1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brandy

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BRANDY, an alcoholic, potable spirit, obtained by the distillation of grape wine. The frequently occurring statement that the word “brandy” is derived from the High German Branntwein is incorrect, inasmuch as the English word (as Fairley has pointed out) is quite as old as any of its continental equivalents. It is simply an abbreviation of the Old English brandewine, brand-wine or brandy wine, the word “brand” being common to all the Teutonic languages of northern Europe, meaning a thing burning or that has been burnt. John Fletcher’s Beggar’s Bush (1622) contains the passage, “Buy brand wine”; and from the Roxburgh Ballads (1650) we have “It is more fine than brandewine.” The word “brandy” came into familiar use about the middle of the 17th century, but the expression “brandywine” was retained in legal documents until 1702 (Fairley). Thus in 1697 (View Penal Laws, 173) there occurs the sentence, “No aqua vitae or brandywine shall be imported into England.” The British Pharmacopoeia formerly defined French brandy, which was the only variety mentioned (officially spiritus vini gallici), as “Spirit distilled from French wine; it has a characteristic flavour, and a light sherry colour derived from the cask in which it has been kept.” In the latest edition the Latin title spiritus vini gallici is retained, but the word French is dropped from the text, which now reads as follows: “A spirituous liquid distilled from wine and matured by age, and containing not less than 36½% by weight or 43½% by volume of ethyl hydroxide.” The United States Pharmacopoeia (1905), retains the Latin expression spiritus vini gallici (English title Brandy), defined as “an alcoholic liquid obtained by the distillation of the fermented, unmodified juice of fresh grapes.”

Very little of the brandy of commerce corresponds exactly to the former definition of the British Pharmacopoeia as regards colouring matter, inasmuch as trade requirements necessitate the addition of a small quantity of caramel (burnt sugar) colouring to the spirit in the majority of cases. The object of this is, as a rule, not that of deceiving the consumer as to the apparent age of the brandy, but that of keeping a standard article of commerce at a standard level of colour. It is practically impossible to do this without having recourse to caramel colouring, as, practically speaking, the contents of any cask will always differ slightly, and often very appreciably, in colour intensity from the contents of another cask, even though the age and quality of the spirits are identical.

The finest brandies are produced in a district covering an area of rather less than three million acres, situated in the departments of Charente and Charente Inférieure, of which the centre is the town of Cognac. It is generally held that only brandies produced within this district have a right to the name “cognac.” The Cognac district is separated into district zones of production, according to the quality of the spirit which each yields. In the centre of the district, on the left bank of the Charente, is the Grande Champagne, and radiating beyond it are (in order of merit of the spirit produced) the Petite Champagne, the Borderies (or Premiers Bois), the Fins Bois, the Bons Bois, the Bois Ordinaires, and finally the Bois communs dits à terroir. Many hold that the brandy produced in the two latter districts is not entitled to the name of “cognac,” but this is a matter of controversy, as is also the question as to whether another district called the Grande Fine Champagne, namely, that in the immediate neighbourhood of the little village of Juillac-le-Coq, should be added to the list. The pre-eminent quality of the Cognac brandies is largely due to the character of the soil, the climate, and the scientific and systematic cultivation of the vines. For a period—from the middle ’seventies to the ’nineties of the 19th century—the cognac industry was, owing to the inroads of the phylloxera, threatened with almost total extinction, but after a lengthy series of experiments, a system of replanting and hybridizing, based on the characteristics of the soils of the various districts, was evolved, which effectually put a stop to the further progress of the disease. In 1907 the area actually planted with the vine in the Cognac district proper was about 200,000 acres, and the production of cognac brandy, which, however, varies widely in different years, may be put down at about five million gallons per annum. The latter figure is based on the amount of wine produced in the two Charentes (about forty-five million gallons in 1905).

Brandy is also manufactured in numerous other districts in France, and in general order of commercial merit may be mentioned the brandies of Armagnac, Marmande, Nantes and Anjou. The brandies commanding the lowest prices are broadly known as the Trois-Six de Montpellier. In a class by themselves are the Eaux-de-vie de Marc, made from the wine pressings or from the solid residues of the stills. Some of these, particularly those made in Burgundy, have characteristic qualities, and are considered by many to be very fine. The consumption is chiefly local. Brandy of fair quality is also made in other wine-producing countries, particularly in Spain, and of late years colonial (Australian and Cape) brandies have attracted some attention. The comsumption of brandy in the United Kingdom amounts to about two million gallons.

Brandy, in common with other potable spirits, owes its flavour and aroma to the presence of small quantities of substances termed secondary or by-products (sometimes “impurities”). These are dissolved in the ethyl alcohol and water which form over 99% of the spirit. The nature and quantity of all of these by-products have not yet been fully ascertained, but the knowledge in this direction is rapidly progressing. Ch. Ordonneau fractionally distilled 100 litres of 25-year-old cognac brandy, and obtained the following substances and quantities thereof:—

  Grammes in
100 Litres.
Normal propyl alcohol 40.0
Normal butyl alcohol 218.6
Amyl alcohol 83.8
Hexyl alcohol 0.6
Heptyl alcohol 1.5
Ethyl acetate 35.0
Ethyl propionate, butyrate and caproate 3.0
Oenanthic ether (about) 4.0
Aldehyde 3.0
Acetal traces
Amines traces

Most of the above substances, in fact probably all of them, excepting the oenanthic ether, are contained in other spirits, such as whisky and rum. The oenanthic ether (ethyl pelargonate) is one of the main characteristics which enable us chemically to differentiate between brandy and other distilled liquors. Brandy also contains a certain quantity of free acid, which increases with age, furfural, which decreases, and small quantities of other matters of which we have as yet little knowledge. The table gives analyses, by the present author (excepting No. 3, which is by F. Lusson), of undoubtedly genuine commercial cognac brandies of various ages.

Genuine Cognac Brandies.

(Excepting the alcohol, results are expressed in grammes per 100 litres of absolute alcohol.)

Age, &c.

% by vol.


Esters. “Higher
Aldehyde. Furfural.
1. New 1904 61.7 45 5 82 125 8 2.3
2. New, still heated by steam coil   56.3 22 4 61 100 3 1.2
3. New 67.7 51 · · 158 152 6 1.3
4. Five years old, 1900 vintage 57.7 92 37 125 · · · · · ·
5. 1875 vintage, pale 46.7 144 37 177 261 55 1.0
6. 1848 vintage, brown 38.5 254 109 190 488 32 2.1

Note.—In the above table the acid is expressed in terms of acetic acid, the esters are expressed as ethyl acetate, and the aldehyde as acetaldehyde. The “Higher Alcohol” figures do not actually represent these substances, but indicate the relative coloration obtained with sulphuric acid when compared with an iso-butyl standard under certain conditions.

Storage and Maturation.—Brandy is stored in specially selected oak casks, from which it extracts a certain quantity of colouring matter and tannin, &c. Commercial cognac brandies are generally blends of different growths and vintages, the blending being accomplished in large vats some little time prior to bottling. The necessary colouring and sweetening matter is added in the vat. In the case of pale brandies very little colouring and sweetening are added, the usual quantity being in the neighbourhood of ½ to 1%. Old “brown brandies,” which are nowadays not in great demand, require more caramel and sugar than do the pale varieties. The preparation of the “liqueur,” as the mixed caramel and sugar syrup is termed, is an operation requiring much experience, and the methods employed are kept strictly secret. Fine “liqueur” is prepared with high-class brandy, and is stored a number of years prior to use. Brandy, as is well known, improves very much with age (for chemical aspects of maturation see Spirits), but this only holds good when the spirit is in wood, for there is no material appreciation in quality after bottling. It is a mistake to believe, however, that brandy improves indefinitely, even when kept in wood, for, as a matter of fact, after a certain time—which varies considerably according to the type of brandy, the vintage, &c.—there is so much evaporation of alcohol that a number of undesirable changes come about. The brandy begins to “go back,” and becomes, as it is called, “worn” or “tired.” It is necessary, therefore, that the bottling should not be deferred too long. Sometimes, for trade reasons, it is necessary to keep brandy in cask for a long period, and under these conditions the practice is to keep a series of casks, which are treated as follows:—The last cask is kept filled by occasionally adding some spirit from the cask next in order, the latter is filled up by spirit taken from the third cask from the end, and so on, until the first cask in the row is reached. The latter is filled up or “topped” with some relatively fresh spirit.

Brandy is much employed medicinally as a food capable of supplying energy in a particularly labile form to the body, as a stimulant, carminative, and as a hypnotic.

Adulteration.—A good deal has been written about the preparation of artificial brandy by means of the addition of essential oils to potato or beetroot spirit, but it is more than doubtful whether this practice was really carried on on a large scale formerly. What undoubtedly did occur was that much beet, potato or grain spirit was used for blending with genuine grape spirit. Prosecutions under the Food and Drugs Act, by certain English local authorities in the year 1904, resulted in the practical fixation of certain chemical standards which, in the opinion of the present writer, have, owing to their arbitrary and unscientific nature, resulted in much adulteration of a type previously non-existent. There is no doubt that at the present time artificial esters and higher alcohols, &c., are being used on an extensive scale for the preparation of cheap brandies, and the position, in this respect, therefore, has not been inproved. Where formerly fraud was practically confined to the blending of genuine brandy with spirit other than that derived from the grape, it is now enhanced by the addition of artificial essences to the blend of the two spirits.  (P. S.)