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9 november 2014

Becky Sue Epstein (author of Champagne) charts the global history of brandy as a cycle of ups and downs: in economic terms, and in the less tangible terms of potatory prestige.

Like the other great European distilled spirits (whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin have all had their Reaktion Edible titles), brandy is historically associated with a home region and with networks of international trade. Epstein defines brandies as spirits of grape wine, to distinguish them from calvados, kirsch, schnapps, palinka, and the myriad other minor fruit-juice liquors of the continent – and also from "pomace" liquors like grappa, which are distilled from the waste products of wine-making.

Brandy-making thus naturally falls across the southern tier of Europe, the grape regions. Its historical center falls on a line across the Pyrenees, from the southwest of Spain to the southwest of France. I just happen to have a French bottle at hand, from Bas Armagnac. Its label assures me that it

n'est distillé qu'une fois dans de petits alambics de cuivre. Peu d'Armagnacs sont produits avec une telle attention.

[is distilled only once in small copper alembics. Few Armagnacs are made with such care.]
And if by "few" they mean "most," it appears they're right. But as Epstein notes, 30 or 40 bottles of Cognac are produced every year for one of Armagnac, so everything about Armagnac is "few." It's a brandy for the discerning, but if I want to write the rest of this review with any discernment, I'd better resist the temptation to pour myself a snifter.

I should get to it soon, though. Epstein indicates that brandy doesn't keep forever. It doesn't exactly go off – it's 40% alcohol – but the vinous notes that provide its distinct flavor will fade after about a year. I was surprised that this would be so with a distilled liquor. The shock-your-tonsils sweetness of my reserve liter of Paddy Irish whiskey does not dull with time. But I bought this Armagnac for a recipe last Christmas, and I've got about six weeks of "best before" remaining.

I also learned from Epstein: that Armagnac is distilled once (as my bottle boasts), but Cognac twice; that certain Cognacs are given the extra refinement of being "early landed" and aged outside of France (especially Hine, in England); that Spanish Jerez brandies, like the sherry wine of that region, are aged in solera fashion, with proportional doses from younger barrels added to older ones as the production is drawn off; and that the proper amount of brandy for a snifter is just enough that it doesn't run out when you turn the glass completely on its side. NB this does not work with a shotglass.

As names like Hine and Hennessey suggest, French brandies in particular have long been geared to export markets. The trade has variously been dominated by Dutch, English, Irish, and more recently American and Chinese entrepreneurs. Epstein establishes that the recent hipness of brandy has been linked to its popularity among rap musicians, Chinese capitalists, and presumably Chinese rap musicians. But like its spirit cousins, brandy has at times been a drink of the poor, at others confined to the home medicine chest. Like whiskey in particular, it has both prestige and proletarian associations. Epstein prints evocative photographs of brandy factories in Georgia and Armenia, struggling to recover after years of supplying both luxury and mass goods to the Soviet Union.

I bought my Armagnac, as I said, for cooking: last year I made a daube provençal with it. Brandy has long-standing culinary associations, but all the recipes that Epstein includes are for cocktails. As I've noted in this space before, I don't really hold with cocktails. Brandy seems to me best drunk a finger at a time and unaccompanied. But my grandmother used to drink brandy stingers, a drink I once sipped and found memorably vile. I never knew what it was till I looked at Epstein's recipe: brandy and crème de menthe. As I said, vile. Other classics are the Alexander (brandy, cream, and crème de cacao) and the Sidecar (with triple sec and lemon juice, a sort of brandy margarita). What a waste of liquor! But Epstein says that even in Cognac, a refreshing summertime drink is brandy-and-tonic in a long glass, over ice. OK, maybe next summer.

Epstein, Becky Sue. Brandy: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.