Aquavit, Brandy, Cognac and Grappa: what are the differences?

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Aquavit, Brandy, Cognac and Grappa. It’s not easy to find your way through the maze of spirits that have elected the grape and wine as the main elements of distillation.

Some are national spirits, others are regional. Some differ with regard to the nature of the raw material, the alcohol content, history or specifications that strictly and unequivocally regulate distillation techniques and characteristics.


Sometimes, to understand an individual, you have to start from the family. Aquavit is the collective name for all those spirits made from a plant-origin mash (fruit, grain, wine, sugar cane, potatoes) which is fermented and then distilled to increase the alcohol content. In itself, aquavit is a generic term that on its own, does not mean anything, unless the material from which it was obtained is specified. There are very many types of aquavit. Some simply take their name from the fruit from which it was obtained – and so, for example, we have apricot, apple or pear aquavit. Others have become so traditional and important as to earn an original name – grain aquavit is Whisky, cane sugar aquavit is Rhum, and that made with potatoes, Vodka.  Aquavit distilled from wine (without pomace) takes the name Brandy, Cognac or Armagnac. Finally, an aquavit of only pomace is called Grappa.


Brandy is the spirit obtained by distilling wine. Its origin is ancient, and it is thought to be one of the oldest spirits in the world. It seems that the first distillers – about whom we have spoken at length in this post – carried out the first experiments in alcoholic distillation with fermented wines. The name is a shortening of brandywine, which was derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, which literally means burnt wine.  In the 17th century, the Dutch were great traders in wines and spirits, buying supplies along the Atlantic coast, from France to Portugal, and exporting them to Britain and the whole of Northern Europe.

Brandy has a minimum alcohol content of 38%, and in Italy is obtained mainly from Trebbiano wine or white wine. In Italy, only a spirit made from grapes grown and vinified within the national borders, aged at least twelve months in oak barrels or a minimum of six months in small 10 hectolitre casks, can be given the name “Brandy”.  Brandy gets is amber colour either from ageing in wood, or from the addition of legally permitted flavourings and colouring.  Brandy is often given its colour by the addition of caramel, and its aged flavour by carefully dosed boisé, or oak wood extracts that increase its tannins and structure.


Italy’s first Brandy-producing company (which would later become Vecchia Romagna) was founded by Jean Bouton in 1820 in Bologna, a city which would become the main centre of production of this spirit. Until 1948, Italian brandy was called Cognac, like the most famous French spirit – a bilateral treaty would restrict use of the name to brandy produced only in the Cognac region. The Italianization of names during the Fascist era led the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio to coin the name “arzente”, from “acqua ardente” or “burning water”, which was later dropped


Cognac is the spirit produced in the French city of the same name in the Charente wine-growing region north of Bordeaux. At least 90% of the wine used to make cognac must be from three specific grape varieties –  Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche, alone or in a blend.  The final 10% may be from other grapes such as Montils, Semillon, Jurançon blanc, Blanc Ramé, Select and Sauvignon. Cognac is subject to very strict regulations (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), and in 1860 the area where the grapes are grown was divided into six crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Les Borderies, Le Fins Bois, Le Bons Bois and Le Bois à Terroirs.

With an alcohol content of around 40 degrees, Cognac is obtained in two stages. The first is the soft pressing of the grapes, after which the must is left to ferment for about one month.  Once the wine has fermented, distillation takes place in a traditional Charentais direct fire still, a discontinuous still which produces a very alcoholic distillate, in two distinct stages. The première chauffe, to extract the primary aromas of the cognac, and the bonne chauffe, which raises the alcohol content.  Cognac is sometimes also subjected to a process of maquillages, namely, the addition of sugar, caramel or boisé, to increase the spirit’s agreeableness, amber colour and body.


After this quick overview, it would be a good idea to underline the differences with Grappa, which as opposed to the previous examples, is an aquavit obtained from the distillation of pomace, or the skins of grapes, which in this case are grown and vinified exclusively in Italy. Grappa is the Italian spirit par excellence, and can be named as such only in Italy. Pomace for Grappas is of two kinds: fermented, or obtained after racking and being left to soak in the must, or virgin, fermented immediately after separation from the must.  In both cases, the freshness and quality of the raw materials are essential, as is the skill of the master distiller, to whose expert hands, experience and palate are entrusted the task of extracting the “spirit” from a more “solid” and delicate material than wine, as is the case with Brandy and Cognac.

The ageing of Grappa is variable. Grappa which is not aged in wood, and is bottled after a short rest in stainless steel tanks is called «Giovane», or “young”.   Grappa which has been aged for at least 12 months in wood can boast the title «Affinata», while Grappa «Invecchiata» has been aged in wooden casks for between 12 and 18 months. Stravecchia or Riserva is aged in wood for more than 18 months.

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30 December 2020 23:28

Very interesting!! Never knew…..

Michael Leavenworth
Michael Leavenworth
18 November 2022 18:03

This article was the most clear and succinct explanation of the similarities and differences in alcohol beverages. Thanks for this resource!

Michael Leavenworth
Michael Leavenworth
21 February 2023 18:29

Excellent explanation of the variety of alcoholic beverages throughout history!

John V. Wright
John V. Wright
1 April 2023 19:28

Just wanted to say thank you for such an interesting and helpful article. I have been drinking whisky (and whiskey!), brandy and Armagnac for 58 years; as well as pruneau (when I can get it).
My wife and I are heading off for an Italian meal next week and I realised that I have never drunk grappa. I went looking for an explanation of what it was and how it was made – and found your very interesting website. Thank you. I have my fingers crossed that the Italian restaurant will have grappa available!