There’s only one alcoholic beverage that ties together Napoleon Bonaparte and Jay-Z, and it ain’t whiskey, wine or beer. Cognac is one of those drinks that everybody’s heard of but nobody really seems to know a heck of a lot about. That changes today.
Here are the basics: Cognac is a brandy, distilled from wine. It has to be aged in oak barrels for at least two years and bottled at no less than 40 percent alcohol.
But of course, things get far more complicated than that.
WHERE IT’S MADE
In order to be called cognac, a brandy must be made in the Cognac region, an area of western France surrounding the town of Cognac and stretching from the Atlantic to the foothills of the Massif Central mountain range. The region encompasses just over a million hectares (about 4,000 square miles), but less than 10 percent of that is actually used for growing grapes. Cognac is sub-divided into the following six growing regions.
Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne Located immediately south of the town of Cognac, these regions are often known as the “best,” thanks to their fertile soil. Grapes grown here yield a very good, complex cognac, but one that requires long aging to mellow out their more aggressive flavors. (Note that this area has nothing to do with the famous sparkling wine—that Champagne is made on the other side of France, from entirely different grape varietals.)
Borderies The smallest in size, Borderies is northwest of the town of Cognac. It produces very floral brandies that don’t need quite as much time in barrels.
Fins Bois It’s the largest growing area, both in size and volume of grapes grown, and it surrounds the three above. It’s really the workhorse of Cognac, producing the brandy that makes up the bulk of more affordable blends.
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires These two fill in the rest of the Cognac region, but they aren’t terribly important to the category as a whole, producing relatively small amounts of grapes. One notable exception is Île de Ré, a small island just off the west coast that’s part of the Bois Ordinaires area. There are several tasty cognacs from Camus made exclusively from grapes grown on the island.
THE GRAPES USED
There are nine different grape varietals that can legally be made into cognac, but the vast, vast majority actually grown today are ugni blanc. It’s a white grape (it’s also called trebbiano), and you’ve probably never heard of it because it yields a low-alcohol, highly acidic wine that’s not very well-liked by connoisseurs: It’s better suited to distilling than to drinking.
TURNING JUICE TO BOOZE
To get from grapes to cognac, you first have to make wine. This happens in Cognac pretty much the same way it happens everywhere else: Press the grapes, add yeast and ferment. This low-alcohol wine checks in at about 9 percent.
After that comes distillation. Cognac producers use a special type of still called a Charentais still. It’s an all-copper pot still, which means it operates in batches (as opposed to a column still, which operates continuously). It has a large onion-shaped head on top connected to a long, narrow neck; the head collects all the vapors coming off the wine, while the neck only lets the lightest ones through, in effect purifying the alcohol. Cognac is twice-distilled, which means the wine goes through the still to produce a liquid at about 30 percent alcohol, which is then run through the still a second time to produce the final product, a crystal-clear spirit at 60 to 70 percent alcohol called eau-de-vie.
Cognac production is very seasonal, by law: The grape harvest is in September and October, and each year’s distillation must be done by March 31 of the following year.
HOW IT’S AGED AND BLENDED
For the majority of spirits companies, the person at the top of the production hierarchy is the master distiller. Not so for cognac. The big boss’ title is maître de chai, or cellar master. In fact, most of the major cognac houses, including Hennessy and Courvoisier, own no or very few vineyards, wineries and distilleries. Instead, they buy grapes, juice, wine or eau-de-vie from some of the thousands of small independent producers and collectives throughout the region. (There are a few exceptions, notably Frapin, which does everything from growing the grapes to distillation to aging and blending in-house.)
What all this means is that the arts of barrel aging and blending are the most important ones for cognac.
Those eaux-de-vie distilled above go into barrels made of French oak. In comparison to American oak, which is more commonly used to age whiskey, French oak has a tighter grain and thus has less surface area for the spirit to interact with. French oak barrels age spirits more slowly and contribute more tannic and spicy notes than American oak’s vanilla and caramel. (They’re also far more expensive to produce, as the barrel staves have to be hand-split instead of cut by machine.)
Where whiskey (especially bourbon and other American whiskey) is usually aged in multi-story warehouses that get very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, cognac barrels are stacked only two or three high in smaller warehouses called chais, or cellars. They really are cellar-like—dark and musty, with smaller temperature swings between seasons—which is why some eaux-de-vie can age for decades without getting over-oaked.
Each cognac producer has multiple warehouses filled with thousands of barrels of different ages and from different regions, and it’s the maître de chai’s job to sample them and monitor their progress. When it comes time to actually bottle a cognac, the maître de chai mixes together dozens and sometimes hundreds of different eaux-de-vie. (There is actually one cognac—Comandon—that bottles single barrels by themselves, but the practice is extremely uncommon.)
TYPES OF COGNAC
There are three big age categories for cognac:
· VS (very special) or three stars is a minimum of two years old
· VSOP (very superior old pale) is a minimum of four years old
· XO (extra old), Napoleon or Hors d’Age is a minimum of six years old (but as of April 2018, this is changing to 10 years old, and most producers who needed to have already adjusted their XO blends)
Those ages refer to the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend, so you know that every drop in a bottle of VS has aged for at least two years, but there is likely at least some brandy in the blend that’s much older.
You might notice that all of these age ranges are in English and not French. That’s because cognac has always been made for export: The terms date back to British merchants in the late 1800s. (In reality, the French don’t drink very much cognac at all—less than 5 percent of production is consumed in the country.)
There are also vintage cognacs, labeled with the year the grapes were grown. These are very strictly regulated: Barrels are sealed with wax to prevent tampering and can only be opened under supervision of the Bureau National Interprofesional du Cognac, the government body that regulates production. But even vintage cognacs are blends—of multiple barrels from different areas. Hine is one producer that specializes in vintage bottlings, with more than a dozen available.
If a cognac isn’t labeled with one of these categories, or with a vintage year, or with a specific age, it still has to be at least 2 years old.
HOW TO DRINK COGNAC
You probably think of cognac as something to sip out of a snifter, while smoking a cigar. And that’s the image most cognac brands fought hard to build for decades between Prohibition and the last few years.
But in truth, cognac was a cocktail ingredient before it was an after-dinner sipper. 19th-century cocktail books like Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide and William Schmidt’s 1891 The Flowing Bowl call for cognac more often than they do whiskey, and the spirit is the base for loads of classic cocktails like the Brandy Crusta (which later morphed into the Sidecar) and the Sazerac.
With the craft cocktail revival of the last decade, cognac brands are scrambling to get back in on the cocktail game, releasing special bottlings designed specifically for mixing. In general, younger cognacs like VS and VSOPs are best for mixing, as their assertive flavors shine through other ingredients.
Older, more expensive cognacs are indeed better for sipping, with their more subtle flavors. They are good neat with a cigar, but you can enjoy them however you want—with water, over ice, whatever. And ditch the snifter! That giant glass is just a silly way to consume such a small amount of liquid. A rocks glass works fine.
DRINK THESE COGNACS
Courvoisier VS For a great all-purpose mixing cognac at an affordable price, you can’t go wrong with Courvoisier. It offers lots of sweet fruit, rounded out by a fair bit of oaky spice. Tim Meadows was on to something.
H by Hine VSOP One of those blends developed especially for making cocktails, H by Hine has some subtle complexity to its mix of fruity and floral but is still forceful enough to remain distinctive in a mixed drink.
Park Borderies Single Vineyard If you like perfumey, floral notes of jasmine and lavender, Borderies cognacs are the way to go. And Park’s is a lovely one, with delicate apricot, violet and vanilla flavors and a lovely warming sensation. This is one you can mix or drink neat.
Frapin Chateau Fontpinot XO One of the smallest cognac houses, Frapin controls every aspect of production, growing grapes on its own vineyards and distilling every drop in-house. Its XO is a fruit bomb but isn’t overly sweet, with lots of complex spice adding a bracing bit of bitterness. It’s a good one to savor slowly in front of the fireplace.
Hennessy XO ain’t cheap, but its incredibly deep citrus-vanilla flavor will definitely show you why it’s worth dropping some dough. More than 100 eaux-de-vie, some more than 30 years old, go into this complex blend.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS