Sunday, December 9, 2018

Spirits of the Season with Brandy

My spirits of choice are whisky and gin, not the least of their attractions is that they're relatively easy to understand. Brandy is not my drink, although I'd never be without a bottle in the house, it's also a much more difficult spirit to define or explain.

It's mostly made from grapes, but can be made from other fruits, eau de vie for example is a fruit brandy, and Grappa (I approach Grappa with much the same caution as raw oysters, and with about as much success - it really isn't my drink). Sometimes it's made in pot stills (as in Cognac) sometimes in continuous stills (that's more or less how they make it in Armagnac) which is more or less why the classifications V.S, V.S.O.P, and XO denote different ages from the two regions. It can, and is, made pretty much everywhere fruit is grown... and so it continues.

For practical purposes I find it more helpful to think of brandy in terms of cooking, cocktail, or sipping. Cooking brandy would be supermarket own label bottles, or the branded ones at similar prices. These are great for feeding Christmas cakes, deglazing pans, setting fire to on Christmas puddings (or Burnt Coffee) and any other recipe where the flavour of the brandy isn't paramount.

Cocktail brandy wants to be a step up in quality, in U.K. Supermarket terms I'm basically thinking of the big Cognac brands, Courvoisier V.S. (Very Special) is the sweetest of these, Martell a little dryer, and Remy Martin V.S.O.P (very special old pale, which is 4 or more years old compared to the 2+ years for the V.S) the latter two are arguably better balanced than the Courvoisier but its very much a matter of personal taste as to which you will prefer. I like H by Hine when I can find it, or an Armagnac, or a Spanish brandy like Torres too. Any of these will provide an excellent base for a drink, and although they're all perfectly good on their own too it's worth bareing in mind with the cognacs that they're blended with cocktails in mind.

Sipping brandy is a step up again, not necessarily a step up in price unless you're looking at Cognac, in which case it's definitely a step up in price, but really decent Armagnac, Spanish brandy, and Greek brandy (I'm thinking of Metaxa) are fairly reasonable. A good Cognac will start at about £45 and climb from there, and as ever I'm a firm believer in drinking better but less. There's plenty of good stuff at around that £50 mark.

If brandy itself isn't my favourite drink, it's depiction in literature fascinates me. It has a more respectable history than gin or whisky, having always been a gentlemans drink (whisky rose in popularity/respectability when phylloxera devastated France's vineyards seriously affecting wine and brandy production from the mid 19th century) but it comes with an aura of danger as well.

It was a love of brandy and punishment that did for the poet Swinburne, Trollope covers the dangers of excessive brandy drinking in Dr Thorne, and so does Anne Brontë in The Tennent of Wildfell Hall. Evelyn Waugh uses it as a class marker in Brideshead Revisited, and it's restorative properties are needed more than once in 'Spirits of the Season'.

This is the Christmas Hauntings offering from the British Library's tales of the weird series. Tanya Kirk is the general editor who also put together 'The Haunted Library' - both are brilliant. 'Spirits of the Season' is stuffed with absolute gems - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and 'The Demon King' are two new favourites - both are comedies with an eerie edge rather than the sort of thing to keep you awake at night, but there are more chilling tales in there too.

I'm not quite sure when we lost the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, but this is just the book to bring it back with.


  1. I think that the tradition of the ghost story started to decline with the advent of the television set, sadly.

    I cannot get past the smell of Whisky but Brandy and Gin are real favourites of mine which is why I rarely have any here!

  2. I think you're probably right. What surprises me is how funny a lot of Christmas ghost stories are - so much so that the idea of reading them aloud to the family is really attractive- I'm not sure mine would stay still to listen though.