The word "brandy" is short for "brandy wine" (brandewijn is Dutch for burning wine). Brandy is commonly made by distilling grape wine, but can also be made from grape pomace or fermented fruit juice. Brandy normally contains about 40-60% of alcohol by volume and is usually consumed as an after-dinner drink.
Brandy as it is known today was originated somewhere in the 12th century and became widely popular in 14th century. However, concentrated alcoholic beverages have a history going back to Ancient Greece and Rome, or even Babylon.
Brandy was originated by merchants, who distilled their wine to decrease its volume since spirits were taxed by their volume at that time. It was discovered that after it had been stored in wooden casks for some time, brandy gained brownish color and significantly improved in taste over the original distillate. The matter is that distillation not only removes water from the spirit, but actually breaks up tens of aroma compounds; obviously, this fundamentally changes the composition of the alcoholic beverage.
The most popular brandy in the world is probably cognac. It is named after the town of Cognac in France and is produced in the region around the town. Most cognac is made from Ugni Blanc grapes by two distillations in copper pot stills. Cognac must be aged at least 2 and ½ years to be called so.
Another popular French brandy is Armagnac. It is also called after the region where it is produced. Technology of its production is very similar to the one of cognac and it is also usually made of the same grapes as cognac. The only difference is that armagnac doesn't go through the second distillation. An interesting fact is that even though armagnac is somewhat less popular than cognac, it has a 200-year longer history of production.
Brandy is best drunk from a snifter - a tulip shaped glass which helps to fully enjoy the drinks aroma and flavor. Brandy is usually consumed at cool room temperature or is slightly heated with the warmth of drinker's palm. However, at a bit lower temperatures like 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit) one can enjoy more pleasant aromas and flavors due to lesser amount of alcohol vapors in the glass.