Wine barrels

Wine has been central to the world’s cultures for millennia, most famously in the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. But early wine production and drinking culture were quite different from our own. For one, the Greeks usually drank their wine diluted with water. 

Distillation is another difference between us and early wine enthusiasts. They didn’t know how to distill alcohol — the technique  wasn’t invented until the 9th Century CE — and so they couldn’t make distilled wines.

Distillation allows us to use wine and the waste products from wine-making to create a wide variety of drinks, collectively called brandy, with much higher alcohol levels. In this article, we’ll explore distilled wines and how they are made. We’ll also suggest several of our favorites you might want to try. 

What Is Distilled Wine?

Distilled wine is a wine that has been processed to increase the concentration of alcohol. The alcohol in wine is made by fermentation. Wine grapes are crushed to extract the juice, which winemakers call the must. The must contains sugars, and when yeast is added, it converts the sugars to alcohol.

However, yeast can’t survive when the alcohol concentration gets too high, putting a natural limit on the strength of fermented wine. That’s why you don’t find ordinary wine with alcohol levels above 16%. To create a more alcoholic drink, the wine must be distilled. 

The alcohol in wine, known as ethanol, has a useful property: it boils at a lower temperature than water. When wine is heated, the alcohol evaporates, along with some other ingredients, while the water remains a liquid. With simple equipment called a still, we can separate the evaporated alcohol from the water. The result is distilled wine, which is much stronger than the original wine.

During wine distillation, it isn’t just the ethanol that is extracted. Other elements also make the journey into the distillate: aromatic compounds, volatile acids, and congeners. These are responsible for the final product's aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. 

A skilled distiller will select the elements they want to keep and discard those they want to leave behind. This is why brandies can taste so different. The flavor depends on the elements present in the grapes, the wine production process, and the distillation technique. 

It’s also worth mentioning that distilling wine is dangerous for non-experts. It’s easy to bring poisons along for the ride. At low concentrations in fermented wine, they are harmless. In high concentrations, they can be deadly. Methanol is just one example; it’s a toxic form of alcohol that blinds and kills people who drink the product of distilled wine or beer into moonshine. It’s best to leave wine distillation to the professionals. 

Is Wine Distilled?

Wine is fermented; it is not distilled. When you buy a bottle of wine, the alcohol it contains results from the fermentation of sugars into alcohol. Wines can be distilled after fermentation, but the result is not wine; it is a distilled wine like brandy. 

What Drinks Are Made from Distilled Wine?

Brandy is often used as a generic term covering all distilled wine types. Its name is a shortening of brandywine, which originates from the Dutch gebrande wijn, meaning burned wine.

High-quality brandy contains between 35% and 60% alcohol and is typically aged in oak casks, which allows its color, flavors, and aromas to develop. Premium brandies may have been aged for many years and even decades. 

Cognac and Armagnac are two of the best-regarded brandies. Cognac is produced in the Cognac region of France, which is world-renowned for its flavor and aging potential. It is made primarily from the Ugni Blanc grape and is distilled twice in copper pot stills. All Cognacs are aged in oak for at least two years. 

Armagnac is a similar brandy from the Gascony region of France. It is typically made from a blend of grapes, including Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Armagnac undergoes a single distillation in a copper column still, which contributes to its robust and flavorful character. By law, all Armagnacs must be aged in oak barrels for at least one year, but the finest examples often spend decades maturing, resulting in a rich, complex spirit.

The Greek Metaxa is a different type of distilled wine drink. It is made from brandy and aged Muscat wine, mixed with various botanicals for flavor, and then aged for at least two years. 

What Does Distilled Wine Taste Like?

Brandy’s characteristics vary depending on the type of grapes used, the distillation and aging processes, and the production region. Its aroma often presents a bouquet of ripe fruit, such as apples or cherries, with sweet notes of caramel, vanilla, and warm spices.  On the palate, brandy is a balance of sweet, sour, and bitter, with flavors of honeyed fruit, tart citrus, and bitter toasted nuts or dark chocolate.

Is Vodka Distilled Wine?

People often ask if other liquors or spirits are made of distilled wine, most often whisky and vodka. In fact, most liquors are not produced from wine, so let’s clear up the confusion by explaining what they are made of:

  • Whisky is made of malted barley grains, much like beer. Sugars in the malt are fermented into alcohol, which is then distilled.
  • Vodka is usually made from wheat or corn, although it can be made from potatoes and, rarely, grapes. Vodka production is distinguished by multiple distillation and filtration steps, which aim to produce a pure alcoholic drink with few additional components.
  • Gin is usually made from neutral grain alcohol, similar to vodka. However, it is redistilled with botanicals to add a unique flavor, including juniper, coriander seeds, and angelica root.

Sherry vs Brandy: What’s the Difference?

Sherry and Port wines are fortified wines that contain more alcohol than is possible with fermentation alone. However, unlike brandy, the extra alcohol is not produced by distilling the wine itself. 

Instead, distilled spirits are added to the wine during production, raising the alcohol levels while preventing further fermentation. The added spirits are usually unaged brandy, but port and sherry are not themselves distilled. 

What Is Pomace Brandy?

Pomace brandy is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from wine grapes, but it differs from more familiar distilled wines like Cognac because it isn’t made from fermented wine juice. 

During wine production, wine grapes are pressed to extract the juice. The skins and stems are left behind. This remainder is called pomace, and it can be mixed with water and fermented to produce an alcoholic drink, which is then distilled to produce pomace brandy.

Many countries in Europe have a local version of pomace brandy, including:

  • Grappa from Italy.
  • Marc, from France.
  • Tsipouro and Tsikoudia, also known as Raki, from Greece.

5 Best Distilled Wine Drinks to Try

At Wine Deals, we stock a wide range of distilled wines. Here are five of our favorites: