brandy /’brændɪ/

It’s the festive season and dear old Santa has dropped off a Christmas libation. In fact, a whole bottle of libation in the form of a Remy Martin 1738 cognac. Clearly all my childhood years of leaving a glass of brandy and a snack for Father Christmas have now paid off. Either that or my wife knows me all too well.

Bottle of Remy Martin 1738 cognac

Remy Martin 1738

Although it would be a good way of bolstering my ego to pretend that I am some type of cognac aficionado, that would be a lie. Equally, claiming to be a connoisseur would be nothing more than a fabrication. The best I can offer is that in truth, I do sometimes enjoy sitting in my study with a good book and an equally good snifter of cognac just to relax. And no, I wouldn’t be dressed in a smoking jacket and seated in a high-backed deep-red leather chair – it’s more likely to be a T-shirt and my chair is a beat-up un-named item that I rescued from a rummage sale (or jumble sale to my non-US readers.)

Brandy is a drink made from the distillation of wine, which means boiling the wine until the alcohol turns to steam, then collecting this steam and cooling it to become liquid alcohol again. I’m sure there’ much more to it but as a US resident, I am not legally allowed to do this in my backyard shed, so I can’t speak from experience. And considering that some brandies can sell for hundreds of dollars per glass, there are some nuances needed to make a quality drink.

The word brandy is defined by the OED as;

…an ardent spirit distilled from wine or grapes; but the name is also applied to spirits of similar flavour and appearance, obtained from other materials.

which is actually a shortened form of the drink’s original name, brandy-wine. It first appears in English as brandwine, brandewine, and brandy-wine in the 17th century. In 1640, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher wrote in there Comedies and tragedies, “Buy any brand wine, buy any brand wine?” Ten years later in The Roxburghe Ballads, we see, “It is more fine than Brandewine, The Butterboxes’ Poison.”

Ultimately, it comes from the Dutch brandewijn, which in turn comes from branden meaning “to burn” (and in this case, the burning is the distillation process) and wijn, which means, unsurprisingly, wine. So brandy is literally burned wine. It’s also why it is referred to in the OED definition as ardent because this derives from the Latin ardere meaning “to burn.”

Cognac is the name of a specific type of brandy; namely brandy made from grapes found in the Cognac region of France. There are very strict rules that have to be followed before a brandy can be called a “Cognac,” which not only specifies the types of grapes that must be used but which types of oak wood barrel are needed for the aging process (Limousin or Tronçais-type oak), itself a minimum period of two years.

As you can see in the first picture, I use a “balloon” or “snifter” glass, which is designed to help funnel the scent up from the wide base to the narrower opening. The other option, is to use the “tulip,” a glass named after the flower because of its shape, which is also designed to funnel the scent but because it is much narrower, it is felt by many enthusiasts to be a better way to enjoy ones drink.

brandy glasses

Tulip and Balloon

What’s somewhat comforting is that I turn out to be in good company as far as my love of cognac is concerned. The noted lexicographer Samuel Johnson – also referred to as Dr. Johnson – appears to have been a fan. In James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) he is quoted as saying;

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy

And in his play Man and Superman, the heroic George Bernard Shaw writes;

Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned

George Bernard Shaw

I guess when I die and go to Hell, I’ll at least be able to sit around drinking cognac with Johnson and Shaw. Sure beats sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.


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Filed under Etymology, Uncategorized, Word Origins

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