Brandy vs Whiskey: What They Are, Where They Came From, and How to Enjoy Them
While whiskey has deep roots that are intricately tied in with American history, brandy is a little more obscure. People tend to think of it as a “fancy” sipping drink, something their parents had after dinner instead of dessert.
But the fact is that while the two spirits are unique, they both have interesting backgrounds and evolutions, and they both have their place on bars, whether it’s in your home or at your local watering hole.
So let’s take a look at what exactly whiskey and brandy are, how they are similar and different, and why they belong on our shelves and in our hearts.
When I was behind the bar, there were a lot of commonly asked questions. Often, it was a very legitimate question asking me to define a spirit, and many asked me, “so what exactly is brandy?”
Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine and/or fermented fruit mash. The word “brandy” comes from the Dutch word “brandewijn,” which translates to “burnt wine.” This name came from the heating process during distillation, which converts the wine to brandy.
Brandy is also often aged, but it doesn’t have to be categorized as brandy. For that reason, you will find brandy that is a rich, brown color from its time in a barrel, but you will also see brandy that has not been aged and is therefore clear.
Commercial production and distribution of brandy began in the 16th century when according to a legend that may or may not be true: a Dutch captain started concentrating his wine for easier transportation because more concentrated product meant fewer barrels on the ship.
He had the intention to add water when he and his wine reached their destination, but once he got to port, his concentrated beverage was not only delicious, it was preferred. The rest is history!
Cognac and Armagnac are both also types of brandy because they are distilled wine.
Just like champagne is a type of sparkling wine made in Champagne, France, a brandy’s title can change depending on where it is produced.
A brandy is considered a cognac if it’s produced in Cognac, France, and it’s an Armagnac when it’s produced in Armagnac, France. Cognac and Armagnacs are both rarer and more expensive than standard brandy since they have to be grown and distilled in certain regions.
Since brandy is made with either wine or fermented fruit mash, it begins its life as a grape or fruit. For this reason, you may see pear brandy or plum brandy and the like, as the mash can differ wildly. This makes their flavor profiles vary immensely as well. It’s a big world of brandy out there!
If the brandy is being produced with fermented fruit, the fruit is allowed the time to ferment before it is distilled twice. The distillation process makes the liquid clear. From there, the distillers have the option to age the brandy or not. This is why brandy can be either clear or brown, golden, or amber, all depending on the aging process.
Whiskey, or whisky, is a spirit distilled from malted grain. Malted means that something is mixed in with malt or malt extract.
Grains used for whiskey are rye, corn, wheat, and barley. Regions that easily grow any of these grains tend to have strong roots in the early timeline of the whiskey distillation process no matter what country you are looking at.
Kentucky, for example, has a lot of adoration because it produces so much whiskey and has for so long. Kentucky is also an ideal place to distill because it is on a limestone shelf, which acts as a natural filtration system for the water sources used for whiskey manufacturing.
Whiskey can be broken up into a few categories; some of the big ones are bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and more. You will also find less common whiskies like white whiskey, American whiskey, and corn whiskey, for example.
All of these smaller subcategories usually arise as a distillery creates something they need a new name for because their whiskey doesn’t adhere to the guidelines of what technically makes a bourbon, scotch, or rye, to name a few.
Michter’s, for example, has an American whiskey, which has the mash bill that makes it a bourbon but was not aged in virgin American oak barrels; it was aged rather in pre-soaked whiskey American white oak barrels. Therefore, Michter’s could not name it a bourbon; they had to call it something else.
Rye must be made with 51% or more rye in its mash bill, while bourbon must be 51% or more corn. Both bourbon and rye must also be aged in virgin American oak barrels. Irish whiskey must be made in Ireland, and scotch is made in Scotland.
This gets a little confusing because we also have Japanese whisky, which is often categorized as a scotch. This is because the inspiration for Japanese whisky has always been scotch, and a lot of the ingredients used to create Japanese scotch hail from Scotland.
No matter how or where whiskey is made, its roots are completely dissimilar from that of brandies’. Where brandy begins life as a fruit, whiskey begins as either rye, corn, barley, or wheat. This beginning is why the two are so different from each other in tasting profiles.
All whiskies have varying processes for how they are made. They all begin with a specific grain-based mash bill that is decided by the distillery to produce the intended whiskey. For example, bourbon will be 51% or more corn.
No matter the style of whiskey made, once the mash ferments, it is distilled, and the number of times it is distilled vary with the distillery and product desired as well. Most whiskies are aged, but not all of them have to be if they fall into certain smaller subcategories, such as white whiskey.
Some whiskies are blends from different distilleries, some are selected blends of different barrels, and some are taken only from one barrel. As I said, the amount of possibilities for how whiskey is made is numerous. Similar to brandy, the whiskey genre is quite large.
Brandy vs. Whiskey Tasting Differences and Similarities
Whether it’s brandy, cognac, or Armagnac, Brandy is often sweet, rich, and full of fruit flavors. Whiskey, on the other hand, has tasting notes that vary with region and style. While whiskies can be sweet, they lack the candy sweetness of many brandies.
Because some brandies are aged, they tend to take on the dark color of barrels. This makes them brown or golden, similar to a lot of whiskies. But while the two may often look very similar in a glass, they couldn’t be more different when it comes to tastes.
Brandy puts its sweetness forward, with the fruit that was used as the base as the main component of the flavor profile. On the other hand, whiskey could be sweet as well, but the sweetness is on a completely different scale.
Whiskey sweetness will often be caramel and vanilla notes that are evened out with the oakiness, maybe some leather and tobacco from the barrel. Brandy will have the oakiness of a barrel as well if it is aged, which can give it hints of being similar to a softer bourbon.
Main Differences Between Brandy and Whiskey
The main differences between Brandy vs Whiskey are:
- Brandy is made from fruit whereas whiskey is made from grains.
- Flavorwise, brandy tends to highlight the fruit it is derived from, with the notes of any aging process heightening its complexity, whereas whiskey flavors range immensely since it is such a large category of spirit.
- Brandy is generally sweeter whereas whiskies are not as sweet.
Mixing with Brandy
Probably the most famous classic cocktail made with brandy is the Sidecar, made with brandy (specifically: cognac in most recipes), orange liqueur, and lemon juice. It’s a delicious shaken drink that really lets the brandy drinker enjoy something other than a sipping brandy experience.
A really nice Sazerac variation is to use a cognac instead of a rye! It will make the drink nice and rich with a hint of sweetness instead of the spice a rye brings to the cocktail.
Mixing with Whiskey
Whiskey has a long history of being in cocktails. Some of the most famous classics are the Sazerac, the Manhattan, and the Old Fashioned. Those are all stirred drinks, meaning there is no juice in them, just alcohol. The Sazerac is best with rye, while the Manhattan or Old Fashioned does well with both bourbon and rye.
For a shaken whiskey cocktail that features bourbon, the Whiskey Sour is hard to beat. (And one of my personal favorites, I might add!)
Christian Brothers Brandy
Christian Brothers Brandy is great if you’re looking for a brandy to mix with. This is a sweet, aged, and yummy brandy that adds a lovely richness to a red sangria or mulled wine. Bonus: you can get a bottle for less than twenty dollars in most states!
Marie Duffau Napoleon Armagnac
Marie Duffau Napoleon Armagnac is a great brandy to get you started on what a sipping brandy is like. This is an armagnac, which I had mentioned earlier, which is simply a brandy from the Armagnac region in France. Price-wise, it will run you about fifty dollars which isn’t bad for that region at all.
Maxime Trijol is a six-generation owned cognac distillery and vineyard in France. They not only make cognac, but they make a cognac-based orange liqueur that is to die for and if you can find it, I recommend using it in a Sidecar! Maxime Trijol has several delicious cognacs, all expertly crafted.
They run between fifty to just over one hundred dollars, depending on which you choose. Trust me when I say, you won’t go wrong with anything from this distillery.
Buffalo Trace is always my go-to bourbon. It’s cost-effective, usually in the mid-thirty dollar range, and it’s something you can sip, shoot, and mix with. Buffalo Trace does it all!
Green Spot Irish Whiskey
Green Spot Irish Whiskey is everything I want in an Irish whiskey. It’s full-bodied, full of spice, and fruit and goes down easy (almost too easy!) It’s going to cost about sixty dollars in America, which is more than an Irish whiskey like Jameson but worth every single penny.
Sazerac Rye not only makes the best Sazeracs in the world, but it’s also one of my favorite sipping whiskies. This is a spicy, oaky, and delicious rye. Price-wise, it’s going to run you in the thirty-dollar range.
Brandy and Whiskey FAQ’s
Answer: No, whiskies are derived from fermented and malted grains, while brandies come from distilled wine and fermented fruit. This puts them in different spirit families.
Answer: No, brandy can be aged if the distiller wants it to be enjoyed aged. The barrel is what gives brandy that brown or amber color so if the brandy isn’t aged, it will be clear.
Answer: Not necessarily, there is such a thing as white whiskey, which is an unaged whiskey comparable to moonshine.
Answer: This varies. You can get really cheap brandy that can often be sugar bombs that induce immediate hangovers. You can also get cheap whiskey that will do similar things to your body. Both can run pretty high, depending on the distillery, year, and region.
Final Thoughts on Brandy and Whiskey
When it comes to considering brandy versus whiskey, both spirits have a lot to offer in different ways. They both are sippable and mixable, and they both have interesting histories and evolutions, which is always fun to learn about!
My best advice for finding a good brandy is to trust the price tag. If it’s really inexpensive, it might be a poorly crafted product. In the case of both whiskey and brandy, starting around the thirty-dollar and up price range will get you something solid that you can sip on and mix with confidently.
What I really want you to walk away with from this article is that both brandy and whiskey have their place on your home bar and in your heart. If you’ve dismissed either because of preconceived notions, I encourage you to try a few before you make up your mind.
Cheers to brandy and cheers to whiskey! Happy tasting!