Learn with A Bar Above

Brandy & Pisco

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Brandy is a category of spirits that begins as fruit. Fruit is mashed or made into a juice and this is the source of the “Sweet water” that’s fermented and later distilled. Most brandies are made with grapes, though they can be made with any fruit that has natural sugars.

How it’s Made:

  • Fruit is turned into a juice first. Since this fruit juice already has prevalent natural sugars, it doesn’t need to be roasted or boiled like starches do.
  • The juice is then fermented and turned into wine.
  • The wine is distilled into a higher proof alcohol
  • Finally, the spirit is aged.

Types of Brandy:

The four most common types of brandy are Cognac, Armignac, Calvados and Pisco – and we’ll discuss them in the next four tabs.

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The most recognized, coveted and highly-priced style of brandy is Cognac.  Like many French beverages, in order for a brandy to be called “Cognac” it must adhere to a long list of very strict guidelines. Cognacs are intended to represent the best of their grape, and are all aged a minimum of two years in French oak barrels.

Production Guidelines for Cognac:

  • First of all the grapes must be grown and undergo production in the Cognac region of France.
  • The wine must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and have an alcohol percentage of 70 %, leaving 30 % of the distillation for water and flavor.
  • This clear spirit is then rested in French oak at least 2 years and up to 50 years.
  • Cognacs are typically blended before bottling. The age on the bottle will represent the youngest of the mix.

Cognac Labeling & Age:

In general, producers will exceed the minimum age requirements. Here are the most common labels you can see and the age / quality they designate:

Age Designation Minimum Age
VS (Very Special)
3 Stars
2 Years
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale)
VO (Very Old)
4.5 Years
XO (Extraordinarily Old)
Vielle Reserve
Horse d’Age
6 Years

Cognac in Cocktails:

Due to price, you will almost certainly be limited to VS and VSOP quality Cognacs for use in cocktails. You may notice aggressive alcohol, as well as the presence of sweet wood notes, nuttiness, spice, hints of chocolate and floral fruit aromas.

Photo by Sami Keinanen / CC BY


Another French region with a spirit namesake, the Agmagnac region of France also produces excellent brandies.

How it’s Made:

While the production method is still regulated, it’s nowhere near as strict as those for Cognac.

  • First of all the grapes must be grown and undergo production in the Armagnac region of France.
  • The wine is only distilled once to a minimum of 52% and maximum of 72% alcohol content. (This leaves 48% of its volume for water and flavor.)
  • The oak used to age is a different type than that used for Cognac.

Armagnac Labeling & Age:

Like Cognac, producers will generally exceed the minimum age requirements. You will notice that two of the three age designations have longer age requirements. This is likely because Armagnacs are not distilled to as high of a percent of alcohol as cognacs. This lower proof will mean that the spirit will pull flavor from the barrel more slowly.

Here are the most common labels you can see and the age / quality they designate:

Age Designation Minimum Age
VS (Very Special)
3 Stars
2 Years
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale)
5 Years
XO (Extraordinarily Old)
Vielle Reserve
Horse d’Age
10 Years

Armagnac in Cocktails:

Despite its longer age limits for the higher age designations, Armagnacs tend to be less expensive then Cognacs, and the younger designations are better quality spirits with more matured, aligned flavors.

Working with Armagnac in cocktails, you find a spirit with a rustic character with a dense mouthfeel and more fruit qualities.

Photo by thegift73 / CC BY


In the French region of Calvados, a brandy with the same name is produced. This brandy is quite different from the previous two in that grapes are not typically used. Instead, they use apples and sometimes pears.

How it’s Made:

  • Apples and / or Pears are turned into a fermented cider
  • The cider is distilled to around 70% alcohol content
  • After distillation, Calvados is aged in oak barrels

Calvados Labeling & Age:

Calvados has similar age designations to Cognacs and Armagnacs:

Age Designation Minimum Age
Trois Etoiles
Trois Pommes
2 Years
Vieux – Reserve 3 Years
Vieille Reserve
4 Years
Hors d’Age
6 Years

Calvados in Cocktails:

When creating cocktails with Calvados, expect some apple and / or pear presence, to varying degrees. The longer it has been aged, the more of the vanilla and spice will dominate the apple and / or pear flavor.

Photo by olliethebastard/ CC BY


Pisco is a grape-based brandy produced in Chile and Peru. Each country has its own methods for production & types, so we will look at the key differences side-by-side for comparison.

Peruvian Pisco

Chilean Pisco

Grape Varietals

  • 4 Aromatic: Muscat, Albilla, Italia & Torontel
  • 4 Non-Aromatic: Quebranta, Mollar, Negra Criolla & Uvina
Limited to 3, Moscatel being the most common


Distilled to Bottling strength: 38-42% ABV. Unlike nearly all other distilled spirits, the “heads” (or first part of the distillation) is kept and re-introduced into the rest of the distillate. Distilled to higher ABV and water is added to achieve desired bottling strength


Pisco is rested for a minimum of three months. Peruvian Pisco must not be aged in containers that alter the characteristics of the spirit (so it cannot be aged in Oak, like Chilean Pisco.)Aged in Oak barrels

Types of Pisco

  • Puro Pisco: The result of a single varietal distillation, which can be either aromatic or non-aromatic and captures the identity of that single varietal.
  • Alcoholado: Made from a blend of 2 or more varietals.
  • Musto Verde: A pisco in which the fermentation is halted before the sugars have been fully converted into alcohol.
  • 30-35% – Pisco Corriente o Tradicional
  • 35-40% – Pisco Especial
  • 40% – Pisco Reservado
  • 43% or more – Gran Pisco

 Use in Cocktails

When looking to add an aromatic, floral quality to a cocktail, a Puro Pisco made from an aromatic grape is a good choice.
Musto Verde is an excellent way to add both sweetness and rich mouthfeel to a cocktail. Chilean Piscos are a good choice when looking to add the bright pisco flavor but also want some oak influence.