‘Claret is the liquor for boys, Port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy,’ opined author and historical gout sufferer Samuel Johnson.
Brits have celebrated with brandy since Dutch traders first plied us with ‘brandewijn’ – or ‘burned wine’ back in the 16th century. Though the arrival of Champagne and the popularisation of whisky challenged Brandy’s supremacy as the official beverage of luxury and excess we still break open the brandy at Christmas time. The vast majority of sales happen in December when it is whipped though butter, and used to ignite Christmas puddings. All heroic acts in their own way.
The brandy category is a pretty broad church – covering all manner of distilled spirits made from fruit. Within it there’s a lot of wiggle room allowing for various styles and compositions – all a little different, and all potentially deserving of their place on the table at Christmas. Here are some of the best to choose this year.
Eaux de Vie
Perfectly clear fruit eaux de vie are produced throughout Europe and can be found wherever fruit is grown. This is brandy in its purest form; fermented fruit, distilled, and bottled without ageing or additives. At Capreolus Distillery in the Cotswolds, founder Barney Wilczak works meticulously to capture local fruits at the absolute peak of ripeness and flavour.
His Perry Pear Eaux de Vie 2019 (£55, Direct) is super aromatic and tastes of pear flesh, pear skins, pear blossoms, and pear trees. The intense flavours present in this style of brandy present great opportunities for food pairing, as Barney is quick to point out:
“The higher alcohol of eaux de vie cuts through fat and sweetness in the same way as acidity in wine does. Creamy puddings and fruit desserts tarte tatin sing with pear eaux de vie. Damson slices right through fattier foods like duck or soft cheese.”
The Damson Eaux de Vie 2018 (£100, Direct) tastes like almonds, currants, shiso leaf, and black pepper. One sip and you’ve gone through the damson stargate. You’re living on the planet of the damsons. You’ve become one with the damson god.
The best-known brandies in the world are made in the Cognac region, north of Bordeaux. They’re made primarily made from ugni blanc grapes, fermented and pot distilled, and then aged at least two years in French oak casks. What a lot of the big names in Cognac don’t advertise is that colouring, sweeteners, and a concentrated oak syrup called ‘boisé’ might also be added to their products. All of which goes some way to explaining why many of us imagine Cognac as heavy, sweet, and dark.
By choosing Cognac from a smaller house you’ll have access to spirits which are fresher and less engineered. Fanny Fougerat – a small house founded in 2013 – bottles only single cru Cognacs without colour or additives. The Fanny Fougerat 2010 ‘Le Laurier d’Appollon’ (£59.45 – The Whisky Exchange) is a brilliant example of brandy in its natural state: Bright and leafy, with peaches, liquorice, candied peel, and soft herbs.
With spirits older is not always better, however long aging does bring certain characteristics their younger counterparts won’t have. In brandy this means flavours collectively called ‘rancio’ which include nuttiness and overripe fruit. Delamain Pale & Dry XO Centenaire (£97.45, TWE) is a superb example of this profile that balances brightness and maturity with honeysuckle, mandarins, dried figs, and chestnuts.
The grape brandies of Gascony tend to be a little earthier and thicker than their cousins from Cognac; perfect for whisky drinkers used to powerful and assertive spirits. They’re also not particularly well known in the UK which means they offer incredible value for money.
Berrys’ XO Armagnac, J. Nismes-Delclou (£74, BBR) would make an excellent closer to Christmas dinner – it’s a big, lovable spirit with dried fruits, coffee, plums, and walnuts. Also well worth a look is the Darroze Les Grands Assemblages 30 Year Old (£105, TWE).
A solid offering from a legendary house which offers a well-priced way to see what really mature brandy can be. The profile leans toward leather, cigar box, milk chocolate, and sour cherries. If you’ve never tried Armagnac, this Christmas is the perfect occasion to get involved.
Calvados (apple brandy)
Northern France is apple country. As per the universal truth that human beings will make booze out of whatever’s to hand, they produce excellent apple brandy there. Long-aged Calvados can be lovely things – rich and spicy with lots of French oak influence – however, the younger styles have a brightness that’s really special.
Eco-conscious Calvados brand Avallen (£33.70, Master of Malt) is lightly honeyed, with a little vanilla and lots of fresh apple flavour. It drinks nicely on its own but will makes a great pre-Christmas dinner aperitif with ginger ale, lots of ice, and a long twist of orange peel. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous you can also try a Calvados cocktail classic, the aptly named Delicious Sour.
40ml Young-ish Calvados
20ml Crème de peche
20ml Lemon Juice
Egg white (one medium egg white should make two drinks)
Dash simple syrup to taste.
Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer
Combine all ingredients in a shaker and shake without ice to whip up those egg whites, be sure to keep a firm grip to stop it popping open.
Add ice and shake hard until your arms get tired.
Strain into your frozen cocktail glass and serve.