. 

The international renown for brandy, and the eventual industrialization of the distillation process, eventually gave rise to the other spirits we know and love today, including whiskey and gin. 

Eau de Vie, or ‘The Water of Life’

There is another history of brandy element to consider. There are some records of cruder forms of brandy being traded as early as the third century. But the creation of modern brandy can be traced back to France circa 1313.

At first, however, the spirit was meant to be a kind of medicine. Some doctors and religious figures believed that the liquor had impressive strengthening and hygienic properties. They named it eau de vie, which means ‘water of life.’ 

Some believers in the medicinal powers of brandy even thought that it would prolong people’s lives, and that it was a gift from God. Conditions thought to be improved by brandy consumption included fever, stress, and depression. 

Nowadays, eau de vie refers to a specific type of clear fruit brandy with a light flavor, made using double distillation. However, brandy’s origins as eau de vie are an important facet of history. And it’s evidence of the liquor’s centuries-old spiritual legacy. 

How was Brandy First Distilled?

The power of distillation lies in the fact that the process allows for the formation of certain aromatic compounds and the decomposition of others, creating a completely different flavor profile. Traditional brandy distillation was done by boiling off a fraction of the wine and allowing it to recondense, as many times as needed. The quality of the distilled liquor was tested by putting a bit of gunpowder at the bottom of the spirit. The entire thing would be lit on fire. If the gunpowder could still ignite, that meant the brandy was good. 

The first brandy distillers, Frenchmen and Dutch sailors alike, discovered that storing the distilled spirit in wooden casks served to greatly improve its flavor. This became part of the full process of making brandy. Brandy was first made from grape wine; thus, most wine-producing countries also began making brandy. Add that to your “history of brandy” trivia bank!

Brandy’s Role in Trade

Understanding the history of Brandy also means recognizing its role in trade. One of the lesser-known components (and perpetrators) of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was, in fact, brandy and brandy merchants. Beginning in the early 1500s, brandy became an important European component in the so-called ‘triangle trade’ – as were enslaved people. 

The triangle trade followed a path from the Americas to Europe to West Africa, then back. Raw materials, and goods like sugar and cotton, were shipped from the Americas to Europe. Europeans shipped brandy and textiles to Africa, and then enslaved people were sent to the Americas. 

Brandy became the liquor of choice to transport on these trips because it was easily preserved.  It was also taxed less than wine (at the time, alcohol was taxed by volume.)

Typically, brandy was a payment for the guards and enslavers on the African side of the trans-Atlantic trade. The high alcohol content of brandy was completely new to Africa, whose fermented drinks then hovered around 5% ABV. This disparity made the relatively new invention of brandy an extremely valuable commodity. 

However, brandy ended up being replaced by rum in the late 17th century, ending the liquor’s sordid role in the slave trade. 

George Washington’s Distillery

Brandy spread around the world easily, given its role in trade. The Americas, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia were its next stops. Interestingly, one prominent distiller of brandy was the first United States President, George Washington. In 1797, Washington began distilling liquor at the behest of his industrious Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had formerly owned his own distilleries in his native country. 

Washington’s estate already grew corn and rye. The distillery at the Mount Vernon plantation, which measured at 2,250 square feet, was initially built for whiskey production. Washington’s distillery was not the first distillery in the States. It was, however, at one point, one of the largest. Later, it became clear that America’s abundance of fruit made brandy a natural option for these burgeoning businesses. 

The peaches used in Washington’s peach brandy were harvested from his own orchards. They were additionally double distilled in small amounts throughout 1798 and 1799. Washington’s own family and guests consumed much of the peach brandy, though a portion of it was sold. 

The original brandy made at Mount Vernon was aged for eighteen months in bourbon barrels, and then bottled and labeled by hand. The $125 bottles available currently are recreations of the brandy that Washington himself consumed. At the same time that Washington’s estate was bottling bottles of peach brandy, California wineries – influenced by Spanish emissaries – began exporting grape brandy. The Californian effort became one of the U.S.’s major exports to Europe after the Civil War, but the industry was later decimated by Prohibition. 

Cognac

One of the most famous regional varieties of brandy is Cognac, named after the commune in France where it is produced. Located on the southwestern coast of the country, Cognac is surrounded by the wine-producing regions of Charente and Charente-Maritime. 

The Wine Trade

The wine trade in Charente began to boom in the 12th century when Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. The resulting Anglo-French empire gave rise to a major increase in trade, as did a new type of ship called the cogue, which could carry much more cargo. 

The first medicinal distillers of brandy were from Armagnac (more on this later.) The already-booming commercial tradition in Cognac gave their brandy a massive advantage on the European market. The first recorded international trade of brandy from Cognac was in 1517. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1600s that Cognac became a uniquely distinguishable spirit. 

The production of Cognac is regulated under France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) designation, which means there are certain legal requirements for the spirit to be sold as Cognac. These include the specification of certain grapes, the double distillation of the wine in copper pot stills, and a period of aging in French oak barrels. 

Growing Popularity

Cognac’s popularity is due, in large part, to lucky circumstances. The region had easy access to international trade through the Bay of Biscay. It had an already-established market. And it rose during a time of post-war scarcity in London. 

Nowadays, the Cognac industry has a set of classification terms to establish the quality and age of various spirits. These include V.S.P (very superior pale), which means a minimum of three years of aging in wood. There is V.S.O.P (very superior old pale), indicating a minimum of five years. And there is X.O., (extra old), the most luxurious variant, which has an average age of twenty years. Those looking for an even more in-depth history of brandy’s (arguably) most famous iteration can take a look at Nicholas Faith’s book Cognac: The Story of the World’s Greatest Brandy.

Armagnac

Another style of brandy that must be mentioned in the history of the liquor is Armagnac, one that also hails from the French coast. Armagnac was one of the first locations in France where wine was distilled. So, Armagnac (the liquor) has the honor of being the oldest recorded distilled liquor. 

Though Armagnac is older than cognac, it is produced on a smaller scale. In 1310, a French cardinal named Vital du Four wrote about the 40 virtues of eau de vie. Du Four was from the region of Armagnac, so it has been assumed that the eau de vie he was referring to was actually the earliest iterations of what is now known as Armagnac liquor. 

Armagnac is known for being the liquor of choice at Versailles in the 1600s and 1700s. It was also one of the main ingredients in the gourmet dish of ortolan, before the dish was banned (due to protections for the ortolan songbird.) Another feather in your “history of brandy” cap. 

Other International Varieties of Brandy

Throughout the centuries, brandy has made its way across the world. Beyond France, many types of brandy have arisen, differentiated by method and ingredients. Of these varieties are pisco, a strong South American style; grappa, an Italian brandy made from leftover grape stems, leaves, and seeds; kirschwasser, a German liquor made from cherries; and brandy de Jerez, Spain’s unique distillation. Slivovitz, of course, bears mentioning, though it is generally more of an acquired taste. This harsh plum brandy is especially popular in eastern European countries, like Serbia, Croatia, Romania, and Hungary. 

Though distillation processes and ingredients differ slightly around the world, these liquors are all related through their fascinating history. Armagnac, kirschwasser, and George Washington’s peach brandy may each have their own flavors. But they all came from the same basic technique, and the same longstanding distillation tradition. Brandy may not have the same massive appeal as other liquors like vodka and whiskey, but it has a time-honored niche that guarantees its place among these other popular spirits. 

Next time you pour a glass of brandy, or see a bottle of Hennessy, take a second. Reflect upon the 700-plus years of history of the drink in your hand. This distilled liquor – the first distilled liquor – has carved itself a major place in history, in the present, and surely in the future. 

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