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Cognac: Other Brandies

This potent form of brandy was born in the French region of Normandy and was named Calvados, after the French area most notable for its production. Popularly known as the French Apple Brandy, it is usually made from apples but occasionally produced from pears. Calvados is made through a two part process called “double distillation”. After distillation, follows an ageing process of two years or more, which results in a brandy that is 40% alcohol.

Though Calvados has a long and rich history dating back to the mid 1500's, it hasn’t gained the same recognition as its cousin Cognac. In its native country of Normandy, Calvados is a specialty drink that is enjoyed between courses midway through a meal, as opposed to the common before or after dinner drink. It can be served dry, on ice or used as an ingredient for other drinks. Another Normandy tradition is to add calvados and cream to pork and mussel dishes.

During wine production, the seed, stalk and stem of the grape don’t take part in the whole production process. However, their story doesn’t end there. These grape parts are used to produce the drink known as “Italy’s Elixir”.

Grappa has been around since the Middle Ages. It was originally made in Bassano del Grappa, a town located in Italy’s northern Veneto region. Its production consists of gently heating the grape pieces and the alcohol, during which much of the mixture is evaporated leaving a potent concentration. After distillation, Grappa is stored in glass bottles for six months before distribution. The final product is very dry and its  taste depends on the grape varietal used.

Grappa was mostly drank by farmers, during the cold winter months.Therefore, it solely known as the drink of the poor workmen and farmers until the 1960's. After the 1960's the image of Grappa changed thanks to the Nonino Distillery in Italy. The owner of the distillery, Giannola Nonino, was the first to produce Grappa from only one type of grape. She single handedly created a following by offering her product free to journalist, restaurants, at government dinners and occasionally pouring the drink herself.

Today Grappa has gained popularity all over the world. It is sipped after meals and even added to espresso to “correct” it. Traditionally it is served chilled in small glasses and it's still considered the perfect remedy for cold winter nights.

Armagnac is a distinctive style of French brandy and is the oldest brandy of France. Its history dates back to the 1411 when it was used for therapeutic purposes, that’s why it is served to calm nerves when in a state of shock. Though Armagnac pre-dates Cognac about 200 years, it never became as popular and it's referred to as Cognac’s little sister.

The Pays de Gascogne in the south west of France is divided in three producing regions, namely Bas Armagnac, Ténarèze and Haut-Armagnac.

The production process starts with the wine, which comes from white grapes with good acidity and low alcohol level. The four grape varietals commonly used are Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Bacco. Each grape type gives the drink different aromas and flavors. More importantly, they offer different weights and textures on the palate.

The overall process producing Armagnac is still considered as artisan work and it starts with distillation. The main objective of the distillation is heating the wine till boiling point. The released vapors are then cooled back into liquid form before being dripped into oak barrels. The Armagnac needs the contribution of the wood and many years of ageing to gain character. It is the contact with the air through the oak barrels that slowly develops aromas and a darker color.

Nowadays, Armagnac is on a fast rise and is giving big brother Cognac some fierce competition. Bartenders are increasingly using it as a base for different cocktails. However, sticking to tradition, people are serving it also at the end of meals or in combination with fruity and chocolaty desserts.