By Harold McGee
Brandies are spirits distilled from grape wine. The two classic brandies are Cognac and Armagnac, the first named for a town and the second for a region in southwestern France, each not far from Bordeaux. Both are made from neutral white grapes (mainly Ugni blanc) that are casually fermented into wine, and the wines distilled between harvest and mid-spring (the best brandies are distilled first; as the wine sits, it loses esters and develops volatile acidity and off-aromas). Cognac is double-distilled from the wine with its yeast lees to an alcohol content of about 70%, most Armagnac single-distilled without yeast in a traditional column still to about 55%. Each is then aged in new French oak barrels for a minimum of six months; some Cognacs are aged for 60 years or more. Before bottling, each is diluted to about 40% alcohol and may be adjusted with sugar, oak extract, and caramel. Cognac has a fruity, flowery character thanks to the distillation of esters from the wine yeasts. Armagnac is relatively rough and complex thanks to its higher content of volatile acids; it’s said to have a prune-like aroma. With long aging, both develop a prized rancio (“rancid”) character from the transformation of fatty acids into methyl ketones, which also provide the distinctive aroma of blue cheese.