Technically a grape based spirit, the term brandy is used more generally to include any fruit distillate. Still the best known come from grapes and are made pretty much wherever vines grow.

Cognac is named after the town in southwestern France where the spirit is aged. The grapes come from designated vineyard districts that encircle the town. To earn its appellation, cognac must be distilled twice in copper pots and aged in French oak casks. To be called Fine Champagne the cognac must be solely from the prestigious Grande and Petite Champagne districts, so named because of their particular chalky soils with at least half from the Grande.

The bottling of single distillery cognac, vintage dated cognac and the making of fuller spicier cognacs geared to match with cigars are more recent twists. To appeal to GenX, some producers are selling cognac mixed with fruit juices. (Remy Red from Remy Martin and Alizé are such products.) Others are using cognac as a base for fine liqueurs.

Though the ten big cognac houses make an estimated 95 percent of the product sold, there has been a movement by small fry since the 1980's to sell under their own label. About 400 growers/distillers now sell their own branded cognacs.

Armagnac, another French grape brandy, comes from Gascony, a region southwest of Bordeaux. Armagnac is generally distilled only once from white grapes at low temperatures to preserve the fruit character. Some firms have reintroduced pot stills and double distill part of the grape juice in the cognac fashion blending the brandies later to unite vigor with finesse. The spirit is then aged in casks of Gascon oak. In the past it could be said cognacs have elegance and balance from double distillation, while armagnacs have body and fruity flavour, but these definitions are less obvious today.

Brandy made from must or pomace - the skins and pips left after the grapes have been crushed to make wine - goes by various names. For example in Italy it's known as grappa, in France marc and in Portugal bagaceira.

Grappa has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years; many are ultra-smooth and sold in collectable hand-blown-glass art bottles. Other developments in grappa include the use of single varietal grapes, the use of whole grapes instead of the pomace and the addition of flourishes such as gold flakes in Oro di Mazzetti.

Brandy from other fruits (such as raspberry, pear and plum) is known technically as eau-de-vie. But we tend to know these brandies better by the names of their different fruit, in the language of their origins. Kirsch, for example, means cherry in German while poire williams is the French name for a Bartlett pear.

Calvados is apple brandy from Normandy, distilled twice and aged in oak. The best of these have the appellation Calvados du Pays d'Auge.

Bottega Alexander Society Grappa 2001 ****½
591602 $29.95/700mL Italy
Marc of pinot, tocai, veruzzo and prosecco. Crystal clear colourless with a pretty, aromatic perfumed bouquet of hay and raisons. Delicate, clean grappa flavours of hay, straw, raisony grapes. Great stylish purity.

Remy Martin XO Excellence ****
583468 $184.90. Cognac, France
Composed of more than 300 eaux-de-vie, each with their own special character from maturing in oak. High proportion from Grande Champagne the rest Petite with an average age over 20 years. Quite forward masculine nose of leather, fragrant spices, figs and almonds. Refined and velvety smooth with nutty, fruity, caramel complexities. Long lingering finish.

Martell Cordon Bleu "Old Classic" ****
55145 $149.95 Cognac, France
Company dates to 1715 and is distinguished by its use of Borderies, the smallest of the cognac districts. Rare, old eaux-de-vies a dark bronzed gold. Layered, deep and complex with satisfying warmth. Notes of tobacco, cinnamon, dried fruits in the nose. Intriguing flavours of nuts, old wood with a full body and long mellow finish.

Hine Antique ****
145466 $129.95, Cognac France
Delicious, stately Fine Champagne cognac. Bronze tinged gold. Great leathery, rancio (aged) bouquet with nuts and truffles. Elegant with a rich warmth and nutty, vanilla, dried fruits taste. Lengthy finish.

Hine Rare & Delicate Cognac****
356857 $75.55 Cognac, France
Blend of 30 cognacs from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the youngest being V.S.O.P level. Bronzed gold, very refined, smooth and elegant. Pretty, aromatic floral spiced nose, gentle, mellow warmth with feminine finesse and a long honeyed finish.

Otard VSOP ****
36855 $62.90 Cognac, France
The firm took over the chateau in the town of Cognac in 1785, aging their spirits within the same walls where King François 1er was born in 1494. Light bronzed amber from eight years cask aging. Ripe fig, wood, vaguely leathery floral bouquet. Honeyed, silky at first on the palate, followed by a firm full-bodied grip and long finish. Tastes of sweet tobacco and pear.

Chabasse VSOP ****
632686 $60. /700mL Cognac France
Fruity Fins Bois combined with floral Champagnes districts. Deep bronzed gold. Floral, spice chest bouquet with deep fruity notes. Sweet, ultra smooth toffee tastes. Crème brulée finish.

Remy Martin VS Petite Champagne ****
20412 $49.95, Cognac France
Light bronzed amber. All Petite Champagne with a pretty, honeyed, cloves and fruit bouquet. Nicely balanced and charming with a delicacy, followed by a firm hold.

Samalens VSOP Bas Armagnac ****
110668 $46.85 Armagnac, France
Firm founded in 1882 in Laujuzan has four generations of family tradition. Mainly continuous distillation in Armagnac alembic with 30 per cent double distilled in Charente (cognac) alembic stills. Matures eight years in 400 litre Gascon oak. Spiced, hearty prune and raw almond bouquet. Robust, rounded, smooth on the palate with a fruity sweetness.

Sarpa di Poli Grappa ****
982264 $44.95/700mL Italy
Family distillery founded in 1898 in Schiavon. Distilled in ancient copper alembic stills from sixty percent merlot pomace, the rest from cabernet. Forward aromatic nose. Perfumed flowery classy marc taste. Gentle, smooth on the palate with a rounded finish.

Grand Solage Boulard Calvados Pays d'Auge****
296228 $39.80 Normandy, France
Double distilled in copper stills over an open flame, from up to 120 different apple varieties, then matured in oak. Bronzed amber, lovely cider nose, mellow balanced cider taste with hints of vanilla. Smooth and clean with depth and lingering apple character. Palate cleansing and upfiting like a true "trou Normand" - the classic inter-meal intermezzo in that part of France.

Armagnac de Montal VSOP ****
618496 $48. Armagnac, France
Blend of armagnacs the youngest being five years matured in oak. Orange/amber brown with a bouquet of almond pits, plum, caramel and vanilla. Rounded, nicely satisfying with a mellow, lingering woodsy, oak vanilla, nutty prune taste.

Stara Sokolova Old Falcon's Plum Brandy ****
576355 $27.95, Serbia
Triple distilled at the Bagdanovic estate, established in 1897. In the watershed of the Drina River, known as Falcon's region where the climate is considered ideal for growing plums. Aged seven years in oak, it is pale gold in colour with a perfumy plum bouquet. The taste is gently honeyed plums and almonds with a smooth finish.

Bottega Club Grappa ****
478156 $29.85 Italy
Distillate of the pomace of prosecco, pinot, tocai and verazzo grapes. Crystal clear colour, flowery hay aromatics. Perfumed, feminine and pretty; the flavours of the skins and pips enveloped in a soft balanced body.

Duff Gordon Ten Stars ****
16022 $20.45 Spain
Aged in American oak barrels in the time honoured solera system. Dark bronze. Nutmeg and allspice adds to the sherry like background. Intriguing layers of vanilla and coconut from the oak, dense and sweet. Some tarry, charred oloroso rubbery notes in the nose. Overall nice encompassing warmth.

Ibis X.O. Brandy ****
543561 $21.30, France
From Larsen, an independent family owned cognac firm, whose house was founded in 1886. Aged in oak barrels a minimum of fine years; it's bright golden amber with a lively, aromatic, fruity pear bouquet. Feminine delicacy in the smooth taste of sweet baked toffee apple with a rich mellow fresh apple finish.

Cheminaud Frères Fine Brandy ****
4440 $20.75, France
A successful combo of mainly French brandy enhanced with those of Spain, Hungary and California. Bronzed amber. Apple, sweet fruits nose. Very smooth, quite full bodied with caramel and rich notes of its Spanish addition. Pleasant all-round.

Henessey Paradis Extra ***½
208298 $379.95, Cognac France
Hundreds of mature cognacs watched over by successive generations of cellar masters go into this blend. Leathery, cloves, mature oak and a rancio of age that's typical of old spirits. Harmonious, long lingering flavours.

Hennessy X.O. ***½
61440 $184.95 Cognac, France
Over 100 eaux-de-vie from the four premier cognac sites, many aged 30 to 35 years and some since the early 1900's. Dark bronze. Sweet vanilla, mushroom, oak and leather perfumed nose. Velvety rich, full bodied and mellow with mocha, milk chocolate - toffee, coffee - tastes. Some gripping spiciness and leathery aged effect.

Gautier Gold and Blue XO Cognac ***½
573287 $130.55, Cognac, France
Most Cognac Houses are situated by a river, but Gautier's cellar in a former watermill, actually straddles one. Cool damp air helps the spirit age slowly and smoothly. A blend of Fins Bois and Fine Champagne, some as old as 35. Fragrant spice and caramel bouquet. Velvety on the palate, almost like sipping a crème brulée, with complexities of spice, leather and hints of mushroom.

Chabasse XO ***½
576413 $126.10/700mL, Cognac France
House founded in 1818. Petite Champagne and Fins Bois combo with a bronzed gold colour. Lively spicy, old wood, leathery bouquet. Spice, silky smooth, honeyed hazelnut taste. Sweet warmth in the finish. Seductive character.

Lhérault Cuvée 20 Cognac ***½
943696 $115.50, Cognac, France
Unique single barrel, unblended cognac, all from the family vineyard in Petite Champagne, aged 20 years in oak. While it matured the angels took one third of it, resulting in an impressive concentration. Bouquet of fruit, spice and oak. Rich, mellow old wood depth. Lovely supple power and length, quite classic.

Hennessy VSOP ***½
43703 $69.95 Cognac, France
Over 60 eaux-de-vie from the four premier cognac districts. Deep bronzed amber colour with a toffee, old oak and clove nose. Velvety, rich and supple-smooth with a spiced vanilla pudding taste.

Marnier VSOP ***½
67694 $61.50, Cognac France
Fine Champagne, bronzed gold in colour. Spirited fragrant, minerally, fruity bouquet. Has finesse, full body and a rich caramel overlay. Silky finish. Pleasant power and balance showing maturity with an average of six to 12 year olds in its blend.

Hennessey VS ***½
8284 $49.95 Cognac, France
Over 40 eaux-de-vie from the four premium sites. Sprightly, fruity pear, floral nose. Sweetly honeyed mellow, vanilla taste and finish.

Grappa Ginepro del Trentino ***½
913772 $44./700mL, Italy
Bertagnolli family firm founded in 1870. Bottle contains a juniper branch harvested from the forests of Trentino flavouring the grappa and giving it a pale greenish yellow hue. Smooth, soft with the delicate aroma and taste of fragrant pine-like juniper. Great digestive.

Janneau Grand Armagnac V.S. ***½
473785 $36.35 Armagnac France
Founded in 1851, fifth generation Etienne Janneau is in charge now. Distilled in continuous and pot stills from local grapes ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche and others from Bas Armagnac and Ténarèze district. Own cooperage on site to make their 450 litre Gascon oak barrels for aging. Golden amber, floral, spirited nose with hints of prune. Hearty, honeyed prune taste with a slight bite in the finish.

Oro di Mazzetti ***½
576090 $33.95/500mL Italy
A sweetened grappa with 23K gold flakes in it, a shake of the bottle creates a golden flurry. Flakes stay suspended in the dense but clear liquid decorating each pour with their glitter. Distilled from aromatic muscat grape must, it has scents and tastes of sweet fruity grapes and rose petals with a distinct grappa backbone. Lovely to look at and sweet to drink.

Asbach Urhalt Brandy ***½
21089 $30.10 Germany
Made since 1892, double distilled then matured in Limousin oak. Light fruity caramel bouquet with a slight touch of rubber. Rounded, sweet caramel gentleness on the palate. Quite smooth with fine finesse.

Maciera Royal Brandy ***½
82537 $25.70 Portugal
Distilled from native Portuguese grapes and aged about five years in oak. Hearty old world style. Very mushroomy, spicy old wood nose. Coarse but spicy-sweet with rustic warmth. Sweet toffee finish.

Faled Grappa Stravecchia ***½
891879 $21.95 Italy
Distilled from pomace of cabernet sauvignon and lambrusco aged in stainless at Roccabianca Castle for a minimum of 18 months. Colourless with lightly dried grass, flowery aromas just slightly raunchy. Smooth, fruity, pomace flavour with good texture in the mouth.

Dujardin VSOP Brandy ***½
10512 $20.25 Germany
Company founded in 1743 in Germany. Successors formed a joint company with French suppliers. Hence from selected French wines, imported into Germany for distillation. Delicate, gently caramel, lightly vanilla character that's silky and pretty.

Marquis de Villard VSOP Brandy ***½
14944 $20.45 France
Cellars established in 1852. Distilled in copper pot stills using French grapes (carignan, grenache, cabernet, merlot, Saint Emilion) then aged in Limousin oak. Bronzed gold colour, it has a deep ripe pear nose and sweet richly caramel taste that's very mellow. Vanilla finish with hints of spice.

Aguardente Bagaceira Paraiso ***½
896969 $20.75 Portugal
Clear and colourless, from the Bairrada region, it has the typical nose of marc - aromatic with hay and slight spiciness that follows through in the taste. Silky smooth with clean purity.

Schloss Kirsch ***½
43018 $20.25/375mL Austria
Colourless, clear and dry (non sweetened) distillate of cherries. Lightly cherry aroma and gentle cherry taste. Perfect for dousing a Black Forest cake or making a "coffee kirsch". Clean fresh and silky in the mouth.

St.-Remy Brandy ***½
8888 $20.25 France
A simple, smooth, easy to sip brandy with some caramel fruitiness in bouquet and taste.

Raynal Brandy ***½
107169 $20.25 France
Firm founded in Jarnac in 1840. Blend of over 20 French eaux-de-vie matured in French oak. Bronzed gold. Slightly spiced brandy nose. Smooth, quite full bodied with a mellow butterscotch taste and somewhat spirited finish.

Winkelhausen Weinbrand Brandy ***½
542563 $19.85/700mL, Germany
Distillery dates to 1846. Aged three years in oak. Deep bronze amber with a smooth, mild, creamy caramel candy taste. Slightly lower alcohol (36%).

Mazzetti Altavilla Grappa di Chardonnay ***
576421 $25.15/500mL, Italy
Chardonnay pomace from Piedmont processed in small batches in copper pot stills. Colourless, perfumed violets, candied maraschino cherry bouquet vaguely raunchy. Decent, smooth, medium bodied taste.

Remy Martin VSOP Fine Champagne ***
4101 $74.90, Cognac France
Grande and Petite Champagne crus aged in Limousin oak. Minimum four years maturity up to 12. Bronzed gold. Slightly bold masculine aspects. Oaky vanilla notes and lingering power and bite.

Aliança Velha ***
554626 $28.95, Portugal
Deep bronzed gold. Old wood, mushroom spiced bouquet. Salty, sweet old wood taste. Interesting unique flavours, rustic but defined in character.

Cortel V.S.O.P. Napoleon Brandy ***
287409 $20.25 France
Aged in wood casks. Bronzed amber in colour with a slightly old woody, caramel nose and a pleasant, smooth, non-descript caramel brandy taste. Quite full bodied soft with a sweet finish.

De Valcourt Napoleon VSOP ***
10801 $20.25, France
Column still made from French grapes, aged in oak. Bronzed gold. Simple but supple and silky smooth sweet brandy taste and finish.

Berentzen Apfelkorn Schnapps ***
323055 $18.60, Germany
Kosher product of wheat spirit and apple juice. Lots of fresh squeezed apples in the nose. Liquid apple pie in the mouth with cinnamon, nutmeg and spice finish.