Brandy is a spirit produced by distilling wine. Brandy generally contains 35–60% alcohol by volume (70–120 US proof) and is typically drunk as an after-dinner digestif. Some brandies are aged in wooden casks. Others are colored with caramel coloring to imitate the effect of aging, and some are produced using a combination of both aging and coloring. Varieties of wine brandy can be found across the winemaking world. Among the most renowned are Cognac and Armagnac from southwestern France.
Except for a few major producers, brandy production and consumption tend to have a regional character and thus production methods significantly vary. Wine brandy is produced from a variety of grape cultivars. A special selection of cultivars, providing distinct aroma and character, is used for high-quality brandies, while cheaper ones are made from whichever wine is available.
Brandy is made from so-called base wine, which significantly differs from regular table wines. It is made from early grapes in order to achieve higher acid concentration and lower sugar levels. Base wine generally contains a smaller amount (up to 20 mg/l) of sulphur than regular wines, as it creates undesired copper(II) sulfate in reaction with copper in the pot stills. The yeast sediment produced during the fermentation may or may not be kept in the wine, depending on the brandy style.
Brandy is distilled from the base wine in two phases. In the first, large part of water and solids is removed from the base, obtaining so-called “low wine”, basically a concentrated wine with 28–30% ABV. In the second stage, low wine is distilled into brandy. The liquid exits the pot still in three phases, referred to as the “heads”, “heart” and “tails” respectively. The first part, the “head,” has an alcohol concentration of about 83% (166 US proof) and an unpleasant odour. The weak portion on the end, “tail”, is discarded along with the head, and they are generally mixed with another batch of low wine, thereby entering the distillation cycle again. The middle heart fraction, richest in aromas and flavors, is preserved for later maturation.