Spirits Around the World: Brandy

Three brandy-based drinks that will have you rethinking this tipple

Poor brandy, so misunderstood. Often seen as an outdated drink sipped by dowagers, a snobbish drink requiring a repository of knowledge to approach, or a high-flying symbol of hip-hop culture, brandy is known more for its symbolism than for its taste. And what a taste it is—but we’ll get to that.

First, a bit of history: In an effort to improve the efficiency of shipping their product, Dutch vintners in the 16th century began removing water from and concentrating their wine so that more of it could be transported at once, the idea being that it would be reconstituted upon arrival. The unreconstituted liquid, called brandewijn—from burned, meaning distilled, plus wine—was stored in wooden casks, which imparted distinct flavors and aromas. Upon sampling it, merchants decided that the brandewijn should become a product of its own instead of being rehydrated, and brandy was born.

Today, the category encompasses fruit-based spirits, including those made from a grape base as well as colorless brandies made from other fruits, such as schnapps, eau-de-vie, and slivovitz. One of the better-known brandies, cognac, typifies grape brandies, appreciated for their complex flavor and aroma. You might have heard a logical inference illustrated by the phrase “all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac,” oui? It’s true: To be called cognac, a brandy must stem from the French region of Cognac and follow specific guidelines for distillation and casking.

It’s easy to see where some of the misconceptions about brandies come from. Its concentration makes it sweeter than some other spirits, which can make it seem like something a little old lady might sip, while the winemaking origins of grape brandies make it ripe for the kind of near-scholarly discussions of old-school gentlemen’s clubs. And the frequent appearance of Hennessy, a popular type of cognac, in hip-hop is rooted in the brand’s decision to market to African-Americans after World War II. In fact, Hennessy was one of the first brandy brands to place ads in Jet and Ebony magazines using black models. That decision continues to reap dividends: The words Hennessy and cognac appear in more than a thousand songs by major hip-hop artists.

Connoisseurs might insist that brandies be appreciated neat, and a brandy tasting can make for a fun event add-on—a new twist on wine tastings, best done with snifters. But they also add a depth to cocktails, like the three below.

Stinger

Wildly popular in the 1950s, including with James Bond, who was sipping a Stinger when he wasn’t having one of his famous shaken martinis. In addition to its swagger, the Stinger offers a specific appeal for busy events: With just two liquid ingredients, it’s an easy pour.

Ingredients

  • 1½ ounces cognac or other brandy
  • ½ ounce white crème de menthe
  • Ice (optional)

Instructions

Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Strain into rocks glass. May be served on the rocks if desired. Serves one.

Brandy Alexander

Satisfying a drinker’s sweet tooth without making it ache (choco-tini, we’re looking at you), the classic Brandy Alexander adds a touch of indulgence to any event.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces cognac or other brandy
  • 1 ounce dark crème de cacao
  • 1 ounce heavy cream
  • Ice
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Instructions

Add brandy, crème de cacao and heavy cream to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until chilled and pour into coupe glass. Garnish with nutmeg. Serves one.

Champs-Élysées

The Champs-Élysées cocktail evokes the genial sophistication of Paris’s famous street, making for a perfect light brandy drink for beginners.

Ingredients

  • 1 ounce cognac or other brandy
  • ½ ounce yellow Chartreuse
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon simple syrup
  • 1 dash bitters
  • Ice
  • Lemon zest

Instructions

Add brandy, Chartreuse, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters to cocktail shakes with ice. Shake until chilled and pour into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon zest. Serves one.