What is Cognac - the distilled wine spirit explained

Cognac: A Comprehensive Guide

By Timo Torner / Last updated on September 5, 2022 
Cognac and Brandy often get confused. But the relation between these two spirits is easily explained. It's similar to the relationship between Tequila and Mezcal. Brandy is a French distilled spirit made from grapes. Cognac, too, but is produced only in certain regions and with specific grapes. So, Brandy is the top category (like Mezcal), […]

Cognac and Brandy often get confused. But the relation between these two spirits is easily explained. It's similar to the relationship between Tequila and Mezcal.

Brandy is a French distilled spirit made from grapes. Cognac, too, but is produced only in certain regions and with specific grapes.

So, Brandy is the top category (like Mezcal), and Cognac is a regional sub-category (like Tequila). Also, the taste of Cognac is generally also smoother than regular Brandy.

What is Cognac?

Cognac is a specific type of Brandy. It is produced by distilling white wine that's been made from grapes grown in the Charente and Charente-Maritime region of France.

Cognac is an elegant, rich, and velvety dark brown spirit often enjoyed neat in a Cognac snifter. But it also plays an influential role in many classic cocktail recipes.

Cognac in Snifter glasses

To be called a Cognac, the spirits must meet all requirements of the appellation d’origine contrôllée (AOC). 

These requirements define the production methods, time of aging in barrels, naming conventions, and more. For example, Cognac needs to be distilled twice and aged for a minimum of two years in barrels.

Yet, not all barrels are adequate. They have to be French oak barrels either from Limousin or Tronçais.

While it ages in the barrels, the product is also referred to as eau de vie - the water of life.

The history of Cognac

The history of Cognac began in the 15th century when the Dutch arrived in France. They started importing French wine, but during sea transport on the way back, it often turned bad.

The Dutch then had an idea and started distilling the wines to preserve them. As the French saw what they did, they also started distilling their wines and creating the early form of Brandy.

Brandy in glassware

Over time, the taste and quality of distilled wines from the Charente region became known as superior.

To keep up the high quality of their Brandy, strict regulations regarding region and production process were imposed.

Many of today's major Cognac brands are also amongst the oldest Cognac producers. The oldest one is Martell, which started producing Cognac more than 300 years ago in 1715.

Rémy Martin, another world-renowned luxury Cognac, is just a few yours younger. Established in 1724, the brand is in the top 5 best-selling Cognac brands together with Martell, Courvoisier, and Hennessy.

The latter is by far the most sold Cognac in the world. -Not least because of its strong presence in the US market.

And also, Hennessy is operating for more than 250 years, as they started their Cognac production in 1765.

Different grades or types of Cognac

Cognac is divided into different types. Each of these categories describes a certain level of quality. 

The older a Cognac is, the better it is classified. Here is a short overview of the different grades of Cognac, from low to high:

  • VS - The name of the lowest category stands for Very Special. Sometimes this category is also labeled as "☆☆☆". It's a blended Cognac with a minimum aging time for each spirit is two years. 
  • VSOP - The Very Superior Old Pale category is the name for a Cognac blend that contains Cognacs no younger than four years.
  • Napoléon - This category is rare. The Napoléon category represents a blend of Cognacs where the youngest part of the blend has to age for a minimum of six years.
  • XO - XO stands for Extra Old and is one of the more common categories. Cognacs in this category only contain spirits aged for at least ten years. -This has been adjusted in 2018. Until then, a minimum aging time of six years was enough. 
  • XXO - A Cognac of the Extra Extra Old category can not be younger than 14 years. This indication is common for other wine-based spirits as well. 
  • Hors d'âge - Technically, Cognacs from this category only need to age for a minimum time of 10 years. -like XO Cognacs. However, in reality, Hors d'âge is used for products that matured for a lot longer. The term Hors d'âge is commonly used for the highest-quality Cognac.

Where is Cognac produced?

Cognac is not only defined by the time of aging. Products are also divided into different crus

Cru is a French term often used when talking about wine. It describes high-quality vineyards or groups of vineyards. 

Cognac agin in barrels

For Cognac, there are strictly defined geographical denominations. Each has different soils and microclimates, which eventually show in the distilled Eaux de vie. 

These are the six different grape-growing regions of Cognac:

Grande Champagne: The Grande Champagne region is known for clay-limestone, limestone, and chalk. It is a medium-sized cultivation area for Cognac grapes.

Petite Champagne: This region has similar characteristics to the Grande Champagne region. Grapes grown in these two regions are often combined and sold as Fine Champagne Cognac

This specific category needs to contain at least 50% of Grande Champagne grapes.

Borderies: This is the smallest grape-growing region that produces Cognac. The soil is characterized by flint stones and clay. 

Fins Bois: Grapes from this region are richer and age faster than most others used in Cognac production. That makes Fins Bois a common choice for the base of blended Cognacs.

Bons Bois & Bois Ordinaires: These two regions are usually treated as one. Both are relatively far away from the other vineyards and are known for their maritime touch.

Bois à terroirs: This is another coastal grape-growing region. Bois à terroirs are known for their sandy soils. 

What grapes are used to make Cognac?

Cognac gets distilled from white wine, which is quite thin and known for its very dry and acidic taste. 

These two attributes would make ordinary white wine pretty much unpalatable, but they make the perfect base for a distilled wine spirit. 

Also, the grapes used to produce this wine are regulated. But it depends on the producer how strict the regulation actually is.

Grapes and Cognac

I mentioned that one could classify Cognac into crus. Yet, producers don't have to employ the name cru if they don't want to. 

If they decide against it, the choice of grapes is less restricted. However, if they do want to put the cru on their bottles, the options for grapes are limited.

Cru Cognac must contain at least 90% of either Ugni BlancFolle Blanche, and Colombard grapes. The remaining 10% can be SélectMontilsFolignanJurançon blancSémillon, or Meslier St-Francois.

For Cognac not using the name of the cru 90% of the grapes have to be either ColombardFolle blancheJurançon blancMeslier Saint-FrançoisMontilsSémillon, or Ugni blanc. The other 10% can consist of Folignan and Sélect

The production process of Cognac

To make Cognac, producers make wine from the grapes and double-distill it. The resulting Eaux de vie then matures in barrels for at least two years.

But what reads so simple is a long and tedious work involving a considerable number of individual steps.

Fermentation of the grapes

The first step is about producing the wine base. For this, the grapes are pressed, and the resulting juice is left to ferment for about three weeks.

To start the fermentation process and to convert the sugars into alcohol, wild yeast is added to the juice. No additional sugar is allowed in this step.

The result of this step is a wine of about 7.5% vol. As mentioned, that would not be pleasant to drink due to its strong acidic and extremely dry taste.

Two-time Distillation of the wine

For turning this wine into eau de vie, it is distilled twice with Copper stills. After this step, the eau de vie is colorless and contains about 70% of alcohol by volume.

Aging the eau de vie

After distillation, the spirit is ready to age in wooden casks. Here, as briefly mentioned, only barrels made of oak wood from either Limousin or Tronçais are allowed. 

When filled into the casks, the eau de vie clocks in at approximately 70%. Because the spirit interacts with the wood and air, about 3% of the alcohol evaporates in thin air each year.

This phenomenon, or actually the volume that vanishes, is called la part des anges or angels' share. If, for instance, you have made barrel-aged cocktails before, you may be familiar with this. 

After ten years of aging, the resulting Cognac only has around 40% vol. Therefore, after that, the spirit is usually transferred and stored in huge glass containers for later blending to avoid ending up with too low ABV.

Blending of Cognac

In most cases, Cognac is blended before being bottled. Blending means that Cognacs of different ages or vineyards are combined and married into a single product. 

The age of the youngest Cognacs of the blend defines the age statement of the final product.

The blending process is crucial to creating Cognac with a more complex taste and aroma. Each Cognac brand has its own master blender who ensures that all Cognacs are consistent in taste and style.

A minority of Cognac producers decide against blending their Cognacs to achieve a more natural and pure taste. Moyet and Guillon Painturaud are two examples of this.

Popular Cognac brands

There are approximately 200 producers of Cognac at the moment. But only a few of them sell internationally.

The US is one of the principal markets for Cognac. And 90% of sales in the country come from only four Cognac brands.

Hennessy is on the top of that list, and the other three are Courvoisier, Martell, and Rémy Martin.

Lately, there are also some noteworthy celebrity Cognac releases like D'Ussé produced by Jay-Z and Branson, a product from 50 Cent. That only underlines how big and profitable the market for Cognac still is.

The taste of Cognac

The taste of Cognac varies perceptibly between products. But overall, the spirit is known for the aroma of dried fruits and citrus.

The taste is complex with sweet notes of caramelized fruits, spicy wooden flavors, leather, and citrus notes.

How to drink Cognac

The fantastic ways to enjoy Cognac are neat, on the rocks, or in complex cocktails. Which one is best mainly depends on the age of the spirit.

The younger a Cognac, the more extras it needs. That means that very old Cognacs are best for sipping neat at room temperature, so you can fully enjoy the taste the complexity of the spirit.

Young Cognacs are ideal for use in cocktails. Some brands like D'Ussé from Jay-Z are intended specifically for use in mixed drinks.

Should you now look for some great Cognac cocktails, here are some sensational recipes. Classic drinks like the Sidecar, Between the Sheets, Sazerac, or Stinger are popular Cognac cocktails have been popular for decades.

Cognac as a base for liqueurs

Cognac is also the base for many well-known liqueurs. The rich and complex grape spirit is the base for classics like Grand Marnier, Pineau des Charentes, and even Chambord.

Sidecar cocktail

Sidecar Cocktail

A delicious and refreshing Cognac cocktail.
Prep Time: 3 minutes
Course: Drinks
Cuisine: French
Keyword: Cognac, lemon, triple sec
Servings: 1
Calories: 193kcal
Cost: $4.20

Ingredients

  • 1.75 oz VSOP Cognac
  • 0.75 oz Cointreau
  • 0.75 oz Freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters (optional)

Instructions

  • Chill your cocktail glass with ice cubes and set it aside.
  • Add all ingredients from the list except for the bitters into your cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake until the drink is well chilled.
  • Remove the ice cubes from your cocktail glass and rim the glass with sugar.
  • Carefully strain your cocktail into your cocktail glass. If wanted, add a few drops of bitters.

Nutrition

Serving: 3.25oz | Calories: 193kcal | Carbohydrates: 8g | Protein: 0.1g | Fat: 0.02g | Sodium: 0.5mg | Potassium: 28mg | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin C: 7mg | Calcium: 3mg | Iron: 0.2mg
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

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