THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Is Brandy About To Take Off?

A mobile wood fired still in Serbia at the top, making pisco in Chile and a cognac still at Hennessy. The boiler is on the left with the chapiteau for reflux and swans neck which warms up the next wash in the centre bulb with the serpentine condenser on the right.

You have all seen the headlines; Global spirit volumes to grow by 2% up to 2026. Tequila volumes forecast to increase by 7% by 2026 and hit $24.2bn by 2031, a CAGR of 8.7%. World gin will grow by 4.4% with the Philippines the largest market three times that of second placed USA. Single grain whiskies on the up. Major players have rebounded from the pandemic. Premium and super premium sub sectors will be the most dynamic and will be worth $1.7tn worldwide by 2032. Not a mention of brandy, that rather crusty after dinner digestif served in a huge balloon glass along with a nine-inch Havana?

Ugne blanc grapes in Martell’s vineyard.

Perhaps brandy has a bit of an image problem against vodka, whisky, rum and tequila, all well ahead in the global stakes. World sales are around 8% of the market and the news is not all bad with Brand Finance having LVMH’s Hennessy brandy at No.5 in its world spirits top ten brands rising a stonking 57% in value over the year.

Wherever there is wine, there is brandy not too far away. There are local pernickety regulations in France, as ever, but basically brandy is distilled wine. That is usually wine fermented from grapes but any old fruit will do; think calvados from apples, kirsch from cherries and slivovitz in the Balkans is made from plums. Known locally in Serbia as rakija, spirit is distilled from any available fruit (mainly plums but also apricots, peaches, mulberries and even strawberries) often in wood fired 300L mobile stills which go from village to village. This spirit cannot be sold but is widely bartered and horded for your daughter’s wedding when apparently you can expect many hundreds of rakija enthusiasts to turn up! Similar products are called palinka in Hungary and schapps in Germany and Austria. Most of these spirits are not matured in cask but top end producers are starting to dabble. Often the term ‘eau de vie’ is applied perhaps to emphasise their niche in the marketplace as distinct from the mainstream brands.

Asbach comes from Germany while Armagnac Saint Vivant has a strange shaped bottle.

France with its cognac and armagnac is not the only place producing first class brandies from the grape. Jerez in Spain has fine tuned brandy production as it was one of the first places to do so in order to enhance the flavour and keeping qualities of sherry being shipped to Bristol. Of course the Portuguese did the same thing with port going to the UK although aguardente as it is known locally translates as fire water and is said to be a bit challenging on its own. Germany has its Asbach and if it stays in cask for over twelve months it is christened ‘Uralt’. Seemingly prune juice is permitted as a sugar extender in Germany.

Italy claims to have invented the name brandy as branda in Piemontese dialect means aqua vitae but the term probably comes from the Dutch for ‘burnt wine’ – brandewijn, harking back to those inveterate traders who needed to extend the shelf life of water (or wine) on their lengthy voyages.

Imposing river side distilleries near Cognac – Courvoisier, Hine and Hennessy.

Strangely the brandies from the USA are not as prized as those from little Armenia. Chile and Peru vie to produce the best pisco which is the national drink of the former although the town of Pisco is actually in the latter! In Mexico the Presidente brand is said to be the world’s largest selling while South Africa being originally settled by the Dutch has a long tradition.

Grappa is made from the pomace containing alcohol entrained in the leftover grape skins etc after the primary fermentation is complete and is starting to shake off its hangover inducing image rather like absinthe has done.

Low sugar and high acidity grapes which are best for making brandy are not grown where it gets hotter. Who has brought a bottle of Metaxa back from Greece? Hands up those who still have it, pushed to the back of the cupboard? This is getting to be a bit like a liqueur where herbs along with sweetening agents are used to enhance the flavour of the spirit which aficionados allege is somewhat inferior to the Grande Champagne region around Cognac.

We start with the best known of the brandies – cognac. The first reference is rather late, in 1638 to be precise, when English merchants were seeking out ‘cogniake’. Jean Martell was a Jersey merchant who moved to the area in 1715. Cognac is said to be the second most well known town in France after Paris and it is trying hard to entice tourists to the region which is just north of Bordeaux in the southwest. It is said that if you take the old N10 road from Bordeaux some 50 miles towards Paris during the winter you can tell when you reach the Cognac area by the unmistakable aroma of distillation in process, but I doubt there are too many tourists in November!

The airy still house at Hennessy.

Cognac has planted an extra 3,129ha of vineyards this year to bring the total to 83,690ha says Per Even Allaire, deputy commercial director at Cognac AE Dor talking to Spirits Business. We are told there is a rule in France which limits overall planting to 1% of the total acreage (around 800,000ha) a year so clearly some areas are not expanding. These new plants will not yield a full crop until 2026 or 2027. There is clearly confidence in the future with an old quote that today’s growers and distillers are doing it for their children or even grandchildren.

Over 95% of cognac is exported. Of the 232 million bottles shipped in 2021, half went to the US placing it fourth behind American whiskey, tequila and vodka over there. The Americas was the only region showing any significant growth since before Covid but the domestic French market seems to be perking up according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. There are big four houses – Hennessy (LVMH and Diageo), Martell (Pernod Ricard), Courvoisier (Suntory) and Rémy Martin (Rémy Cointreau boasting that it has produced cognac since 1724). These are followed closely by Delamain and Hine.

In France, after decades in cask, fully mature brandy is stored in 25L demi johns, some over 150 years old. Delamain on the left and Hennessy.

There are some 5000 producers in six growing areas or crus which the blenders have to juggle and here terroir is just as important as elsewhere in France with the chalky areas of ‘Grande Champagne’ producing the best spirit and slightly more flinty in ‘Petit Champagne’ next. The surrounding even less chalky and even more flinty with clay bands (Borderies and Fin Bois) areas have a part to play in the blend. The maritime climate with its moisture laden air keeps the maturing grapes damp and will further aid the cask maturation of the spirit just as it does in the Scottish isles. The main grape variety is the Ugni Blanc which is a late ripener with the harvest starting in mid October. The resulting wine is only 8 to 10%ABV and rather acid.

The low alcohol means that distillation will concentrate the grape flavour by seven to nine times. The average still size is only 25hL with the largest limited by statute up to 120hL, these must be direct fired, usually by gas these days. Most are straightforward copper alembics (known locally as alembic Charentais) with the first distillation producing 30% spirit. The second pass is usually through a smaller still but the maximum loading can only be 25hL. The boiler is the chaudière, with a chapiteau to encourage reflux and a col de cygne or swans neck usually passing to the condenser through a preheater (réchauffé vin) where the next batch of wash is warmed up.

The spirit cannot be more than 72% ABV and, as everywhere else, the cut points are vital and further sophistication is assured by passing varying amounts of fermentation lees into the boiler. Spirit is matured in new lightly toasted Limousin oak casks of 350L. The spirit will spend up to a year in these new casks and to avoid picking up too many woody flavours it will then be transferred to older already used containers.

Dunnage storage at Remy Martin, racks at Janneau in Armagnac and disgorging the casks also at Janneau.

Classics will be in wood for 35 to 60 years by which time the strength could be as low as 46% ABV. Then the truly aristocratic cognacs are transferred from cask to glass dame-jeannes (demijohns) of about 25L for even longer careful storage, frozen in time as bonbonnes in the depths of the cellars which are aptly named paradis. There are even some pre Phylloxera samples about, said to be ‘holding up well’.

French grape growing was decimated from 1871 and by the time it recovered, whisky and gin has stepped into the brandy void.

On the more mundane level nothing can be sold as cognac for two years which effectively means 30 months since counting does not start until the September after distilling. Traditionally there are no age statements but a series of characters on the label. After two years minimum it is VS and after four it will be VSOP. Brands with XO or Napoleon designations plus loads of others should be six years old but most are a lot older. This is all very confusing so the more expensive the brandy, the more likely it is to be old but buyer beware.

Interesting shaped boiler at Bordeneuve in Armagnac.

Armagnac lies further to the south closer to the Pyrenees and its products are a lot less well known but it is certainly not a poor man’s cognac. Distilling is much longer established with the first reference being in 1411 perhaps harking back to the Moorish distilling traditions the other side of the mountains. Once cognac around the port of La Rochelle became established, Armagnac was eclipsed as it had no port close by. At one time, in the middle of the last century, all Armagnac had to be produced on a column still but that constraint has now been relaxed. Yet only a few, notably Janneau use them. All distillation must take place before the end of January which reduces finished stock as well as protecting the wine from excess oxidation.

The basquaise bottle is traditional for Armagnac.

Most producers still employ the column stills and, being rather small, the finished %ABV will be around 60%. These lower strengths give a challenge to the distiller in taking a while to mature, perhaps seven years will pass before it shows any sign of being a good one. To save time, boise (toasted wood chips) are permitted but all the top end producers emphasise that they do not use them. As with cognac, the new make spirit is put into new casks and then transferred to older ones, often getting larger as time goes by, in order to lessen the effect of the oak.

For the man who has everything – a stem-less brandy balloon.

As distilled batches are kept separate in Armagnac, vintage releases are possible and gaining in popularity. Residual volumes will go into demijohns in the paradis just as with cognac.

Brandies are really not waiting to be rediscovered. They are out there all over the world and there are some excellent, if expensive ones; they just need a bit of a push.