Brandy, Armagnac, and Cognac: What You Need to Know

The backstory on the liquors

Brandy is an alcoholic beverage that is distilled from wine or a fermented fruit mash. Named from the Dutch word brandewijn, or "burnt wine," because of the use of heat during the distillation process, brandy can be aged in a variety of different containers. To make a dark brandy, it may be aged in wooden containers with the addition of caramel solution to darken the color. It can also be aged in paraffin-lined casks to maintain a clear color.

A brandy that is meant for drinking purposes is usually about 50 percent alcohol by volume. However, brandy that is used to fortify sherry, Madeira, or other dessert wines is usually about 80 to 95 percent alcohol by volume. Like other distilled liquors, brandy does not improve after it has been bottled.

Many wine-producing countries make brandy, with the most outstanding bottles coming from France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Cognac, which comes from the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of France, is considered the finest of all brandies, as well as armagnac from the Gers region. Other well-known worldly brandies include metaxa and ouzo from Greece, pisco from Peru, and grappa from Italy.

Brandy is an incredibly versatile liquor, coming in a variety of flavors from different countries. Apple brandy, such as calvados from the Calvados region of France, is produced from fermented cider. Alsace is known for framboise, which is distilled from raspberries, and fraise, which is distilled from strawberries. Other fruit brandies include slivovitz, a plum brandy produced in Balkan countries; barack palinka, an apricot brandy from Hungary; Kirschwasser, a cherry brandy produced in Alsace, Germany, and Switzerland; and plum wines from Alsace and Lorraine.

Typically, brandy is served alone or with soda as a digestif. It can be used to flavor mixed drinks and in various dessert dishes, as well. Brandy is also used in cooking to flambé, or flame, dishes such as crepes suzette and cherries jubilee.

Below are tasting notes on some cognacs that I was lucky enough to try. If you can get your hands on them, try them all!

Camus Extra Elegance Cognac — Beautiful amber/orange hue. Rich, lots of oak, and smoke on the nose. Vanilla, caramel, and almonds with some fantastic spice as well. Also bananas! Very smooth and a sweet, lingering finish.

Camus Ile de Re Double Matured — Golden hue, very clear and fragrant the moment it hits the glass. This smells sweet but woody as well. Nutmeg and cinnamon are very present on the nose, like a spiced pumpkin pie. The flavor is spicy and sweet, and a bit creamy. Luscious.

Camus Ile de Re Cliffside Cellar  Golden and amber color, incredibly clear. Very nutty on the nose, lots of toasted almonds and walnuts. This has a similar spice scent like the Camus Double Matured, but even more sweet. Grapes and apples are also very present. A lot of acidity on this one, leaves a spice lingering in the mouth long after the sip is over. Really enjoyable.


— Sara Kay, The