A Field Guide To Cognac
Everything you need to know about Cognac.
A comprehensive guide to Cognac.
Eater Drinks recently took a broad look at the world of brandy, hammering home the point that not all brandy is Cognac. Now though, it’s time to focus on France’s Cognac region and offer a thorough explanation of its namesake spirit and its many finer points.
A Brief History of Cognac
The history of Cognac stretches back to the 1600s. Story has it that wine exported from the region to Holland was deemed unsatisfactory. The Dutch had already begun distilling gin, so they began distilling the wine they were receiving, too. As they took notice in France, winemakers then shifted to distillation themselves.
Some of the largest brands formed quite early. For instance, this year offered notable anniversaries for two: , the oldest continually operational Cognac brand, with a history stretching back to 1715, celebrated its 300th anniversary and Hennessy, with its own history stretching to 1765, celebrated its 250th birthday. While it’s not a celebratory year for Rémy Martin, the brand’s history stretches back nearly as far as Martell’s, to 1724.
Cognac is a specific type of brandy produced from distilled white wine.
Cognac Distillation and Blending
What is Cognac exactly? Cognac is a specific type of brandy produced from distilled white wine. It must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills, and aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Two stills at Courvoisier.
How Should You Drink Them
Sipping a glass of cognacâespecially a V.S.O.P. or X.O.âby the fire on a cold winter night is the stereotypical image of the liquor, but it belies its versatility and suitability for mixed drinks. The Sidecar, for example, is a classic cocktail that uses cognac as its primary ingredient.
Here’s how to make it:
Ingredients.75 oz Cointreau/triple secInstructionsCombine ingredients in a cocktail shake. Fill with ice. Shake well and strain into cocktail glass with a sugared rim.
Brandy, of course, can also be sipped neat or in cocktails .
Sipping cognac and brandy straight might give flavors of fruits like apricots, oranges, and lemons. Aged cognacs typically add notes of flowers and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
How Is Cognac Made
Cognac is made by harvesting grapes in the Cognac region, usually beginning in September.
After that, the grapes are pressed and fermented for several weeks before turning into wine. This process usually yields around 8.5% to 9.5% alcohol by volume.
After being distilled twice, the resulting wine is put in copper pot stills and produces alcohol known as eau-de-vie.
After being aged in either oak barrels or limousin for at least two years, the spirit is then ready to be blended with other cognacs to create the final product. But how long does cognac last?
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The Flavors Are Diverse And Delightful
The versatility of cognac is what makes it such a special spirit. I love cognac for so many different reasons, says Erick Castro of Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves in San Diego and Boilermaker, NY. While I tend to drink it mixed in cocktails, sipped neat after a nice meal has got to be one of the most pleasurable ways to enjoy it. Particularly, a nice X.O., as the flavors can be so expansive and unlike any other spirit. You can find every aroma from dried peach to black tea to shiitake mushrooms all in the same glass, and all in perfect harmony. There is truly nothing like it.
Image: Benoit Linero
Cognac Educator Kellie Thorn of Atlantas Empire State South adds, Cognac displays a myriad of flavors on the palate. Younger expressions are often vibrant and fruity with notes of fresh pressed grapes, daisy, and oak spice. As they age the fruit becomes more developed, the oak characteristics more integrated, and the florality more complex. Nutty notes appear as well as cocoa and earthier flavors and aroma like forest floor and mushroom. Depending on the age range and the desire of the blender, it can be fruity and bright with tropical fruits and jasmine notes, or chocolatey, earthy, and show notes of tobacco, and everywhere in between. Cognac is truly a journey of the senses which is what makes it such a special spirit.
Ophelias Drift cocktail by Kellie Thorn
The Distillation Of Wine And Creation Of Spirits
To put it in a nutshell, the distillation process aims at extracting the alcohol contained in wines to obtain spirits practically speaking, this involves heating wine up to 78.3°C which is the boiling temperature of ethanol, to separate it from water which boils-up at 100°C along with other components. Alcohol vapours will evaporate first, then cool down by passing through a condensator to regain a liquid shape. In the case of Cognac, this process is repeated twice to obtain the final product, this is the principle of double-distillation. The distillation process is completed when most of the alcohol contained in the distilled wine has been extracted, leaving nothing but wine residues behind or vinasses as is it called in the Cognac region.
Not all spirits obtained through the distillation process will make it into the final product however! Specific portions will be separated by the distiller, to be discarded or distilled yet another time. Simply put, the heads or first liters of alcohol obtained at the early stage of the distillation process and tails or last liters obtained will be cut from the spirits heart, which is the final product. This process of separating alcohol known as the cut varies depending on Distilleries tradition or the know-how of a master-distiller and often grants Cognac some very specific characteristics. To dig deeper into this subject, you can read our article about Cognac Distillation.
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Cognac: Whats It Made From
Cognac is made from white grapes grown in Southwest Frances Cognac region. It is a twice-distilled white wine using copper pot stills and matured using French oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Also, the distillation season for the legendary French brandy usually begins in October and ends in March the following year, which is its annual five-month window.
The key ingredient of cognac is white grapes, but not just any kind of white grape variety. Cognac uses three main types of white grapes: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche.
Visit The Martell House
If you go to the town of Cognac, you will inevitably come across many producers who offer tours. These allow you to discover the production methods and often to taste different varieties of cognac.
For my part I went to visit the Martell house, the oldest of the cognac houses created in 1715 by the Englishman Jean Martell. The visit is done in the old cellars and can be done in half an hour or half a day depending on how much time you want to spend there.
You will discover the Houses heritage, its know-how and the angels share, a section that explores the techniques used to make cognac. An experience that ends with a tasting session will allow you to test the different products of the House, from the most classic to the most original such as the Blue swift, a derivative of cognac whose ageing has been completed in Kentucky bourbon barrels, which deprives it of the cognac appellation but gives it a powerful structure ideal for cocktails. You can also make your own blending and bottle your own cognac.
Not open to visitors, here is the tasting area of the Cellar Master, the Master Blender and their team. It is here, in this old cellar, that they taste and document every day the eaux-de-vie to elaborate the different cognacs of the Martell range.
To complete your visit, dont miss a visit to the Martell Corporate Foundation, a cultural institution dedicated to contemporary creation that is currently presenting an exciting design exhibition.
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What About Blending And Aging
After distillation, the liquid is blended and aged, which is what really makes cognac special. At Hennessy, for example, a tasting committee of 7 people meets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to taste about 40 different samples of “eaux de vie,” as the individual distilled spirits are known before blending. It takes 10 years of training before one can join the committee, according to the brand’s ambassador Jordan Bushell.
Cognac must be aged for at least 2 years in French oak, at which point it’s labeled “V.S. .” After that, these distinctions that break down a bottle’s age and quality:
- V.S.O.P. : the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least four years in oak
- X.O. : the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least six years in oak
Hennessy: What Its Made From
Hennessy is created from Ugni Blanc grapes, which are made into wine. It then becomes an Eau-de-vie, which is prepared from Uni Blanc wine grapes that have been fermented and distilled once by the farmers.
Hennessy picks distinct Eau de Vie for their taste characteristics and then distills them again for consistency. It rests in charred oak barrels for 4100 years .
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How Much Is Cognac
It is possible to buy a bottle of cognac for less than $50. Most of these bottles have been aged for less than five years. They are more fruity, though you can use them in cocktails.
Mid-prize bottles are also fruity with minimal aging. They tend to have stronger aromas than cheaper selections.
More expensive bottles have gone through more than a decade of aging. They have dark colors, floral aromas, and a variety of flavors, including nutty notes.
You can find a similar price range for Armagnac. The more you are willing to pay, the older your drink will be and the stronger the flavors.
If you are making your own cognac, you can expect to pay some money. You need to buy grapes and barrels at a minimum. This can cost a few hundred dollars, though the quality of your drink is worth it.
Now that you know the ins and outs of how cognac is made, consider buying a cognac barrel to age your beer, wine spirit or food product.
At Northeast barrel company we import 500L and 600L ex cognac barrels made from limousine oak. These barrels are sure to impart a flavorful, complex flavor to your product. Browse our shop today!
Is Cognac A Whiskey Or A Wine
No and no. Cognac isnt considered whiskey since the latter is made with grape/fruit wine, while the former is made with grain. Both are products of distillation, but whiskeys are only distilled once while cognacs are distilled twice.
Moreover, Cognacs arent necessarily considered wine, even though its made with grapes. If you ferment grapes, it becomes wine.
But to make Cognac, the process doesnt just stop at fermentation. The fermented wine is to be distilled twice in copper pot stills. Thats why Cognac and wine arent the same things.
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What Happens To The White Grapes
White grapes are planted and maintained to ensure that they can produce a high-quality Cognac. It usually takes four to five years for a new vine to produce enough grapes to make a good quality blend.
The harvesting process is traditionally carried out manually, though some believe that hand-harvesting adds to the quality of the product.
Then after the harvest, the grapes are pressed, and the juice will undergo fermentation and distillation.
So, it results in cognacs after years of aging using French oak barrels.
What Are Some Tools For Cognac Production
The most important tool for cognac production is grapes. The traditional grapes for the drink include Colombard, Saint-Emilion, and Blanche.
It is possible to use different kinds of grapes, but the flavors of the drink will be different. Whatever grapes you pick should create a juice that is 8-9% alcohol. Do not go outside this range, as your drink will lack a good aroma or concentration.
Wooden barrels are also very important. Your drink has to age inside the barrels over a long period of time. The tannin and vanillin within wood impart their flavors to the cognac, creating a high-quality drink.
European imports are the best barrels. Whenever possible, get a barrel made of Limousin or Tron wood. These types of wood slowly impart their tannin to make a mature beverage.
You can use a brick kiln to distill your wine. You can use wood or natural gas as a method of heat.
You need to store your cognac in a safe location where it can age. This can be a cellar or a separate building. Once it is done aging, you can put your cognac into glass bottles.
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Cognac Types Are Created With Blending
Most of the Cognac brandies we know are blends. That is the magical job of the cellar master: to combine and blend hundreds of different eaux-de-vie and to create perfectly balanced blends with the typical character of each producer. There are three primary types of Cognac in the market today:
Types of Cognac
Beyond the primary three types of Cognac there are several other names and titles used on Cognac bottles, such as: Premium , Extra , Napoleon , Vintage , Réserve Familiale , Très Vieille Réserve , Extra, Hors dÂge, and Heritage . These aforementioned specifications are closely monitored by the appellation board of France.
Other names like black or double oaked or very fine Cognac are used by brands to market their Cognac brandies to signify a special batch .
So, if you want an official designation of quality, look at the official classification and get the producers notes for that bottle.
How To Enjoy Cognac
Now, at this point youre probably about ready to start hearing about how to enjoy cognac. You could be forgiven for thinking of a warm, crackling fire accompanied by white slippers and a burgundy robe. I cant quite ignore the austerity of this fantasy myself, but I am here to say that Cognac shouldnt be relegated to posh, regal, winter nights alone! Think of Cognac as your new spirit to work into rotation with that whiskey or aged rum you enjoy year round.
When it comes to deciding which Cognac to buy keep these designations in mind, but also dont fall int the trap that older is always better. Age, just like any element of alcohol is only one component of the final product and flavor profile. With whiskey, rum, wine and cognac alike Ive found plenty of examples where I enjoy younger versions just as much, if not more, than the older equivalents.
- V.S. very special, which means the youngest cognac in the blend was aged at least 2 years
- V.S.O.P. Very Special Old Pale , which is a blend with the youngest cognac aged for a minimum of 4 years.
- X.O. Extra Old , which as of 2018 is a blend with the youngest cognac aged for a minimum of 10 years. Prior to 2018 the regulation was a minimum of 6 years. So the extra old designation just got an extra special aging boost!
- Hors dâge Beyond Age. This is the designation for any cognac that has cognac that exceeds the X.O. age requirements as the youngest in the blend. So basically anything over the 10 year minimum.
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Different Types Of Cognac & Regions
You may have noticed a variety of different terms an initials on cognac bottles, which can be very confusing to newcomers. These initials consider a cognacs age and it specifically refers to how long a blends youngest brandy has been aged in a cask. Indeed, the classification is somewhat similar to Scotch whisky.
As youll learn in our main guide, the terms are in English due to their historical presence in the industry. The Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac has classified the terms as follows:
- V.S.O.P or Réserve: 4 Years
- Napoléon: 6 Years
- X.O. : 10 Years
- X.X.O: 14 Years
- Hors dÂge: Officially 10 Years Or Older
Officially, an Hors dÂge cognac is regarded as an X.O by the aforementioned BNIC given that the youngest spirit has been aged for at least 10 years. However, producers will use the term instead as a marketing term to emphasise its age.
Similarly, an X.O. cognac can technically feature a 6-year old spirit if it was bottled before 2018 as the classification was increased in 2016. Additionally, a new X.X.O. classification has been recognised for cognac that is 14 years or older.
Meanwhile, the Napoléon grade was previously unofficial but has become a common term since the revised X.O. classification.
Finally, a 2-year old cognac may occasionally feature three stars on the bottle instead of or as well as V.S..
How Strong Is Cognac
In both Europe and the USA, cognac must be at least 40% ABV to be regarded as a brandy or alcohol spirit. While most cognacs adhere to this strength quite closely, some blends may be a little stronger. However, its rare that a commercial cognac will ever be as strong as 45% ABV.
Unlike whisky, cognac is rarely cut with water or chilled. Instead, it is almost always enjoyed neat unless youre preparing a cocktail. In fact, as we described above, its slowly hydrated as its aged with a water and cognac solution, which brings down the total ABV while still in the barrel.
A cognac much stronger than 40% ABV would produce an alcohol bloom that would likely conceal the spirits nuances and flavours. Therefore, its no surprise that most cognacs adhere to 40% ABV and rarely more.
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