Brandy is a delicate and intricate drink and finding a cheap bottle is tough. With a spirit like vodka, you can grab almost any grain or starch (like a potato), distill it, filter it, and bottle it and you’re good to go. Brandy takes way more time and effort.
First, you have to make a decent wine. That wine gets distilled and then aged for years in oak to give it that nice brown hue and beautifully mellow flavor on the palate. That’s a long process with a long storage period that costs serious time and cash. Of course, shortcuts are used in some cases. It’s not uncommon for the lower-end brandies to be unaged and instead colored with caramel to achieve that lovely brown hue.
A quick note on decimating brandy labels before we begin: In general, you’ll see VS, VSOP, and XO around the name of the distiller, like “Hennessey VSOP.” “VS” means “very special” and is a blend of at least two-year-old brandies. “VSOP” means “very superior old pale” and is a blend of at least four-year-old brandies. “XO” means “extra old” and is a blend of at least six-year-old brandies (sometimes this is called “Napoléon” as well). And, lastly, there’s “Hors d’âge” which means the brandy is aged for up to ten years or just a long time past the other designations.
Of course, there are different words for this if the brandy is from, say, Spain. But let’s stick with the French here as that’s the bulk of what you’re going to find stateside.
California’s Korbel Brandy is a great place to start your brandy journey. While this isn’t exactly a brandy you’ll be sipping by the fireside, it’s a perfect cocktail base. In fact, Korbel is a must have for whipping up Wisconsin’s favorite drink, the Brandy Old Fashioned. Grab some for your shelf and try swapping out whiskey for brandy the next time you’re mixing cocktails. It’s a pleasant change of pace.