The thought of drinking brandy used to call to mind a cool old dude in a smoking jacket with a pipe sitting next to a fireplace reading War and Peace. But according to Brandy Library owner Flavien Desoublin, a taste for the spirit has been reinvigorated in the last three years. The drinking audience today in general is younger and more curious, he says. This, coupled with an interest in local and craft spirits, means the popularity of brandy is on the rise. "It's really an exciting time for us because the new generation of drinkers [are] very open-minded and they'll pay attention to these drinks loaded with culture and history and crafted techniques, and brandy really fits the bill there," Desoublin says.
Brandy is made from distilled wine or a fermented mash of fruit then aged in oak casks. Its amber color often comes from the aging process, and it's about 50% alcohol by volume. Brandy itself is an umbrella term under which the likes of cognac, armagnac, pisco, calvados, grappa, and many more fruit-flavored brandies fall. Most brandies are a blend of several different barrels, harvests, and grape varieties together, so what makes a great brandy, according to Desoublin, is the complexity.
You can have a great brandy at any grade, or age, too: V.S., which means "very special" and indicates that the youngest brandy in the blend has been stored in a cask for at least two years; V.S.O.P., which means "very special old pale," and shows the blend's youngest brandy has been stored for at least four years; X.O. means the youngest brandy has been in a cask for at least six years. If you're trying brandy for the first time, a V.S. or V.S.O.P. cognac is a good place to start.
When you try it, let the spirit settle for a bit in the glass before you dive in. And when you do, always use your nose first. "Normally brandy has a lot to say on the nose, on the aromas, so you may want to be taking a bit more time with brandy than you do with whiskey on the nose before you actually sip on it," Desoublin says. Keep your glass — a tulip shape or a snifter is best — tilted a few inches under your chin at first, then gently over the course of a minute or two bring it up to your nose. Swirl the glass so the aromas are released. Inhale through your nose but leave your mouth open — this way the aromas will smoothly circulate through your nose instead of burning your nasal receptors.
After you've given your nose a workout, a nice glass coating is next. You do this by placing your palm over the top of the glass, tilting the glass horizontally, then rotating it against your palm until the spirit touches all sides of the glass. This promotes faster oxidation in the brandy, which gives the spirit a more rounded taste. After coating, let the glass sit for 20–30 seconds. "When it comes to brown spirits, it's all about time," says Joel Cuellar Flores, Brandy Library's Head Spirit Sommelier.
Then take a little sip and keep it in your mouth for a few seconds. Swish it around gently, getting some more oxygen into your mouth. Then swallow, first slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, then doing the opposite. This way, you'll coat your palate with all of the flavors in the brandy. Prepare yourself for tastes like fruits, spices, pepper, and so much more, depending on the many varieties of brandy you might sample. Then sip at your leisure. "Two ounces of a fantastic spirit can last you a very long time and give you such a pleasurable experience," Flores says. So just leave your shot glasses at home.