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Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Counterfeit brandy

Szalony kucharz via Wikipedia Commons
In the 15th and 16th centuries, working out the alcohol percentage of wine was no easy feat. For ease, the authorities taxed alcohol according to volume rather than percentage, making importing gin a better deal than wine or beer. And so, naturally, the merchants looked for a loophole, and they found one – or so they thought: distil down the wines, and add the water back in after passing customs. It seemed foolproof. But they had not accounted for one thing: warming wine changes its chemistry. Volatile chemicals are lost, other chemicals – esters, acids, aldehydes – decompose, or undergo reactions. When the merchants rediluted their wine, it tasted different. Wrong. “brandewijn”, or “burnt wine”, they called it, and nowadays, we call it brandy.

Nowadays, a more common tax dodge is “counterfeit brandy”. This is what we call brandy that was made not through the traditional process of distilling wine, but through mixing chemicals in a lab. It’s not considered “real brandy”, and as such people have gone through a lot of effort to spot the differences between them.

Brandy afterall isn't just just distilled wine at 35-60%. It’s also barrel aged during the long sea voyages. This gives rise to other congeners (or flavour agents) that come from barrels or from the maturation of the distillation products as they slowly oxidise through the porous wood, or react with it. It also leads to the distinct, dark colour. What they are is hard to track because everything is affected by temperature and humidity, and really, we don’t know what chemicals are in wine, let alone brandy.

But some scientists have tried to find out.

Using chromatography, UV absorption, capillary electrophoresis, and mass spectroscopy[1][2], they’ve found “signature” compounds like sinapaldehyde, syringaldehyde, and coniferaldehyde that appear in real brandy, but not its imitation. Of course, now counterfeit brandy-makers are adding these compounds in to try to elude detection.
Thermal ionisation mass spectrometer. Radiogenic via Wikipedia Commons

Want to know more about the wonderful chemistry of alcoholic beverages? Check out our whisky article on the topic!

why don't all references have links?

[1] Shu, Y., Zhang, Z., Wang, Z., Ren, H., & Wang, H. (2014). Research on characteristic aromatic compounds in jujube brandy. In Proceedings of the 2012 International Conference on Applied Biotechnology (ICAB 2012) (pp. 499-506). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
[2] Panossian, A., Mamikonyan, G., Torosyan, M., Gabrielyan, E., & Mkhitaryan, S. (2001). Analysis of aromatic aldehydes in brandy and wine by high-performance capillary electrophoresis. Analytical chemistry, 73(17), 4379-4383.


  1. Thank you so much for this article! I'm glad I stumbled upon this website because a) it's super interesting (this is how textbooks should be written) and b) you're sparking interest for my science 4k essay :D Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jenn! Great to hear you're enjoying our articles!