Brandy without Borders

A Global Journey Beyond Cognac and Armagnac

As any spirits aficionado knows, brandy's reputation is often overshadowed by its globally renowned siblings, Cognac and Armagnac. These illustrious names have defined what many consider to be the apex of grape-based brandy.

However, for those thirsty for exploration and variety, it's time to voyage beyond the well-trodden path of the French southwest. A world of brandy, filled with unique character, exceptional craft and most importantly, excellent value awaits the adventurous.

Those curious enough to expand their horizons reap the rewards. You can literally taste the essence of different regions in your glass, each imparting unique characteristics to the brandy. Furthermore - the strict regulations and traditions that govern the French appellations can sometimes suppress innovation, a sentiment echoed by various producers around the world.

This has led to an array of innovative brandies being released by “new world” producers, bursting with creativity. Here’s a roundup of the regions to look for as you browse for your next bottle.

Spain & South Africa

The Fruitful Land of Jerez

You don’t have to venture far or be that adventurous to go beyond the confines of Cognac and see the potential (and value) that lies in other country’s production. 

Take Spain, home to Sherry and its lesser-known sibling, Brandy de Jerez. Made in the Andalusian region, these brandies embody the sun-soaked terroir with their full-bodied, robust character. 

Brandy de Jerez distinguishes itself through a unique production process, regulated by the Consejo Regulador del Brandy de Jerez. Unlike many brandies that require double distillation, Brandy de Jerez is made from a single distillation. This approach retains more of the wine's original characteristics and aromatic substances and once combined with their typical solera system of maturation - delicious spirits. 

The provenance is clearly demarcated too. The brandy must be made within the municipalities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, ensuring its geographical authenticity. Maturation typically takes place in larger oak casks with a 500-litre capacity, which previously housed sherry, influencing the brandy's flavour based on the type of sherry used. You can really lose yourself in the infinite permutations that are possible - be it single cask, previous sherry style, length of maturation - Spanish Brandy has a lot of depth to offer.

Drinking Spanish brandy is a journey through complex and intriguing spirits, mature beyond its years and sold at a fraction of the price of a comparable Cognac or Armagnac.

The Cape of Good Spirits

Next, we sail to South Africa, with longstanding history of being in the top ten largest wine producing countries. It is no surprise then, that their brandy production (particularly from the Western Cape) is well established. 

Allegedly, production was initiated with the arrival of Dutch traders in South Africa, notably when an assistant-cook distilled local wine into brandy in 1672. The Cape region, first discovered by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, is now the heart of South African brandy production.

South African brandy is derived from locally produced wine, and for it to be labelled as South African, it must be distilled, matured, and bottled within the country.

It differs from Cognac due to the region's warmer and drier climate, leading to higher sugar levels in the grapes used for distillation, typically imparting more fruity flavours like peach and apricot to the spirit. The production is more varied too - South African brandy includes three types: pot still, blended and vintage, each with its unique production process and characteristics. 

While the country's brandy industry has seen significant success on the global stage, winning the International Wine and Spirits Competition's ‘Worldwide Brandy’ Trophy a colossal 16 times, it remains overlooked by those outside of the trade.

There are currently over 30 South African brandy producers, including small producers like Grundheim, and larger producers like KWV and Van Ryn, whose brandies are more frequent sightings on around the globe.

If you can find any, try it. The country’s diversity in climate and geography allows for an exciting range of flavour profiles, from rich, fruity notes to earthy tones, offering the connoisseur a sense of the South African landscape in each sip.

America & Australia

The Golden State of Brandy

Crossing the Atlantic, we reach the sunny vineyards of California. The Golden State, known globally for its wines, also harbours an evolving brandy scene unencumbered by rigid regulations. 

Producers in regions such as Napa Valley and Central Coast are demonstrating their craft with a more progressive approach. They are experimenting with different grape varietals, fermentation methods and aging processes, resulting in a vibrant spectrum of brandies. 

It’s gaining momentum too. In the realm of spirits, American Brandy has emerged as one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing categories in recent years. This surge in popularity can be attributed to several factors. 

Firstly, the craft distilling movement in the U.S. has invigorated the category, with a growing number of small producers creating artisanal, terroir-driven brandies that reflect the diversity and richness of American vineyards. Secondly, consumers, driven by a thirst for innovation and local authenticity, are increasingly embracing brandy as a versatile and complex spirit. Especially in cocktails. Lastly, the affordability of American Brandy, again especially in comparison to its European counterparts, is appealing to a new generation of brandy drinkers who value quality and value-for-money.

Get in on the action now and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find!

Australian ginsmiths-come-brandy creators

In Australia, a country long celebrated for its exceptional wines and vibrant gin scene, brandy is emerging as a key player in the diversification of its spirits industry. 

In recent years, Australian distillers (many of whom have built their reputation on gin) are increasingly turning to brandy production. This pivot is part of a broader trend of diversification among craft distillers, with brandy providing a canvas for showcasing Australia's rich grape harvest in a new and exciting form. It’s a natural fit for many too, given dozens are embedded deep into the likes of the Yarra, Barrossa and Margaret River.

Its rising popularity internationally is an encouraging sign and a testament to the growing quality that can be found there. This is particularly significant given the predicted waning interest in gin due from 2025 onwards but more on that another time…

As for what to try? In the world of Australian brandy, one name stands out for its commitment to quality: Bass & Flinders. This boutique distillery, established in 2009 on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, has positioned itself as a leader in the burgeoning Australian brandy scene. 

In the context of the dual gin and brandy makers, it’s probably fair to say they were brandy first, then gin, and while they are currently better known for the juniper-spirit they stand poised to have their long-lasting love finally recognised.

They are also an interesting example due to the way they replicate much of what Cognac makers do (similar stills, process, ideology). While their craft is as meticulous, their expression - Noble Stranger has a distinct profile. A nice reminder that Australian Brandy will always be unique based on the soil, type of vine and how that terroir shines through each drop.

Greece & Britain

The Ancient Greek Tradition

Greek Brandy, known for its robust flavour and smooth texture, has a fascinating history that dates to the days of the ancient Greeks. Legend says that the Greek God Dionysus introduced the concept of viniculture to the Greeks, thus initiating their journey into alcohol production. 

However, it wasn't until the 14th century when brandy production in Greece truly began, following the development of distillation techniques. Over centuries, the Greeks honed their brandy-making skills, leading to the birth of renowned spirits such as Metaxa and Tsipouro. 

The unique, now often extreme, climatic conditions of Greece coupled with traditional distillation processes, leads to the creation of Greek Brandy that reflects the country's rich heritage and natural abundance.

The big name here is Metaxa. Founded in 1888 by Spyros Metaxa, the eponymous company has, over the centuries, forged a reputation for creating a unique style of Greek brandy that effortlessly marries tradition with innovation. Metaxa brandies are known for their smooth, amber-coloured spirits, crafted from a blend of aged distillates and sweet Muscat wines from the Aegean islands. 

Brandy is an integral part of the country's cultural fabric and a symbol of Greek hospitality. The drink's cultural significance has stood the test of time, from the days of the ancient gods to today, where it has become a staple in Greek cuisine and a popular digestif. Moreover, Brandy production in Greece represents a connection to the land in more than literal ways too – it’s a bridge to the country's past, preserving traditional practices while incorporating modern innovation.

British Brandy

As the world of brandy continues to evolve, it is not just the traditional and new-world producers that are commanding attention. An unexpected player has stepped onto the stage recently: the United Kingdom. 

While most of what's emerged so far is imported and blended, that's changing fast. Aided by a changing climate and advances in viticulture, British vineyards are not only producing increasingly impressive still wines, but they're also starting to entertain the notion of brandy production, or at least selling surplus to specialist distillers. 

This has culminated in the opening of the UK's first dedicated brandy house, Burnt Faith, in 2023. With a focus on harnessing the distinctive terroir of British vineyards and not being shackled by regulations that stifle innovation in other countries – they could well be the first of a wave of British brandy producers who intend on creating a spirit that is truly representative of these isles.

It's a development that signals an exciting time in the world of brandy, showcasing the versatility of this classic spirit and its ability to adapt and thrive in diverse climates and regions. Even the most unexpected.

New life from the ‘Old World”

Having taken you on a jaunt around the world, it’s time to return to the heartlands and a welcome reminder that whilst tradition rules, those close to the epicentre of it all are also currently delivering the progressive ideas in Brandy.

Seven Tails is an innovative producer known for its dedication to blurring the boundaries of traditional brandy production and pushing the envelope of what brandy can be. Their flagship product, Seven Tails XO Brandy, is a testament to this pioneering spirit.

Unlike conventional brandy that is confined to a single region or grape variety, Seven Tails XO is a blend of brandies from different regions of France – Cognac, Armagnac, and selected French wine spirits. The brandies, aged between three to thirty years, are matured in a variety of casks including Port, French Oak, and Sherry to create a layered and unique spirit.

Seven Tails' mission is to modernise and rejuvenate the brandy category by offering an alternative to traditional single-region brandies. They aim to challenge and expand the perceptions of French brandy, making it more accessible and appealing to a new generation of spirit enthusiasts. By doing so, they hope to highlight the spirit’s versatility, whether it's being sipped neat or as the base in an inventive cocktail. 

Sip sans frontière

The exploration of brandy beyond Cognac and Armagnac unveils a world of diversity, innovation, and exceptional value. 

It provides a global perspective, allowing one to taste the essence of various terroirs from the comfort of their armchair. It also reveals how producers, unconstrained by strict regulations, can infuse their brandy with a unique sense of individuality.

So, the next time you reach for a snifter, consider traversing the globe and sampling a Brandy de Jerez from Spain, a Western Cape brandy from South Africa, a craft brandy from California or Australia, new ideas from Greece, the UK, or even modern French producers. 

When it comes to brandy, there are no borders. Each of these spirited regions offers an exciting alternative to the traditional Cognac houses, imparting a sense of place in every drop while stretching your budget further.


By Olivier Ward

23 July 2023