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Brandy, Cognac, Port and Sherry: What Are They All About?
Some alcoholic drinks have a unique soul. Brandy, Cognac, Port and Sherry are distinctive products that, in more than one way, have shaped the world as we know it. And although none of them is trending right now, they’re timeless.
The new generations might not be paying attention to these classic products, but they’re still the pinnacle of humanity’s agricultural efforts.
To make brandy, you must first have fermented grape juice — wine. Grapes are harvested and fermented to turn the fruit’s sugar into alcohol. The wine is then distilled, whether it’s in a copper pot still or a more modern column still. The result is a crystal clear, high-proof spirit, which producers then age in oak barrels to add a golden color and lovely aromatics reminiscent of wood, spices and vanilla.
Technically, you can make brandy from any fruit, but it’s called ‘fruit brandy,’ and not real brandy, which you have to make with wine grapes.
All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. You can make brandy anywhere on earth, but to make Cognac you must harvest the wine grapes, ferment them and distil the spirit in a designated region in western France. Cognac is not only the name of a spirit, but of a place and the two are one and the same.
Cognac is also unique because it’s often aged for extended periods, resulting in overly complex spirits of immense sophistication and flavor range.
V.S. (Very Special) must age for at least two years in oak.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) must age at least four years in an oak cask.
XO (Extra Old) must age for a decade, gaining complexity, in oak barrels.
Port is neither wine nor brandy, but both. As with Cognac, Port must come from a designated region in Portugal around the Douro River. Producers harvest the grapes and ferment them as one would do with regular dry wine. What makes Port special is that producers put the brakes on the fermentation prematurely by adding unaged brandy to the fermenting must. Yeast, responsible for the alcoholic fermentation, dies, and the resulting ‘fortified wine’ is naturally sweet, robust, and it brims with a pleasant alcoholic warmth.
The fortified wine is then aged in oak casks and can evolve into Ruby Ports or Tawny Ports, which are later classified in a myriad of styles, from which Vintage Port is the most acclaimed.
Sherry is a fortified wine too, but it couldn’t be more different from Port. To make the Spanish specialty wine, grapes are picked and left to dry under the blistering Spanish sun. Then they’re fermented to make wine without being disturbed. Once the wine is bone dry, the winemaker adds a distilled spirit to increase Sherry’s alcoholic strength and shelf life.
There are half a dozen distinct Sherry styles, some are sweet, and others are dry. Some are affected from a noble fungus that grows in the wine’s surface as it ages and others experience extended oak aging. There’s a Sherry style for every occasion and every palate.
Try them all!
Brandy, Cognac, Port and Sherry. They’re all delicious beverages with a unique story and a particular profile. Each one holds its secrets, making them a joy to explore. Today’s not-as-popular fortified wines and brown spirits might not be enjoying their Golden Era, but that’s a good thing, there’s more for ourselves!
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