Whenever your intrepid liquor reporter is hosting family and friends over the holidays, there always seems to be a recently-gifted bottle of Cognac that gets opened up and passed around.
For those readers in the audience who don’t spend their evenings sipping brandy and smoking cigars in snooty private clubs, let’s make sure everyone knows what Cognac really is.
Brandy is a spirit made from distilling wine, and usually contains around 40% ABV. Any spirit distilled from wine can be called brandy, but only very particular brandy may be called Cognac.
Much like a sparkling wine can only be legally called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France, a brandy can only be called Cognac if it is grown and prepared in the Cognac region of western France.
So, to keep it simple, all Cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are Cognac. To be called Cognac, the grapes must be grown, distilled, and aged in the Cognac wine growing region, and be made from only the Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard grape varietals.
There are around 200 Cognac producers, or Cognac Houses if you wish to sound old and stuffy, but almost 90% of the market is controlled by just four industry juggernauts, namely Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Remy Martin. You will have no trouble finding any of these bottles at your local well-stocked booze merchant.
Like all brandies, Cognac starts out by fermenting grape juice into wine. Interestingly, the grapes that are used for Cognac production actually produce a fairly unattractive wine – too thin, too tarty, and too low in alcohol (just like my last blind date).
Strangely enough, while they produce a lousy wine, these grapes are perfect for making brandy. Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills, and then aged in white oak casks made from Limousin or Troncais wood.
All Cognacs are aged for at least 2.5 years in new oak barrels to mellow out the harsh taste and impart a golden color. If a particular batch is selected for long-term aging (10 years or more), it will be transferred to used or “seasoned” casks that impart less of the oak flavor notes while the brandy matures.
Most of the Cognac bottles you see on the shelf at your local booze merchant are aged for 10-15 years, but a few premium blends are aged all the way up to a full 100 years.
The cellar masters of the top Cognac Houses that start aging a premium blend today will not live to see that spirit bottled, and there will be several generations of cellar masters to shepherd along the aging process for up to a full century of tender care before the precious liquid is bottled and makes its way into the hands of thirsty consumers.
While there are a few cocktails made with Cognac, most people prefer to drink their Cognac without any mixers, in order to fully experience the complex flavours.
If you want to enjoy a Cognac to the fullest, drink it at room temperature or slightly above, straight from a brandy snifter. The tapered mouth of the snifter glass will concentrate the aromatics, giving you a much fuller taste than a regular wine glass.
Expect a full and rich flavour, with a noticeable warming sensation from the alcohol burn as you swallow. You will generally find hints of dried fruit like figs or plums on the palate, with aromas of vanilla, spice, or tobacco in the finish.
Brandy, and especially Cognac, is not a shy or unassuming spirit, and will grab your taste buds and take them on a wild ride.
Hennessy is the world’s largest Cognac producer, who bottled their first blend way back in 1765. With price points ranging from $50 for a 3-year blend, to tens of thousands of dollars for a century-old blend, most Cognac drinkers opt for the less expensive end of the scale.
Hennessy VS is the entry-level Cognac, and at only $50, is by far the most popular. Pouring from the bottle, this Cognac presents a medium amber color, with floral aromas and hints of oak and sweet fruit in the finish.
This is a good starter Cognac, so ask for a snifter the next time you are out for dinner, or pick up a bottle from your local booze merchant.