The difference between Brandy de Jerez, Cognac & Armagnac
The art of distillation reached Europe when the Moors arrived in Spain in AD 711. In the early days it was used by alchemists for perfumes or medicines, but later it was discovered that it could be used to protect wines during shipment. At some point, it was observed that the spirit aged well in barrels and small quantities of what we might call brandy were produced, but Brandy de Jerez as we know it today dates to the late XIX century when sales took off.
The word “brandy” derives from the Dutch “brandwijn” or “burnt wine”
Any place where wine is produced will produce its own brandy, and many are very good, but there are only three in the world which have legal protection of their name: Cognac, Armagnac and Brandy de Jerez. All three are excellent but they are very different.
Cognac is a city in the Charentes area of western France where distillation began in the early XVII century. The Dutch had for many years bought the local wine either for consumption as wine or for distilling to make gin or liqueurs. It soon became apparent that wine in its distilled form could be shipped more economically, and Cognac became a centre for brandy production. The wine is mainly made from the Ugni Blanc grape and is double distilled in pot stills known as “alembiques Charentais”. It is aged statically in French oak barrels of 350 litres and seasoned with young spirits. Cognac received its Appellation d’Origine Contrôllee (AOC) in 1936.
Armagnac comes from Gascony, southwest France, and has been produced since the XIV century. Being situated inland, this fine brandy has never achieved the heights of its coastal competitor Cognac but is a worthy competitor. The main grape varieties are Ugni Blanc and Baco 22A and the wine is distilled only once, in a simple form of column still, the spirit being aged statically in 400 litre French oak barrels seasoned with young spirit. AOC 1936.
Brandy de Jerez has been around since the XVI century and almost certainly longer. It was also popular with the Dutch, and to this day the best spirits are called “holandas”. Unlike the French brandies, it is distilled from wine made from the Airén grape in both pot stills (alquitaras) and column stills depending on the quality required.
It is then aged dynamically in the traditional system known as criaderas and soleras also used for Sherry production. The barrels used, known as “botas”, are made from American oak with a capacity of 600 litres and have been seasoned with various types of Sherry. This allows for great variation of style in the finished brandy.
While Brandy de Jerez is probably the oldest brandy it only received its Denominación de Origen (DO = AOC) in 1989.