Cognac is a type of brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.
If it’s not made in Cognac (a highly protected region in France), you can’t call it cognac. It helps that with appellation, you know that the spirit comes from the right location and is made with the proper production methods. When making cognac, it must be made with grapes from the following places:
1. Bois Ordinaires – because of poorer soil influenced by an oceanic climate, the eaux de vie produced are less demonstrative and age rather quickly. Hence generally used by manufacturers driven by high-volume production.
2. Bons Bois – you get less chalky but more earthy soil, and this is well reflected in the eaux de vie.
3. Fins Bois – rounded and fruity, with a pleasant oiliness.
4. Borderies – most distinctive, accompanied with nutty and violet aromas.
5. Petite Champagne – similar to those from Grande Champagne, except shorter on the palate.
6. Grande Champagne – long and powerful floral notes. Most prestigious of them all.
The cognac must also be distilled twice in copper stills, then aged in oak for another two years at the least.
How exactly is it made?
We know it’s not wise to mix your alcohol, but like how it’s okay to drink beer and whisky (they both carry malt) the same night, the same applies to wine and cognac. It’s hard to believe, but cognac is derived from distilling wine a second time to make a clear, strong alcohol (70 per cent) known as eau de vie. The alcohol is then left to age in oak barrels to mature. Naturally, the longer it’s kept in the barrel, the smokier and woodier the spirit is going to get. Once bottled, you’re better off enjoying it. Letting it wait around won’t age it any further.
Common cognac designations
These designations, or grades, indicate how long the youngest eau de vie in the blend has been aged.
VS (Very Special): At least two years
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale): At least four years
XO (Extra Old): At least six years, although in some of the finest blends, it could go up to around 20 years.
Choosing a favourite
The way cognacs are produced, even the least expensive brand won’t disappoint. However, if you really like the spirit, I suggest picking something out from Martell. The Martell Cordon Bleu for example, is a rich and elegant cognac that hits you in all the right places with notes of plums, apples and cinnamon, filling the palate with a well-rounded mellow finish.
How to drink it
Cognac is traditionally enjoyed straight because of its high quality. Then again, no one’s in the position to decide how you should drink it. Savour it by the sip and take your time to enjoy the aroma. If you feel like it, add a splash of water or mix a little something else in. Ignore any frowns that may come your way.
It can also do wonders as a companion throughout a meal. Because of its high acidity, the flavour profile of cognac (from almond and rose to tobacco and truffle) shines through neutralising elements like cured meats, chocolate and honey. It’s especially perfect with rich food like foie gras, oysters and even Chinese (at this year’s World Gourmet Summit, chefs Susur Lee and Ken Ling proved that the natural pairing between Chinese cuisine and cognac knows no bounds). It doesn’t have to reserved as a digestif, as what it’s usually thought so.