There is documented evidence of wine production going as far back as 6,000 BC with a recent discovery of amphorae from the Neolithic period in Georgia. It stands to reason that grape juice goes back even further and that it no doubt took a while to discover fermentation by natural yeasts. There is unfiltered, still-fermenting grape juice made today (not wine), with local names like Federweisser (white grapes) and Federroter (red grapes) in Germany, Sturm in Austria and Sauser in Switzerland, but they’re an acquired taste.
The art of distillation surfaced around ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon and Egypt during the 2nd and 1st century BC, and seemed to have travelled from North Africa through the Iberian Peninsula (via the Moors) to Italy in the 12th century AD, and then France and beyond by the 15th and 16th century.
Nowadays spirits based on grapes are one of the most versatile and common alcohols all over the world. In Europe they make brandy, Cognac (region specific brandy), marc and grappa (made from the must), and clear grape schnapps, as well as liqueurs based on grape spirits. There are even some gins made from grape-based ethanol. In Australia we produce remarkably good brandies and grappa, and in Peru the national drink is pisco, a grape-based spirit.
➼ The types of Pisco are:
Puro – produced from only one grape variety, most commonly from the local quebranta grape. Aromatic varieties such as torontel or Italia are also used.
Acholado – produced from a blend of different grape varieties.
Mosto Verde – a rare type of specialty pisco; the spirit is distilled from partially fermented grape must wine.
Barsol Pisco Quebranta 41.3% ABV
Made from the quebranta grape, this spirit is every bit as complex as any single malt or agave-based spirit. I highly recommend you taste it.
Nose: Sweet, citric with just a hint of fresh almonds.
Palate: Immediately mouth-filling with a plethora of freshly cut flowers and grassy undertones. A hint of citrus persists and it increases in complexity as it warms up in the mouth.
Finish: Long, drying and moreish.
Fernando de Castilla UNICO Solera Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez 40% ABV
Distilled in a copper still called an alquitar (a left over from the Moors), this brandy must be produced exclusively within the municipal boundaries of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria or Sanlúcar de Barrameda and it must be made using the traditional ageing system of criaderas and soleras. Easily the best brandy I’ve tasted, ever.
Nose: Extremely complex with oak aromas mingling with roasted nuts and boiled lollies.
Palate: The complexity persists with flavours of freshly baked croissants melding with roasted hazelnuts, a touch of rancio and roasted root vegetables.
Finish: Long and beautifully balanced with a touch of honey.
➼ Cognac is graded into:
V.S. – youngest brandy must be stored in a cask for at least two years.
V.S.O.P – youngest brandy must be stored in a cask for at least four years.
XO – youngest brandy must be stored in a cask for at least 10 years.
Hors D’Âge – same as XO but in practice used to designate a spirit beyond the official age scale.
Hine Antique XO Cognac, Grande Champagne 40% ABV
The Hine house has been making Cognac on the banks of the Charente River in Jarnac for more than 250 years and was granted a royal warrant from Queen Elizabeth II, as an official supplier of Cognac. Cognac is produced from three main grape varieties: trebbiano toscano (also known as ugni blanc), folle blanche, and colombard. The HINE XO is a blend of over 40 eaux-de-vie. A superb cognac worthy of its royal warrant.
Nose: Cinnamon, cloves, dried rosemary, and treacle.
Palate: Incredibly soft and smooth with mild spices and a rush of roasted hazelnuts. I perceive a mild sweetness beyond that of the natural alcohol which reminds me of fir tip syrup.
Finish: Long, deep, rich and drying.
Monteru Single Grape Brandy 41.3% ABV
Maison Monteru has excelled in brown spirit distillation since the late 18th century and is the first French producer of single grape brandies. Double distilled in copper pot stills using the traditional French Charentais alembic, the spirits are then aged in their own stone cellar on the Atlantic coast (where temperature and humidity remain stable) in different oak casks. First in French oak casks, imparting delicate nut flavors, and then in American oak to gain subtle spice and brioche aromas. Each bottle tells you the date it was distilled and bottled. This particular version is made from the folle blanche grape and was distilled in 2012 and bottled in 2016. This is the perfect spirit to have on a cold night in front of the fireplace in a big balloon glass. Superb! Batch: FB002-16. Bottle: 269/575.
Nose: Pistachios, scorched almonds and fresh bread.
Palate: Incredibly mellow with a hint of lanolin, cream and jam doughnuts.
Finish: Even, very long and slightly sweet at the very end.
Pheasant’s Tears Chacha 48% ABV
This spirit hails from Georgia and is, in many ways, similar to a grappa as it’s made from the distilled skins and seeds of pressed saperavi grapes. It’s aged for two years in second-hand barrels from local oak. In Georgia the ageing of wine with skins, seeds and stems is traditionally referred to as leaving the wine with its mother, as the chacha or pomace feeds the wine – this means distillates without must are deemed to have no mother. This is a superb digestif and you won’t be able to resist holding out your hand for a top-up.
Nose: Volatile alcohol, acetone and oak.
Palate: Immediately sweet and round with woody overtones and a hint of dried grapes.
Finish: Long, sweet and quite biscuity at the very end.
Sullivans Cove Single Cask Tasmanian XO 50.5% ABV
Produced using the local wines of the Huon Valley in Tasmania, this brandy is aged in very small Australian ex-wine casks. Non-chill filtered, unblended and yielding only a few bottles per batch; the one I tasted is batch TDB009, bottle number 199/285. Being a single cask XO (age not stated) this spirit will be familiar to single-cask whisky drinkers. Each barrel is different and each one is a new discovery. This is a superb brandy and it’s made in Australia. We should be proud.
Nose: Shortbread, orange blossoms, dried figs and leatherwood honey.
Palate: Round, smooth, full of fried mushrooms and umami with strong woody notes.
Finish: Long, slightly bitter at the end.
1 part French vermouth
3 parts cognac
3 dashes of orange bitters
3 dashes of absinthe
3 dashes of triple sec
Stir all ingredients together with ice cubes and serve with a twist of lemon. Decorate with a cherry.
juice of one lime
60ml of grappa
1 tsp sugar syrup
Stir ingredients together in a 250ml glass, add two large ice cubes and fill the glass with soda water.
1 part agave syrup
1 part lemon juice
8 parts pisco
1 dash of Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Shake or stir with cracked ice. A twist of lemon over each glass.
1 quarter lemon
Cut a lemon into quarters, squeeze the juice of one quarter into a highball glass and add the lemon quarter. Add a couple of ice cubes, add brandy and stir well. Top up with ginger ale.
This is a very old-fashioned cocktail (and great ‘hair of the dog’) and it’s important to be extremely careful so that the various liquids don’t run into each other.
vanilla syrup or crème de vanilla
1 egg yolk, raw
1 tsp sugar syrup
dash Angostura orange bitters
Use a sherry glass for this cocktail and fill a third of the glass with vanilla syrup or crème de vanilla. Float a raw egg yolk carefully onto the surface, squirt a dash of bitters onto the yolk, then add Benedictine till the egg is covered. Finally, fill up with cognac (which will be almost another third).