Enjoying Cognac - a practical guide to selecting fine Brandy

Cognac is a type of brandy that comes from the French region of the same name. All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac: in order to label their brandy as Cognac, producers must adhere to the strict rules and regulations as set out by the Cognac Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP). Broadly speaking, Cognac is produced like this:

1. Grapes grown within specific, designated vineyard sites within the Cognac appellation are fermented to produce a white wine, which has relatively low alcohol and is not pleasant to drink.

2. This white wine is distilled, twice, to produce a highly potent neutral spirit known as eau-de-vie, which will reach approximately 70% alcohol-by-volume.

3. The eau-de-vie is aged in oak barrels, where over time it will gain colour and flavour while also losing alcohol and water content.

5. After sufficient ageing, the eau-de-vie is blended with other eaux-de-vie in order to produce a Cognac.

What makes a good Cognac?

Though brandy in general can vary widely in terms of quality, there really isn’t very much bad Cognac. The region has built a deserved reputation based upon quality and tradition, and many top houses have centuries of history and savoir-faire behind them.

With that said, there are grades of varying quality, indicated by the age of the youngest eau de vie in the blend. There are many age-related grades, and some are used a lot more frequently than others. Those that you are most likely to see will include:

  • “VS”, “Very Special” or “***”. The youngest eau de vie has been aged for two years.

  • “VSOP” has been aged for at least four years.

  • “XO” currently has a minimum ageing of six years, though as of April 2018 the minimum will move to ten years.

In addition, the specific vineyard site (or “cru”) from which the grapes have come will have an influence on the flavour profile of the finished product.

  • Les Champagnes are composed of two vineyards. The first, Grande Champagne, is the top cru in the entire region, producing the finest Cognac. The second, Petite Champagne, also produces a high-quality Cognac, though in a lighter style. Cognac labelled as “Fine Champagne” is a blend of the two, with at least 50% coming from the Grande Champagne vineyard.

  • Borderies is a considerably smaller cru, notable for producing Cognac with floral aromatics and a nutty character.

  • Les Bois includes the crus Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. These sites cover a lot of vineyard land and produce some interesting and distinctive Cognacs in their own rights.

Drinking Cognac the right way

Cognac can be enjoyed either by itself, straight, or mixed as part of a cocktail.

  • Straight: Older, higher-end Cognacs will have all the complexity of a single malt whiskey, and should be savoured straight up. Serve a measure with or without ice, depending on your preference. Try one part Cognac and one part water to open up more of the flavour.

  • Mixed: Cognac is very versatile and can form the basis of cocktails both complex and simple. Mix with Cointreau and lemon juice and you’ve got a Sidecar, or with Amaretto for a French Connection.

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