Cognac, Crash Course

Crash Course: Cognac

Named after the town of the same name, Cognac is France’s version of Brandy. Carefully and tightly controlled as an Appellation d’origine contrôlée, this is one of the world’s great hand crafted spirits.

AOC rules require that brandy must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, with or without the addition of Folle Blanche and Colombard. The area is split into six sub-regions, or crus. These include the confusingly named Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, drawing their names from the same basis as the more well-known AOC surrounding Reims and Epernay – the chalky and limestone soils.

The rest of the Cognac area is split among Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Borderies, Bois ordinaire and Bois communs. Similar to the wine-making process, grapes are crushed and left to ferment with indigenous yeasts. The result is a wine of around 8% alcohol content. AOC rules then dictate that the juice must run through copper stills and be distilled twice, resulting in a clear spirit called “eau de vie” – the water of life. This will then be stored, awaiting blending with other vintages in order to create a signature flavour.Colour comes from aging in oak casks, in a process similar to Scotch whisky.

Depending on the time spent in oak, one of three designations of quality are given to the Cognac. “VS” or “Very Special” refers to a cognac where the youngest component of the blend has spent at least two years in oak. The next level up from this is the designation of “VSOP” or “Very Special Old Pale,” where the youngest member of the blend has spent at least 4 years in oak. The minimum age of the top-tier “XO” (“Extra Old”) classification is six years in cask, but many producers will far exceed this requirement, and can keep their spirit in cask for upwards of twenty years.

The result is a dark amber spirit, delicate with notes of honey and caramel. It is traditionally drunk out of a “snifter”, a short stemmed, balloon shaped glass. This allows the drinker to warm the bottom of the glass with the palm of their hand, and the larger surface area releases the delicate aromas more readily.

No longer limited to the territory of gentlemen in smoking jackets discussing the day’s events over cigars, Cognac is experiencing a re-invention. This spirit is gaining popularity among younger drinkers, and has become a favoured cocktail component.

To learn more, watch this video of Morgan Delacloche discussing Cognac with Patrick Peyrelongue of Delamain: