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What is Liqueur, Brandy & Vermouth?


A liqueur is a type of spirit that has been sweetened and flavored with herbs, roots, plants, flowers, fruits, dairy products, honey, spices or beans. The category encompasses products like fruit brandies, cream liqueurs, coffee liqueurs, absinthe and bitter liqueurs and amari. Liqueurs are often enjoyed after a meal as a digestif or as an aperitif, or mixed into cocktails.

Liqueurs date back six hundred years, when they were made in Italy and other countries in Europe (often by monks) to combat digestive problems and other ailments. Bitter ingredients made with bitter barks, roots, seeds and plants, which are the present-day amari, are still drunk after a meal to aid digestion.

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  • Four methods exist for flavoring a liqueur. The processes have not really changed for the last four hundred years:

    Compounding adds a mixture of sugar, water and flavorings added to the base spirit.

    Maceration involves steeping ingredients into the alcohol for weeks or even months, which coaxes out full flavors from ingredients, especially bitter ones like barks and roots.

    Percolation uses ingredients placed inside a still that flavor the spirit as it passes through a screen or net.

    Infusion steeps a liquid with fruit and/or herbs before distillation, resulting in a lightly flavored liqueur.

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Brandy is an unsweetened spirit that’s made by fermenting and then distilling fresh grape juice. Its name comes from the Dutch word “brandewijn,” or “burned wine” and it is made all over the world, either unaged and colored with caramel before bottling, or aged in wooden casks. The brandy category encompasses high-end historical brandies including Cognac, Armagnac and Spanish brandy, as well as pisco from Peru and Chile, and grappa or marc, a highly spirited brandy made from the pomace (or skins) of the grapes. Brandy is generally enjoyed after a meal, but it can also be sipped in cocktails like the Sidecar and Pisco Punch.

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  • Brandy was initially created for two reasons. Compared to wine, it was more stable to transport and less prone to oxidation, and the taxes paid on brandy were less than wine as the liquid’s volume was reduced during distillation. The intention was to add the water back into the brandy before drinking it, but people soon discovered that distillation and aging in barrels added complex aromas and flavors. Brandy tasted nothing like the wine from which it was produced, but it was interesting and delicious on its own right. Significant brandy production began in the fifteenth century.

    Traditional brandy is made from a number of grape varietals that are picked early so they have high acid and low sugar levels, and fermented into wine. After fermentation, brandy is distilled either in a pot still, alembic still or continuous still, and may be aged in oak barrels for a number of months or years.

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  • Brandy styles vary, from unaged Pisco used for cocktails to well-matured, highly complex XO Champagne Cognac. Here are the most popular offerings around the world:

    Cognac is made in the Cognac region of France, north of Bordeaux. The sub-regions (or “crus”) are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Communs. (The term “Champagne” in Cognac has nothing to do with the French sparkling wine.) For Cognac, wine made mainly from Ugni Blanc grapes is double-distilled in small copper pot stills heated by naked flames, and aged in French Limousin oak barrels. VS Cognac must be aged a minimum of two years, VSOP a minimum of four years and XO a minimum of six years. Fine Champagne on the label means the spirit is a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne spirits.

    Armagnac is produced in the Gascony region of France, south of Bordeaux. Armagnac production predates that of Cognac, but the region developed more slowly as transportation was not as advanced. Wine made mainly from the Ugni Blanc grape (as well as Baco 22A, Folle Blanche and Colombard) is distilled using a small continuous still called an alembic armagnaçais, or a pot still.  Armagnac is aged mainly in French Limousin casks: VS for a minimum of one year, VSOP for a minimum of four years and XO for a minimum of five years. If there is a vintage on the label all of the ingredients must come from that single year.

    Spanish brandy was originally made to stabilize Jerez wines for transport. Today, it is made mainly in Spain’s Jerez and Penedés regions. Jerez uses Airén grapes from La Mancha, ferments them and uses a pot still if the brandy is holandas and a continuous still if it’s aguardientes; the brandy is aged in a Solera system (like Sherry) for a minimum of six months for Solera, a minimum of one year for Reserva and a minimum of three years for Solera Gran Reserva (for this designation the brandy must be 100% holandas.) Penedés distilleries use local Parellada grapes fermented and distilled in a pot still and aged either in a Solera system or by using static aging.

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  • American brandy is mostly made in California. If it’s not aged at least two years, it must be labeled as “immature,” and those brandies made from anything else besides grapes must be labeled with what is used.

    Pisco is produced in Chile and Peru from a distillate of aromatic grapes. Peruvians prefer to use a pot still, while Chileans like a continuous still. Pisco may be bottled unaged or lightly aged, and it’s mainly designed to be enjoyed in cocktails like the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch.

    Calvados is distilled in a designated area of the Normandy and Brittany area of France from fermented apple juice. (Those labeled AOC Domfrontais may have 30% pears.) It’s either double-distilled in a pot (mandatory for Pays d’Auge Calvados)or a column still. Calvados is aged in barrels, a minimum of three years for Fine/***, a minimum of three years for Vieux/Reserve, a minimum of four years for VO/VSOP/Vieille Reserve and a minimum of six years for XO.

    Grappa/Marc is made from the grape pomace, the pressed grape skins that are left over after making wine. It may be distilled in a pot or column still, and is usually a blend of varietals. This brandy is called Grappa in Italy, and Marc in France.

    Fruit Eaux-de-Vie can be made anywhere, though production is concentrated in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Alsace. For it, fruit is either crushed and fermented or macerated in neutral alcohol and then fermented, and then distilled in either a continuous or pot still. Some of the more popular styles are Kirsch (cherries), Poire Willliam (Williams Pears) and Framboise (raspberries).

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Vermouth is an aromatized wine flavored with botanicals that may include flowers, plants, roots, seeds, bark, spices, citrus and other fruit, and fortified with a grape-based spirit. Depending on its style and character, vermouth may be served over ice with a citrus twist as an aperitif before a meal, or used in cocktails like the classic Martini or Negroni.

Though the modern style of vermouth was first made in Turin, Italy in the mid to late eighteenth century, vermouth dates back to 1250 to 1000 B.C., when those living in China’s Shang and Western Zhou dynasties drank wine infused with herbs and roots. The name vermouth comes from the French pronunciation of the German wood “wermut”, which translates to wormwood, an ingredient that is often used in vermouth (as well as in absinthe.)

The classic areas for vermouth production are Italy and France, but it is also made all over the world. Wine varietals including Trebbiano, Bianchetta, Piquepoul and Catarratto are traditionally used as its base. They are fermented into a low alcohol wine, which may be aged for a brief period and then infused with dry ingredients including cinnamon, cloves, quinine, citrus peel, juniper, ginger and chamomile. Finally, vermouth is strained of solid ingredients and then fortified to around 16-18% ABV with a neutral grape-based spirit.

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  • Several styles of vermouth exist, and each has its own flavor profile and use:

    Dry or white vermouth is clear or pale yellow in color, with a light body and delicate herbal flavor. Along with gin and orange bitters, dry vermouth is an ingredient in the classic Martini, and it is also served as an aperitif over ice with a lemon peel.

    Sweet, red or rosso vermouth contains 10-15% sugar, is dark red or brown in color, and is more full-bodied than dry, with notes of bitter orange and baking spice. Sweet vermouth is the ingredient in the classic cocktails the Negroni and the Manhattan, and it is also served as an aperitif over ice with soda and an orange peel.

    Rosé vermouth is a newer style, with a rose or pink color and a character that straddles white and red.


    Contrary to popular belief, vermouth does not have the shelf life of spirits. As it is wine-based, vermouth should be treated similarly to an opened bottle of wine. Store it in the refrigerator after opening the bottle, and consume it within a few months for the maximum flavor. Vermouth sold in smaller bottles is more easily consumed in a shorter amount of time.

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