Brandy Regions & Categories

The Spirit of the Grape

The history of Brandy is a long one and dates at the very least to the 16th Century. Originally called brandewijn (brandywine), legend says Dutch traders preserved wine through distillation to better allow for preservation during travel and to make it easier to carry large volumes on board. The initial plan was to reconstitute the brandewijn with water upon reaching the destination, but it was soon discovered that the flavour created while the spirit travelled in oak barrels was appreciated by those who tasted it. The brandewijn was not reconstituted and the first version of today’s brandy was created.

Today the official EU definition of brandy is a spirit that is “produced from wine spirit with a minimum alcoholic strength of 36% and with no flavouring added”. Grapes are the traditional fruit and unless otherwise indicated brandy will be a grape wine spirit. If the wine spirit does happen to be from a fruit other than grapes, it must be marked on the label. Brandy is also required to have aging in oak casks. This aging contributes aromatics and flavour characteristics from the wood itself—ranging from floral, citrus, and dried fruit to richer notes of toast, apricot, vanilla, and molasses.

With such a long history, it stands to reason that where wine is made you can also find brandy. All the major viticultural regions of the world have a culture of brandy production. The most famous and highly regarded brandies are the cognacs and Armagnacs of France, but high quality brandies are available in many countries. This can provide an excellent opportunity to introduce customers to a new product that is familiar enough to be a comfortable experiment while at the same time a new discovery.


The most recognized of the brandy categories is cognac. Be aware, however, that all cognac is brandy but not all brandy is cognac. Hailing from the delimited Cognac region in the southwest of France with the best coming from the chalky soils of Fine Champagne and Petit Champagne, cognac is made primarily from the grape Ugni Blanc with Colombard and Folle Blanche. It is double distilled in copper Charentais pot stills, and after distillation the spirit is placed in French oak casks for aging.

Once bottled, the cognac is age-dated according to the amount of time the youngest brandy has spent in oak. VS (Very Special) or *** indicates at least two years in cask; VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) indicates at least four years in cask; and XO (Extra Old) indicates at least six years in cask. Generally speaking, the average age is much older than the labelled minimum and XOs often have an average age greater than 20 years.

About 90 minutes south of Cognac is Armagnac. With more grape varieties permitted and a single distillation as opposed to two, Armagnac tends to be a more rustic and flavourful brandy. The aging requirements differ slightly from cognac with VS or *** indicating that the spirit was in barrel from one to three years. VSOP indicates four to nine years of age, and XO or Hors d’Age is a spirit that has spent at least 10 years in barrel.


The tradition of brandy production in Spain has been around even longer than that of France with much grape spirit being distilled during the Moorish occupation of Andalucía. Brandy de Jerez is still made in this far southwestern corner of Spain. This is the home of sherry, and the unique characteristics of Brandy de Jerez come about through the aging of the brandy in American oak casks that were previously used for sherry. The elevage of Fino, Manzanilla, Oloroso, Amontillado or Pedro Ximénez sherry must have occurred for at least three years before Brandy de Jerez can be aged in that barrel. Each style of sherry contributes different characteristics to the final product. Brandy aged in a Fino cask will be paler with a lighter flavour profile of citrus and white flowers than the nuttiness and dried fruit of those aged in Oloroso or Amontillado casks. Those aged in Pedro Ximénez casks will be the richest with notes of molasses and figs.  Scotch is aged in these same types of casks, so a customer who enjoys a PX barrel-aged scotch could be interested in trying a Brandy de Jerez.


Pisco is not a traditional brandy in that it is not aged in wood—its aging occurs in large glass-lined silos. However, it is distilled from grape spirit and Pisco has the distinction of being one of the only distillates that is distilled to the abv presented in the bottle. Many other spirits are produced at their highest alcohol percentage and then watered back. Pisco is the essence of pure grape, not grape and water. With lighter body and a wide range of flavours including grape, citrus, grass, apple and pear, Pisco is a natural for cocktails and experimentation!

This is only an introduction to the various brandy styles available. There is a large cross-section in market to offer adventurous customers. Brandy is the perfect drink to usher in the cooler fall season, and there are over 100 selections from around the world to be found on