Deep within the murky waters of the Gulf of Bothnia, in between Sweden and Finland, rests a rich secret hidden since May 19, 1917. Sailing the icy waters of the gulf, the Swedish steamship Kyros left the city of Öregrund laden with 285 tons of tobacco, cognac, liqueurs, and even an engine boiler for another ship. Blockaded by the solid ice of the Finnish coast, the Kyros was sighted by the German U-Boat UC-58, which promptly launched a torpedo attack to sink the helpless steamship for carrying contraband. It is believed that nearly 1,000 bottles of 1917 cognac brandy now rest at over 80 meters below the surface of the waters, which makes it very precious cargo to the myriad of connoisseurs of this double-distilled brandy.
Lexicographer and essayist Samuel Johnson stated, “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” World renowned as a precious currency and asset, brandy and its various expressions through cognac, Armagnac & liqueur variants has been the prized passenger of many a shipwrecked vessel throughout history. There is a certain mystique and class that is associated with drinking brandy, though I assure you, it is a very touchable experience for just about anyone willing to try it. With its color of caramel tones, rounded tannins, hints of spices, fruits and yes, even sometimes tobacco, a nice brandy will put a flush in your cheeks and serenity into your soul.
Like most distilled liquors, brandy traces its roots to alchemists in the 7th and 8th centuries using its distillations as medicines, only to be further distributed by Dutch traders who coined the term brandewijn, or “burnt wine,” to this concentrated elixir of life. Distilled from wine or fermented fruit juices, the resulting liquor is aged in a variety of ways to give the final product a different taste expression. Most brandies are very location-specific in their names. Cognacs, for example, are grape-based spirits that come from the Cognac region of France. Because the wines used are high in acid and low in alcohol, the resulting flavor of Cognac makes its flavor approachable to both brandy sippers and cocktail-imbibers. Brandies aged in Limousin and Troncais oak casks result in a stronger flavored Armagnac, which makes it more pleasing to sip on its own, versus in a cocktail form. There are other global expressions of brandy, such as in sweeter Spanish brandies and South American Pisco, Italian grappa, and a plethora of various flavored fruit brandy liqueurs.
Interestingly, the use of brandy medicinally has carried over through the centuries into our modern age. A 30mL dose of brandy has been found to have the same antioxidant value of the daily recommended dose of vitamin C. In fact, with cold and flu season looming, a generous Hot Toddy can soothe the chilliest soul. By heating 3 ounces of water to a boil, then adding to approximately 1 ½ ounces of a nice brandy and a swirl of sweet honey, you can not only enjoy the antimicrobial benefits of the alcohol, but also help break up mucus and ease a sore throat! If fresh lemon also pleases you, squeeze a wedge into the toddy and help boost your vitamin C, loosen phlegm and reduce even more swelling in the throat.
In regards to drinking brandy on its own, outside of a cocktail or toddy form, the brandy glass is a very important element. If you don’t know where to start, travel down to Liquid Planet and make the easy pick of Riedel’s brandy snifters. The shape of the brandy glass concentrates the nuances of the bouquet, while the round wide bowl allows you to cup the wine glass and bring it to the right temperature. With Riedel glassware’s stunning crystal clarity, you will be able to enjoy any brandy’s rich hues right down to the last drop in the glass.
So you’ve got the glasses, now what to put in them? If you are new to the brandy realm, and are not making brandy cocktails, I would recommend starting with a VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) or XS (Extra Smooth) brandy or cognac. This will guarantee that you have a great brandy experience without necessarily breaking your bank account. If you feel that buying a bottle is somewhat daunting, go visit Kyle at the Iron Horse Brew Pub. Not only is he a fountain of knowledge on the subject but he has some excellent recommendations for what to try in your first adventures in brandewijn. For the brandy connoisseur, though the world might have to wait for those 1917 cognacs to reach the surface and break into the global market, Grizzly Liquor has a fine selection of these beautifully aged liquors to satisfy a variety of palates.
As the Montana winter blankets us with snow, cold and possibly the sniffles, we can stave off both the boredom of the same ol’ drinking routine and even possibly that pesky sore throat with the beauty of brandy. No matter where this winter finds you, at home or at the pub, please drink responsibly.