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On a cold winters night in Elko a snifter of Echte Kroatzbeere hits the spot. Made from pure wild blackberries, this liqueur is one of the thousands of potions available that fall into the realm of what we call a brandy. Technically, brandy is an alcoholic spirit produced by distilling wine or fruits that can ferment. With a US proof range between 70 and 120, most brandies have a sharp kick to them. In a broader sense, the term “brandy” also includes liquors obtained from the distillation of pomace, the solid remains of grapes, olives, or other fruits after pressing for juice or oil. Pomace contains the skins, pulp, seeds, and even stems of the fruit. If it can ferment and turn available sugars into alcohol, it can be used to make brandy.

The term brandy is a shortening of the English brandywine, which was derived from the Dutch word gebrande wijn, which literally means “burned wine”. One can assume that the origins of brandy started with the invention of distillation. While the process was known in ancient times, it wasn’t used for significant beverage production until the 1400s. Rendering grape wine by reducing its water content offered a method of preservation making it easier for merchants to transport their products. By adding water back again to the fortified liquid before consumption you saved some handling charges. If a local tax was added by volume at your purchase you saved that too. Somewhere along the line it was discovered that after having been stored in wooden casks the resulting product had improved over time verses the original distilled spirit. In addition to removing water, the hot distillation process led to the formation and decomposition of numerous aromatic compounds, fundamentally altering the composition of the distillate from its source. Non-volatile substances such as pigments, sugars, and salts remained behind in the still. As a result, the taste of the aged distillate was often quite unlike that of the original source.

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As most brandies are distilled from grape products, the areas of the world producing brandies are roughly those regions producing wines. For example, Armagnac brandy is made from grapes of the Armagnac region in the southwest of France and was first distilled in during the later part of the Dark Ages in 1310. Stravecchio brandy has been produced since the 1700s in northern Italy making extensive use of the grape production of that locality. By the end of the 1800s the western European markets were dominated by French, Spanish and Italian brandies each with their own secret formula for making the product and large variations abound. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks others in stainless steel vats. Some are purposely colored with caramel to imitate the effect of aging and some are produced using a combination of both aging and coloring. Some notable varieties include: Cognac from the Cognac region of France; Kanyak, a variety from Turkey that originated in the Tekel region, whose name is a variation of “cognac” meaning “burn blood” in Turkish, a reference to its use in cold weather; and Greek brandy made exclusively from Muscat wine. South African brandies are, by law, made almost exactly as the French Cognac, using a double distillation process in copper pot stills followed by aging in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Because of this rigor, South African brandies are rated some of the best in the world. Most American grape brandy production is situated, as one would guess, in California.

The fact that one can tailor brandy from plant species other than grapes shows the enterprise of the human spirit where alcohol is concerned. Brinjevec is a Slovenian brandy distilled from ground and fermented juniper berries therefore having the flavor of gin. The German Kirschwasser is a fruit brandy made from cherries while Pálinka is a traditional fruit brandy from Hungary. Strangely, coconut brandy is actually made from the sap of the borassus palm tree and contains no coconut at all. Produced by Mendis Brandy, a company located in the state of Georgia this type of brandy is better known locally as arrack and goes through a 15 year aging process in Halmilla wood vats. Researching the Siri Lanken borassus tree one finds that the sap is also used medicinally as a laxative yet this is not mentioned on the Mendis website.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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