Whenever anyone feels a little under the weather Anne can be counted on to bring on the brandy (and hot water). And during her travels in Norway she also has some Brandy every now and then.

had excellent flatbrod (flatbread) and brandy and water

Anne Lister, travel journal, August 3. 1839
In ancient Greece and Rome, people used Brandy as both an antiseptic and an anesthetic, and there are accounts of Arab alchemists in the 7th and 8th centuries experimenting with distilling grapes and other fruits to create medicinal spirits.  Their knowledge and techniques quickly spread beyond Islam’s borders, as shown by the production of  grape Brandy appearing in Spain and Ireland (via missionary monks) by the end of the 8th century.

It was in the 17th century, however, that Brandy became recognized throughout the world.  The word itself derives from the Dutch “brandewijn” (burnt wine), which is how the Dutch traders who introduced the drink to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain described wine that had been burnt or boiled to distill it.  The process seems to have evolved somewhat by accident to save space in the ship’s hold.  The traders boiled the wines to reduce their volume by evaporation and then, upon arrival at their destination, reconstituted them with water.  Eventually, someone observed that some wines benefited from this process.

Depending upon the region and the fruit, Brandy falls into four main categories: Fruit Brandies, American Brandies, Armagnac, and Cognac.  All Brandies made by fermenting fruit other than grapes are known as Fruit Brandy.  Fruit Brandies are clear, generally 80 to 90 proof, and distilled directly from the fruit itself.  Fruit Brandies, except those made from berries, are distilled from fruit wines and one should not confuse these with fruit-flavored Brandy, which is grape Brandy flavored with the extract of another fruit.  Since berries tend to lack enough sugar to make a wine with enough alcohol for proper distillation, they are soaked in high-proof spirit to extract their flavor and aroma.  This extract is then distilled once at a low proof.  Brandy made from apples is well known in Spain and France and is traditionally not placed in casks.  It is therefore traditionally clear.  Calvados, the Apple Brandy from the Normandy region of Northwestern France, is probably the best known of this type.  Eau-de-vie (water of life) is a term that refers to spirits in general and specifically to colorless fruit Brandy from the Alsace region of France.  Fruit Brandies are made from many fruits, including pears, apples, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries and they are generally served chilled or over ice.

Engraving of an 18th Century Distillery
Cognac is the best-known Brandy in the world, a benchmark with which to judge most other Brandies.  The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux.  This region is further subdivided into six growing zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bois Ordinaires, Borderies, Fins Bois, and Bons Bois.  The first of these regions produces the best Cognac and this designation often appears on bottle labels.  Cognac labeled Fine Champagne is a blend of Petite and Grand Champagnes.  The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Columbard.  These grapes produce wines that are thin, tart, and low in alcohol; poor qualities for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Brandy.  The producers then double distill this wine in pot stills before aging it in oaken casks to become Cognac.  All Cognac begins in new oak to mellow its taste and impart their golden color.  Those batches chosen for long-term aging are, after a few years, transferred to “seasoned” casks.  Armagnac is like Cognac with the greatest difference being the method of distillation – the use of column stills and not pot stills.  Armagnac is generally aged longer than Cognac with its best years between the teens to mid-twenties.  Anything over thirty years is considered overly aged

American Brandies
So, where was American Brandy first made?  Remember, Brandy can be made from grapes as well from other fruits and each of these has its own starting point.  By most accounts, Brandy made from grapes originated in the west in what is today the wine country of California.  Many historians believe that Spanish missionaries and Mexican colonists expanding up the California coast brought the spirit distillation process to North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Most American Brandy is distilled in California by individual firms.  This Brandy tends to be lighter and smoother than European Brandy.

The origins of American favorites like Peach Brandy from the South and Apple Brandy from the North, and eventually the Midwestern US; favorites for drinking, cooking, medicine, and trade, have different origins.  Expanding upon the European traditions of fruit spirits such as Eau de Vie and Calvados, European immigrants and second-generation colonists set up stills to take advantage of the plentiful and diverse fruits that thrived in North America.  In fact, Apple Brandy, known as Apple Jack, was the first spirit distilled in colonial America.  In 1780, Robert Laird established America’s first commercial distillery, for the production of Apple Jack, at Colt’s Neck, NJ next to the Colts Neck Inn

Historic Marker for the Colt’s Neck Inn.
The colonists in the thirteen British colonies enjoyed both grape and fruit Brandy and so looked to both domestic and imported sources.  With frequent travel abroad, and especially to France, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both became lovers of products of French vineyards.  Jefferson tried and tried to cultivate varieties of French grapes at Monticello but, like more than a century of Virginia settlers before him, he was unsuccessful.  One of Jefferson’s passions was wine, and so, even on his deathbed, his doctors struggled to give him Brandy weak enough for his tastes yet strong enough for effect.

Franklin, who held no such qualms about the taste or strength of Brandy, used it for making punch.  While serving as Postmaster for the Colonies in the 1760’s, Franklin stayed with his friend James Bowdoin of Massachusetts.  Ever the considerate guest, Franklin left Bowdoin a note with his recipe for Milk Punch.  Milk Punch is a cold beverage somewhat akin to a posset, a hot drink of milk curdled with wine or ale, often spiced.  In each case, the alcohol and added acid curdle the milk.  
What follows is Benjamin Franklin’s recipe:

To make Milk Punch

Take 6 quarts of Brandy, and the Rinds of 44 Lemons pared very thin;
Steep the Rinds in the Brandy 24 hours; then strain it off.
Put to it 4 Quarts of Water, 4 large Nutmegs grated,
2 quarts of Lemon Juice, 2 pound of double refined Sugar.
When the Sugar is dissolv’d, boil 3 Quarts of Milk and put to the rest
hot as you take it off the Fire, and stir it about.
Let it stand two Hours; then run it thro’ a Jelly-bag till it is clear;
then bottle it off. 

While at Valley Forge, George Washington complained of the indignity that officers only had “stinking whiskey” unless a traveling friend or French officer visited.  Once he became President, the government reimbursed his household expenses and so they are now public record.  Among receipts in the State Library of New York is the household bill for £6, 6 shillings for Brandy, ranking it up there with beer, Madeira, claret, and champagne in the top consumables.

source: The Historic Interpreter

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