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Some historical influences help explain wine, spirits

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Marie Duffau Napoléon Bas Armagnac
Marie Duffau Napoléon Bas Armagnac

There is usually a bit of history behind nearly every human endeavor, in this case, brandy.

Sometimes the influence of history is much less ideological. In fact, sometimes it can come down to something as base as money. The perfect example of this is Cognac. The origins of one of the world’s best-known digestifs is tied purely to commerce and geography.

The Charentes region, just north of Bordeaux, has produced wine since Roman times. During the 13th century, as international commerce began to develop, the region also was a source of salt. The Dutch, who were the world’s shippers at that point, started shipping the local wine as well as the salt. Because the region is also very close to the Limousin forest, where oak trees in particular grew, the container of choice became the oak barrel. Even today, oak sourced from the Limousin forest is the wood of choice for Cognac makers.

But there was a problem — the wine would often spoil during transport.

As a result, during the 17th century the Dutch began to distil the wine. Distillation involves boiling the wine and essentially concentrating it, with the result being a high-alcohol liquid. The name for this in Dutch was “Brandt Wein,” which translates as “Burnt Wine.” Eventually, it became known simply as brandy.

I have heard a few stories as to why they did this, aside from the spoilage factor. One was that barrels of “table wine” took up a lot of space on the boats and shippers were taxed based on the quantity of liquid that they were exporting. Another was that they could add this alcohol to drinking water to keep it from spoiling for their seamen as they travelled the world. This could explain why South Africa, which was also a Dutch colony, became known as a producer of brandy.

However, what happened was that both the Dutch and the French producers began to see that leaving this alcohol, or eau de vie, in oak barrels for prolonged periods actually improved it.

And so, a new type of alcohol product was born, purely out of the need to export.

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Written by Seth Anderson

April 8th, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Food and Drink

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