Brandy Liquor, The History and Creation
Where Brandy liquor is concerned historians credit the Chinese with discovering the art of turning fruit wine or grain-based mash into a higher alcohol, purer beverage. Others claim the Egyptians were the progenitors of distillation. Its
Whatever the case, we know for certain that the Moors first established distillation in Europe during their occupation of Southern Spain from the 8th century to the late 15th century. The Spaniards of the period were skilled wine makers and started using the pot stills that were left behind by the Moors after their expulsion within 1492. Within a century, brandy liquor made it from fermented grapes and other fruits spread across continental Europe.
Historically, linguistically, literally the word is simplicity itself "Brandy" is derived from brandywijn. a word of Dutch origin for wine "burnt" in a still to leave the water and remove the alcoholic vapour which condenses back into liquid form as it cools. In other languages too, it is the burning which is the essential feature.
How Brandy Alcohol Is Made
In theory distillation is the simplest of physical processes. It is based on the fact that alcohol and water boil at different temperatures, water at 100°C, alcohol at 78.3°C. If a fermented liquid is heated, the vapour containing the alcoholic constituents is released first. It can then be trapped and cooled, then condensed to an alcoholic liquid.
The phenomenon was probably first observed by the Arabs, who carried the torch of science during the Dark Ages. We still use their words "al-ambiq" (alembic) for the still, "al-kubl" (alcohol) for the distillate. Originally. the object was to produce medicinal essences, but it was soon discovered that the use of an appropriate raw material produced a drinkable liquid, a "water of life" , aqua vitae. But the raw materials were generally so impure that the alcohol could only be consumed with safety if it had been repeatedly redistilled, which removed most of the essential characteristics of the Original raw material as well.
Qualitatively, the biggest breakthrough came in the 16th and early 17th centuries when it was found that distilling the sharp white vines, produced on the slopes overlooking the little town of Cognac in western France, resulted in spirits which, after as few as two passes through the stills. produced an eminently drinkable brandy alcohol, especially if aged for a few years in oak casks. It has proved to be an unbeatable formula.
The next essential in making fine brandy alcohol is the speed of distillation: the slower, the gentler, the more effectively the aromatic elements in the raw material are detached with the alcohol, the better. It is rather like stewing fruit: the lower the flame on the stove, the more intense the aromas released and the more thoroughly is the residue drained of them. Indeed, the Cognacais like to describe their method of distillation as (speeded-up) evaporation.
They are right: the vapours should contain as high a proportion as possible of the congeners, the hundreds of organic chemical compounds which are extracted with the alcohol. Some of these are l1lldesirable, bringing with them rank and unlpleasant aromas and have to be removed. This entails a close control over the distillation process to remove the "heads", the first vapours emerging from the still, which contain the bulk of these undesirable elements, and then the "tails" which will simply be too feeble, without the requisite alcoholic concentration.
At the other extreme are the continuous stills, invented early in the 19th century by, and named after, an Irish exciseman called Coney. This still can concentrate wine 10 or more times up to the normal industrial maximum of 96.6%. This fast, continuous process saves heat (pot-stills have to be reheated between each batch), is highly productive - and can be highly destructive of all the elements which make brandy alcohol interesting.
Newly distilled brandy tastes raw, oily and unappetizing. The key to its final quality is a more or less lengthy sojourn in oak casks. The choice of wood was originally accidental: oak happened to be the most easily available for making the casks required by the pioneering distillers. They were, of course, accustomed to using wood to mature and market their wines. Because brandy alcohol, like wine, is a product of the grape, oak has proved suitable for maturing it. But there are many varieties of oak and as with so many aspects of brandy making, local practices diner so widely that only a few generalizations can be offered as applying to the whole range of brandies. Most of the qualities which make oak so suitable are physical. For whatever the chemical qualities of the wood and the reactions they induce when in prolonged contact with the spirit, it is the porosity of the cask which allows the brandy to have a steady, limited access to the air. The brandy gradually absorbs the oxygen required to oxidize and thus soften the raw spirit.
Brandy Alcohol From Spain
More brandy is produced in Spain than in any other European country. And of that production, some 95% comes from Audalucia in the south, especially from the town of Jerez de la Frontera. There the hearty, rich, full-bodied Brandy de Jerez brandies of Domecq. Gonzalez Byass, and Romate are matured in the bodegas that dominate the Jerez landscape.
What separates Brandy de Jerez from all the other brandies in the world is the utilization of the solera system in the aging process. This unique oak cask aging arrangement continually marries newer, fresher brandies with the mellower, more settled mature brandies in a singular dance of maturation. The purpose is to combine the best qualities of each brandy into one representative brandy that carries the stamp of youthful vigor and the grace and surety of age.
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