Spanish brandy is possibly the firstborn of Europe, and definitely a proud tradition unto itself. Various forms of distillation may have been attempted in the Near East, South and East Asia before the 3rd century BC, but irrefutable evidence of alcohol distillation dates back only to the 9th century AD, invented by the Arabs during the Islamic Golden Age. Indeed, the etymology of words such as “alcohol” and “alembic” is Arabic.
The introduction of distillation in Europe very much followed the same route as the Early Muslim conquests, i.e. from the Middle East across North Africa into Southern Europe and onwards to Western and Central Europe. Spanish brandy may have existed since the 12th century or even earlier, predating Armagnac – earliest records of which are from the 14th century – and Cognac – a serendipitous invention in the 16th century – by hundreds of years.
Similar to Armagnac and Cognac, which rely on otherwise insipid varieties such as Colombard, Follos Blanche and Ugni Blanc (a.k.a. Trebbiano), Spanish brandy makes heavy use of rather neutral varieties such as Airén and Palomino. This apart, Spanish brandy is very much a different beast, differing from its French counterparts in many regards.
First off, Spanish brandy has a much wider range of cask types, thanks to its world- renowned sherry production. Yes, single malt scotch producers purchase large quantities of ex-sherry casks every year, but the majority remains in Spain. There is a kaleidoscopic variety of sherries ranging from light and refreshing to dark and creamy, e.g. Fino, Manzanilla, Manzanilla Pasada, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado and Dulce. In an instant, the diversity of Spanish brandy in the cask department exceeds even the most experimental distillery from Highland or Speyside.
Second, the criaderas y soleras method applies to the painstaking maturation process of not only sherry, but also Spanish brandy, enabling the nectar to accumulate layers upon layers of complexity, as opposed to the final marriage process in the production of French brandy.
Last but not least, Spanish brandy is usually less alcoholic than its French counterparts, generally between 36% and 40% ABV, sometimes as low as 33%. At relatively low alcohol levels, its bold, lush and plump style is further enhanced.
To be continued…
Sample provided by Imperial Wine Cellar International Ltd., exclusive importer of Francisco José I 150 Aniversario Gran Reserva in the Greater China region; E: [email protected]; T: +852 9626 3125
Francisco José I 150 Aniversario Gran Reserva
Bright mahogany with ochre-sinopia rim, the woody nose offers hazelnut, caramel, nutmeg and sandalwood. With a syrupy mouthfeel, the spicy palate delivers dried fig, clove, almond shells and toasted oak. Medium-full bodied at 37%, the tangy entry continues through a sweet mid-palate, leading to a supple finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages