Brandy: Wine with a little more life experience

Brandywine was originally devised as tax evasion, at a time when tax was assessed on by the volume of wine. It was also a way of "flat-packing" wine—take out the water on the front end to save on fuel costs such as hay and grain; ship; add water at the destination.

But a funny thing happened; heating and distilling wine actually produced not just dense wine, but something entirely new. Brandywine presented a whole new flavor palate, rich with aromatic compounds that give it sweet caramel, vanilla, and malty notes. Further aging in casks—not always required, but typical—adds oak, tannin, or char layers, as well as continuing to intensify the alcohol content, which can be as high as 60 percent.

All of which makes brandywine a most delicious sipping beverage, whose complex layers of flavor and aroma are encouraged by gentle warming of the glass. It also makes a great culinary ingredient, for such tasks as flambéing crépes Suzette or plum pudding, or to intensify the rich flavors of classic French onion soup.

The category includes all sorts of variations. It may be made from fruit wines or ciders, including plum, peach and apple. It may be bottled without aging in some parts of the world, or aged as long as 80 years. (Now there's commitment for you!) Some variations, like Cognac, adhere to specific rules and must be sourced from a particular region of the world.

What do those brandywine and cognac acronyms mean? Here's the key:

AC: aged 2 years in wood
VS: Very Special, aged at least 3 years in wood
VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale, aged at least 5 years in wood
XO: Extra Old, aged at least 6 years in wood
Vintage: Stored in the cask until bottling, with label showing the vintage date
Hors d'age: So old, we lost track. Usually at least 10 years.

Brandywine also makes some delicious cocktails.

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