Education

Brown Spirits

The term 'brown spirits' or 'brown goods' refers to those spirits that have a brown color and are typically aged in wood. This includes whiskey and brandy. Whiskey is a spirit obtained from the distillation of a fermented mash of grain and usually aged in oak. Brandy is obtained by distilling wine or a fermented mash of fruit.

 

Whiskey - Whisky

Confusingly, there are two correct ways of spelling whiskey. Whiskey with the 'e' is used by distillers in the United States and Ireland while Whisky without the 'e' comes from Scotland and Canada. There seems to be no clear reason why the two spellings evolved but the word whiskey does have a long history:

Latin:
Aqua ardens means 'burning water'
Aqua vitae means 'water of life'

Gaelic:
Uisge Beathe means 'water of life'
Usqe Baugh means 'water of life'

English:
Usky means 'water of life'
Whiskey means 'water of life'

Whiskey is produced throughout the world. Japan and Australia are known for some fine examples. Germany and the Czech Republic have number of whiskey distillers. Even India is known as a third tier Whiskey producer. The character of each region's product is influenced by the local water used, the type and character of the grain(s) used and the methods of production. The bulk of the world's whiskey production though, comes from Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Canada.

Scotch Malt Whisky

While most facts have been lost with the passage of time, there is incredible evidence that distillation arrived in Scotland when Celtic Christian monks brought their skills from Ireland during the Middle Ages. Using abundant local grain and water, the monks probably made the first whiskies to fend off the cold Scottish climate. In those times, it was primarily the responsibility of the monasteries for the production and perpetuation of alcoholic beverages. They had the time and resources to experiment with distilled spirits. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the monasteries were dissolved and monks were forced to make their way in the world with whatever skills they had. Their most profitable skill was distilling, and Scotch whisky became a way of life.

During this period, farmers were making their own Whisky, and not only for their own consumption. Often Whisky was used to barter goods or to pay the landlord rent. By the early 1600's the Scottish Parliament realized the potential revenue that could be gained by taxing Whiskey production. A tax levy was passed in 1644 that forced most distilling to become an underground industry. Smuggling became rampant and confrontations with the Excise man common. For the next 150 years the Scottish people resisted the oppressive taxation of their favorite drink, until the British Parliament passed the excise tax of 1823. This act sanctioned Whisky production for a license fee and small per gallon tax. Scotch Whisky became a legitimate and profitable industry. The timing was propitious because as phylloxera began to devastate the vineyards of Europe later in the century, Scotch whisky began to replace Cognac and brandy as a drink of international choice.

Scotch Whisky is made following the same steps of distillation outlined above but also includes the important malting step. First the raw materials are selected. In this case that is predominantly barley from England and elsewhere. When whisky was first made in Scotland the grain was grown locally but today the region cannot meet the demand. The barley is then prepared for distillation by the three step malting process. First it is steeped in water for about two days until softened. Water content in the grain rises from about 10% to nearly 50%, which later helps to accelerate germination. Steeping the barley in water also helps to remove carbon dioxide. Steeping is followed by germination. The grain used to be spread out on the floor of the malting house for three weeks and turned regularly with shovels, known as shields, to control the temperature and rate of germination. Today mechanical drums do it. After about five days a sprout, or rootlet, begins to appear. This germination produces the enzyme amylase, also called diastase that breaks down the grain's starches and converts them to sugars. After germination is complete the barley is called 'green malt'. Malt is germinated grain. The green malt is transferred for the third step in the malting process, kilning. The kilning process dries the malt with heated air. The malt rests on a fine screen directly above a peat fire, which gives off an oily smoke and impregnates the grain with its aroma.

This kilning, or drying, step is a very important part of the production of Scotch Whisky for a good deal of the character of a Whisky comes from the type of peat and length of time that the barley is kilned. Malt in the Highlands is kilned more that that in the Lowlands. And in Campbeltown and Islay the malt is even more heavily roasted.

The kilned malt is then transferred to the mill room where it is ground into meal, or grist. This step is followed by mashing. The milled barley malt is fed into a mash tun, or mash tub - a stainless steel vessel that looks like a fermentation tank. It is thoroughly mixed with warm water until all of the starches are converted into sugar by the diastase. When the water is drawn off it is called the wort. The wort contains sugar and the flavors from the barley.

The wort is moved to the fermentation tanks where yeasts are added to start this step in the distillation process. Just like in wine, the yeasts act upon the sugar to produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. When fermentation is complete the liquid is referred to as the beer or wash. It is called beer because to this point the process is the same as for making beer except for the omission of hops.

The wash is put into copper pot stills for distillation. The liquid is boiled above 173 degrees F. Above this temperature the alcohol vaporizes and rises in the still. The vapors are trapped and cooled in the condensers, reverting back into liquid form. That clear liquid is alcohol and is sometimes called the low wines. The low wines go back into the pot still to be distilled a second time. The alcoholic vapors that are released from the second distillation are divided into thirds- the heads, the heart and the tails. At the beginning and end of distillation too many impurities are carried over with the spirit, which, if used, might impair the flavor of the final product. So it is only the heart that is used. Some top Whiskey producers may use as little as the middle 20% of the distillation.

The twice-distilled spirit comes off at approximately 140 proof and is placed in oak barrels for aging. They are generally made from American white oak and may be new but are usually used. Some producers have been experimenting with used sherry and port casks. The choice of barrel greatly affects the flavor of the Whisky. Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in barrel. At the time of barreling Whisky, like many other spirits, is reduced to about 124 proof with the addition of water. Reduction with water also takes place before bottling. Most producers claim to use the best spring water available, which is important because the choice of water can greatly influence the taste of the final product. Water that flows through granite gives a neutral clean flavor while water from peat gives an earthy flavor.

Scotch Malt Whisky began a run in popularity during the 1990's. Many reviews in the press, combined with the revived trend of pairing cigar smoking with single malts focused a bright spotlight on this segment of the spirits industry. Yet single malt Scotch whisky accounts for only 6% of total Scotch whisky production. A Single Malt Whisky is one that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley, yeast and water.

Defining the whisky regions has been an on-going process. In 1784 the Wash Act drew a line across Scotland dividing the country into Highland and Lowland. Highland distillers were permitted to use smaller stills with weaker washes more slowly than their Lowland counterparts, so producing higher quality whiskies of more complex character. By the beginning of the 19th century certain districts began to be recognized for their distinctive styles. The HIGHLANDS was divided into four regions: North Highlands, West Highlands, Central Highlands and East Highlands. Speyside has since been carved out of the Eastern Highlands. The western part of the country includes CAMPBELTOWN and the islands, predominantly ISLAY and SKYE.

SPEYSIDE is Scotland's premier malt whisky area. With nearly two-thirds of all the country's distilleries, Speyside is the heartland of production. Much of the finest whisky-making barley is grown here. It is roughly outlined as the area east of Inverness and north of the Grampian Mountains. Speyside whiskies are generally made from lightly peated malt and tend to be lighter than Highland and Island malts. Some would go further to say that Speyside malts generally have a sweet flavor and high esotery aromas. Yet, with nearly 60 distilleries the range of styles is quite wide.

The Northern HIGHLANDS distilleries are all coastal, spreading north along the eastern shore from Inverness. This wild, coast-hugging area produces broad-shouldered whiskey with a tang of sea salt. Glenmorangie and Glen Ord are two of the most famous from this region. Central Highlands records indicate that there were over a hundred distilleries within its borders in the early 1800's. Today there is a mere handful. But the city of Perth on the banks of the River Tay has become the 'Blending Capitol' of Scotland. It was the birthplace of many great houses like Dewar's and Bell's. The Western Highlands is separate from Campbeltown and is home to only two distilleries today: Oban and Ben Nevis. Campbeltown was known for producing full-bodied, peaty whiskies with a briny character. Despite smuggling during prohibition, though, most of the distilleries didn't survive to the mid 20th century.

It is said that the island of Islay (eye-la) was the cradle of whisky distilling when it was brought from Ireland in the Middle Ages. Indeed records date back to the late 15th century. Islay is 25 miles long and 19 miles wide and divided by the sea north to south. All of the distilleries stand close to the sea and most have their own piers. Islay whisky has long enjoyed a high reputation. They are famous for their smokiness, attributable to the peaty island water.

The division of the Lowlands from the Highlands by the Wash Act of 1784 reflected a long cultural, social and economic divide between the north and south. The farms and coalmines of the lowlands supported the population of north and south, as they do today. The key to distilling in the lowlands is found in the available grains - wheat and oats and barley. Distilling here became large-scale and industrialized. Lowland malts are generally light in color and weight. Many are used for blending.

Blended Scotch Whisky

Until the mid 19th century Scotch Whiskies were either single malt or single grain whiskies. Companies began the practice of blending malt whiskies with grain whiskies. Blended Scotch whiskies are the creation of a Master Blender who can create a unique whisky with subtlety, depth and character. He keeps a library of whiskies from various sources and of various ages. He may blend as many as 40-60 different whiskies to make his unique brand. Most blended Scotch Whiskies indicate on the label the youngest whisky in the blend (i.e., 10, 12, 18 years old).

Irish Whiskey

Irish Whiskey is distilled from a fermented mash of grains. Both malted and unmalted barley is used, as well as corn, rye, wheat and oats. Irish Whiskey is made in the same fashion as Scotch whisky except that it is triple distilled. The wash is first distilled to produce the low wines that go back into the pot still for a second distillation. The middle cut is taken from that distillation and returned to the pot for a third time. A few companies will distill grain whisky in a column still and then blend with pot-still whiskies to produce a lighter bodied style.

Irish whiskey must be aged for a minimum of three years in seasoned, used, barrels. Quite often though they see 7-9 years of aging. This produces a smooth, medium bodied unique whiskey.

American Whiskey - History

In colonial America rum was the drink of choice. This was mostly because little grain was grown on the east coast of North America. Also, due to trade with the Caribbean, sugarcane molasses was plentiful. America's first still was operated on Staten Island, New York by William Keith in 1640. Whiskey production in America didn't take hold until the mid-1700's migration of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and Germany into Pennsylvania, western Maryland and the Carolinas where cereal grains were grown.

In 1791, the American Congress enacted a tax on Whiskey to raise money to pay off debts related to the Revolutionary War. Small farmers, located mainly in Pennsylvania, who distilled and consumed whiskey in prodigious quantities, resisted the tax by attacking the federal revenue officers who tried to collect it. The rebellion grew until July of 1794 when about 500 armed men attacked and burned the home of a regional tax inspector.

The following month, President George Washington issued a congressionally authorized proclamation ordering the rebels to return home and calling out militia from four neighboring states. Washington ordered 13,000 troops into western Pennsylvania to quell the uprising.

Many Americans were horrified by the overwhelming use of governmental force used to quell the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. They feared it might be the first step away from democracy towards absolute power. To others, the most significant outcome of the rebellion was that national authority had triumphed; winning against its first rebellious adversary and winning the support of the state governments to enforce federal law within the states. What had been the first significant threat to the existence of the new nation became instead the first successful use of the national authority enforcing the federal law over the individual states, reinforcing the concept of a federal republic.

The Whiskey Ring of the 1880's was a plan concocted by a group of whiskey distillers who conspired to defraud the federal government of taxes. Operating mainly in the Midwest, the whiskey ring bribed internal Revenue officials and their accomplices in Washington in order to keep liquor taxes for themselves. Benjamin Bristow, Secretary of the Treasury, organized a secret investigation that exposed the ring and resulted in 238 indictments and 110 convictions.

The public was outraged by allegations that the illegally held tax money was to be used in the Republican Party's national campaign for the reelection of President Ulysses S. Grant. Though Grant was not suspected, his private secretary, Orville Babcock, was indicted in the conspiracy, but acquitted after Grant testified to his innocence.

Prohibition arose from the sincere belief among many Americans, mostly white Protestants, that drinking, especially among the millions of newly arrived immigrants in the cities, posed a threat to law and order. In 1917, with the U.S. entering World War I, most people accepted temporary prohibition as a measure to help the war effort. The grain used in liquor production would be devoted to food production.

But after the war, Prohibitionists staged a drive to ban liquor permanently. The Eighteenth Amendment and the federal enforcement law, the Volstead Act, were pushed through the House and Senate by a canny Washington lobbyist named Wayne B. Wheeler. After passage, the Republicans were staunchly dry but the Democrats were divided over Prohibition. Most new immigrants were Democrats and they couldn't understand why something that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years should be forbidden. Thousands of jobs were lost as breweries and wineries were closed. Because of Prohibition, liquor went underground. Liquor was on everyone's mind: people were curious and drinking became more attractive now that it was illegal. Saloons operated as speakeasies and by the late 1920's the country had more speakeasies than it ever had saloons. Women who would never have considered entering a saloon were now patronizing speakeasies, sitting at bars and enjoying the new 'cocktail'. The cocktail came into popularity during this time when poorly made illicit liquor had to be mixed with fruit juices or something else simply to make it palatable.

The term bootlegging came into general use in the Midwest during the 1880's to denote the practice of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boot tops when going to trade with Indians. Bootlegging became part of the American vocabulary during Prohibition. The Volstead Act was under-funded and under-enforced leading to widespread corruption amongst the agents intended to enforce the act. Finally, Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover called for stricter enforcement claiming, "If a law is wrong, its rigid enforcement is the surest guaranty of its repeal. If it is right, its enforcement is the quickest method of compelling respect for it." With stricter enforcement, the law became more threatening to the average citizen and aroused their protest. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in December 1933.

The earliest bootleggers brought illicit liquor in from Canada and Mexico but the practice continued at significant levels into the 1950's. After Prohibition, individual states were given the right to control distribution of alcohol within their borders. In some states, certain counties were declared 'dry' where the sale and consumption of alcohol was illegal. Bootleggers ignored the laws and supplied drinking residents in those areas. The second key reason bootlegging survived, particularly in the Southern Hill country, was to avoid the federal taxes. This led to creation of a national sport. Federal agents tried to stop this tax avoidance by destroying the distribution system. To outrun the law enforcement vehicles bootleggers converted ordinary street or "stock" cars into souped up racers. Disagreements between bootleggers as to who had the fastest car led to Sunday afternoon races on oval tracks. This led to the formation in 1947 of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The fame and fortune of NASCAR racers like Richard Petty can be traced back to a couple of good old boys racing their loads of bootleg whiskey across the hills of Tennessee.

Towards the end of the 1980's, American distillers watched the rise in popularity of single malt from the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Fortunately they understood the public's desire for greater quality and their willingness to pay for it. This has led to ultra-premium whiskies from Tennessee, single-barrel and small-batch bourbons from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. American distillation has reached a high point where it can compete on a top quality level with whiskies from all over the world.

American Blended Whiskey

American blended whiskey is a balanced blend of straight whiskeys and neutral spirits, both of which are normally made using the continuous still. An American blended whiskey must contain at least 20% straight whiskeys and be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Most, however contain about 30-40% straight whiskeys. Corn, by far, is the predominant grain used in the making of American blended whiskey. Whiskey is blended in order to achieve a consistently uniform product. Blended whiskey has a lighter more subtle character than straight whiskeys.

American Straight Whiskey

In the United States, straight whiskeys are named for the grains that dominate their mash, with at least 51% of a single grain required for whiskeys to be designated as straight. If a mash of at least 51% barley malt is used, the product is straight malt whiskey. If rye malt is dominant, it is straight rye whiskey. Straight bourbon mash contains at least 51% corn while straight corn whiskey contains at least 80% corn in the mash. Straight whiskey is distilled to no more than 160 proof and withdrawn from the cistern room at no more than 110 and not less than 80 proof. Straight whiskey must be aged for a minimum of 24 months in new charred oak barrels.

Bourbon

After the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, many of the disgruntled farmers moved from Pennsylvania and the close over-sight of the tax collector to the frontier states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Corn was the most abundant grain grown and once they found the iron-free, limestone filtered underground water, a new industry was born. Bourbon takes its name from that county in Kentucky where the first bourbons were made.

What makes an American whiskey Bourbon? First, it must be made from 51-79% corn. At 80% or above it would be corn whiskey and not bourbon. A rule of thumb in bourbon production is that the higher the corn content, the lighter the whiskey. Other grains used in the mash would be barley, wheat and rye, although the latter two are rarely used together because they are not compatible. Often, bourbons are referred to as wheat bourbons or rye bourbons, even though corn makes up the largest percentage of the grains, because the supplemental grains have a greater influence on the final fragrance and taste. Rye gives a spicy character while wheat is considered dense or textured.

Second, bourbon must be aged in new, charred white-oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Most bourbons, however, are aged longer than the two-year minimum with an average being about four to six years. The barrels usually come from Missouri or Kentucky. There are four levels of char, graded one (the lightest) to four (the deepest penetrating char). The deeper the char, the more intense the color, aroma and flavor of the bourbon. By the third level of charring the sap of the wood begins to caramelize, releasing a notable vanilla flavor into the bourbon. This is referred to as the "red layer". Overall, the barrel ends up being a significant contributor to the character of the bourbon.

Third, a bourbon cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof. This is significant because the higher the proof of the distillate, the more neutral the spirit. In fact, any spirit distilled out above 190 proof is called a neutral spirit. So the lower the proof of distillation, the more congeners, and hence flavors, in the spirit. And fourth, can be cut only with water to reduce the alcohol level. Distillers claim that the best water is the same water used for distillation. Interestingly enough, although bourbon is most closely associated with the state of Kentucky, it can be made and labeled as such anywhere in the United States that currently produced or have in the past produced bourbon. This includes Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Sour Mash

Sour mash is the liquid residue left behind after a batch of milled grain has been fermented. While the law does not dictate it, most bourbon is made using a sour mash. This means that at least one quarter of the fermenting mash must be still age, or spent beer from the previous distillation. The mash is then allowed to ferment from 72 to 96 hours and usually at low temperatures. Using a mash that is sour, or slightly high in acidity, is to promote the development of the yeast and to inhibit the growth of bacteria during fermentation.

Tennessee Whiskey

Like bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey is made using at least 51% corn and it follows the same steps through distillation. But when the whiskey comes out of the still it is slowly introduced into vats where it seeps down through layers of charcoal made from hard maple trees. It takes ten days for the first drops to appear and then the process continues until the vat is empty. This vat is known as the leaching vat. From there the whiskey is put into charred white oak barrels for storage and aging. This additional step of charcoal aging results in a gentle, mellow whiskey.

Bottled in Bond

The Bottled in Bond Act of 1894 permitted distillers to bottle straight whiskey without paying the excise taxes provided the whiskey was at least four years old. After bottling, the whiskey remained in the bonded warehouse until the distiller was ready to sell it, at which time the tax was to be paid. In 1980 the system was updated to what is known as All In Bond. This is a similar joint custody of the spirits between distiller and the government but an inspector is not required at all times and strip labels are not required on the bottles. But the spirits must be straight whiskies, at least four years old, distilled below 160 proof and bottled at 100 proof. In addition to whiskies, other products like rum and brandy may be stored in bond.

Canadian Whisky

The Canadian government imposes few restrictions on the production of whisky. Cereal grains are used with corn the most popular followed by rye. Barley and wheat are also used but not one grain accounts for more than 50%. So, while it is often believed, Canadian whiskies are not rye whiskies. The proportions of grains used are trade secrets of the distillers. Canadian whisky is made using the continuous still and is aged for a minimum of three years. Most, though, are aged for six to eight years in oak barrels. Canadian whiskies are light bodied and delicate but with distinctive flavor and pleasant aroma.

Brandy

Generally Brandy is the beloved spirit distilled from wine or a fermented fruit mash. In the European Union the proper meaning of the word brandy is a grape based spirit and it must be aged for at least six months in oak. But just about any type of fruit can be made into brandy. Fermented grape juice is the most popular. Cognac and Armagnac from southwest France are the most famous but there are many others. A number of brandies are made from a wide range of fruits like apricot, peach and apple (of which Calvados from the northern Normandy region of France is famous) and are commonly identified by their fruit - apple brandy. Pomace brandy is made from the residue of winemaking: from the pomace. Such a brandy is called Grappa in Italy, Marc in France and Bagaceira in Portugal. These brandies are quite distinctive. And like other distilled liquors they do not improve after bottling.

Cognac

Cognac is brandy but all brandies are not Cognac. Cognac is a brandy distilled from wines made of grapes grown exclusively within the legal limits of the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of France. It has become known as one of the finest spirits available in the world. The city of Cognac sits on banks of the navigable Charente River, not far from and north of Bordeaux. In the surrounding vineyards the white Ugni Blanc grape is planted. The superior quality of Cognac is not just a product of the special distillation process that has been used for centuries but also the ideal combination of soil, climate and other conditions.

During the 1600's the region around Cognac was predominantly Protestant. The royal proclamation, "The Edict of Nantes", was their guaranty of religious freedom. When King Louis XIV revoked the edict many Protestants fled. Some went to South Africa to establish a winemaking community there. Others fled to England, Ireland and Holland.

They began to import the wine produced by their relatives back home. But that was expensive. To save space and money, they ordered that the wines be distilled before shipment from France. The plan was to ship out the 'eau-de-vie' (water of life) then add water at the final destination. This burned wine - Brandywine - as the Dutch called it, was shipped in oak barrels. One merchant tasted the product when it arrived in Holland and found that it was delicious; that it had improved by its aging in cask. And so brandy was born.

The Cognac district is divided into six distinct crus that radiate out from the city of Cognac and that were delimited in 1936:

Champagne: 1st Cru 32,250 acres
Petite Champagne: 2nd Cru 40,000 acres
Borderies: 3rd Cru 10,000 acres
Fins Bois: 4th Cru 94,250 acres
Bons Bois: 5th Cru 44,750 acres
Bois Ordinaires / Communs: 6th Cru 7,500 acres

The small district at the center of production is called Grande Champagne. It has nothing to do with the sparkling wine from the Champagne region. It comes from the Roman word "champ", which means field. The Grande Champagne is almost completely surrounded by Petite Champagne. It is the chalky soil of these two districts south of the city of Cognac that produces the most desirable grapes. Brandies of the Grande Champagne are distinctly floral and offer great depth while those of Petite Champagne have fruity and spicy notes. The smallest crus the Borderies, which produce Cognac noted for its distinct violet and nutty fragrances. As one moves out through the Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires, the layer of chalk in the soil becomes shallower while the earthy top layer becomes thicker. The Bois are so-named because they used to be covered with woods and are immense areas with a wide array of soils. The brandies from these districts are less grand than that from the other crus.

Cognac Production

While Ugni Blanc is the predominant grape used to make Cognac, FolleBlanche and Colombard are allowed. But Ugni Blanc (formerly know asSaint Emilion and the same as Trebbiano from Italy) offers a high yield, low alcohol and high acidity - not a great combination for a quality wine but perfect for Cognac.

After the grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented, the wine is sent to the distillery. Some producers leave the lees in contact with the wine for added character while others let the lees settle out. Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills that are heated over open flames. This is referred to as the traditional Charentais method. The first distillation, premiere chauffe, produces a raw brandy called the brouillis, which has an alcohol content of about 30%. It is returned to the pot still for the second distillation or bonne chauffe. In this second distillation only the heart, or coeur, of the brandy is captured and it averages 70% alcohol. The pre and post runs, referred to as the heads and tails, with their fusil oils and other impurities are separated out and added to the subsequent batch.

Cognac distillation is a relatively slow process. It takes twenty-four hours to run a batch through twice. The alembics work continuously seven days a week during the season, which starts in November and lasts three to five months. The copper alembic still distinguishes the distilling of Cognac from other spirits. It consists of a boiler that can hold a maximum of 30 hectoliters (792 gallons) but is only filled to 25 hectoliters (660 gallons); the helm resting on top of it, which narrows down into a so-called swan's neck; and finally the cooling coil. It takes a great deal of precision and expertise on the part of the distiller and his staff to produce a quality cognac.

One of the most influential parts of producing cognac is the aging process. Right out of the still, the distillate is colorless but has a sharp, slightly fruity aroma. The coppery color comes from its first year of aging in wood. Traditionally this is a barrel made of oak from the Limousin forest near Limoges but also the Troncais woodland. After the first year the cognac is transferred to old barrels to prevent it from absorbing too much tannin. The casks are laid down and the cognac may be aged for up to forty or fifty years. Each year between two to three percent is lost to evaporation. This quantity is referred to as the "angels' share". During maturation the liquid takes on a beautiful amber color. The aroma changes into a delicately mellow aroma.

Each cognac is the creation of the skill and intuition of the cellar master, or maitre de chai. It is his responsibility to blend as many as a hundred different brandies into the final product. Virtually every cognac is a blend. This is seen as preferable because the cellar master can take the best examples of what he has and blend them in the most complementary way. This blending is done many months before bottling. Distilled water is added to bring the strength to 40-43 % alcohol as required by law. Coloring, caramel, is added for uniformity of color. Once cognac is bottled its character will not change.

Armagnac

Armagnac is the less well-known cousin to cognac. It is made in southeast of Bordeaux in Gascony. Ugni Blanc is still the major white grape. But two key things set Armagnac apart from Cognac. It is not made in pot stills but is a continuous operation. Armagnac is aged indifferent oak, not Limousin like cognac but in black oak from the Monlezun forest.

Armagnac is labeled similarly to cognac with the same age requirements for Three Star, VSOP and so on. But age statements on the label are allowed for Armagnac, but must be the age of the youngest component of the blend. Armagnac has a pungent bouquet and a taste that some call more rustic than cognac.

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