If you think of Cognac solely as a post-dinner drink, where you need a leather chair, a smoking jacket and a fireplace as your accessories, then you haven’t really explored all that Cognac can offer.
Sure if you have a smoking jacket and a fireplace handy, then who are we to judge but the point is that Cognac is no longer your grandfather’s drink or a drink sole reserved for the wealthy (no matter what Jay Z may sing about it).
The history of Cognac stretches back to the 1600s. Dutch sailors needed ways to transport wine during long voyages. The Dutch had already begun distilling gin, so they began distilling the wine they were receiving, too. As they took notice in France, winemakers then shifted to distillation themselves and by the 18th and 19th centuries, the new “burnt wine” was being exported to England, Holland, Asia, and America.
So what is Cognac
The easiest way to think of Cognac is as an aged Brandy. Iso what does that mean, well, basically it’s a distilled wine with some geographical boundaries. it’s made by distilling wine, and then ageing the resulting spirit (the French call it eau de vie) in wood barrels. After double distillation in a copper pot still, Cognac is aged in Limousine or Tronçais oak casks and usually blended before bottling.
Where as Brandy can be made anywhere, Cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France.
The birth of Cognac originated in the southwest region of France when Dutch sailors needed ways to transport wine during long voyages. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the new “burnt wine” was being exported to England, Holland, Asia, and America.
The Cognac region itself is divided into numerous smaller regions, which have different soil characteristics capable of producing different-tasting wines and eau de vies. While an argument can be made for the virtues of grapes that come from each of the regions, the most sought after tend to be grown in the Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, and Borderies regions.
The five designations got changed in April 2018, they are now –
- VS (‘Very Special’ or Three stars): blend with minimum 2 years of ageing (age designation 2)
- VSOP (‘Very Special Old Pale’): blend with a minimum of 4 years of ageing (age designation 4). This category was created at the beginning of the 19th century following a request from the British Royal Family for a ‘pale’ cognac: one with no additives, sugar or caramel.
- XO (‘Extra Old’): blend with minimum 10 years of ageing (age designation 6)
- Napoleon – Vieille Réserve: blend with a minimum of 6 years of ageing (age designation 6)
- Extra – Hors d’Âge: a blend of great quality which is of far older than XO.
Numerous houses in search of a more aromatic complexity do not hesitate to blend their cognacs with another cognac, much older than the minimum age required.
How to drink Cognac?
The best way to think about drinking Cognac is if it’s old drink it straight if it’s young mix it up.
As soon as there is any depth or complexity with Cognac, it really shouldn’t be used in cocktails.
The traditional method for serving and drinking Cognac is –
- The glass is important here. You want to select a standard wine glass or brandy snifter. Any Tulip-shaped glass (that is narrowing at the top) is ideal as it will trap the aromas and holds them in the glass. A glass that is too open will allow the spirit’s aromas to escape.
- Pour a modest amount of cognac into the glass (so it is roughly about ¼ full). Cup the base of the glass with your hand for a few minutes to gently warm the Cognac. This will free the aromas and give you a chance to evaluate its colour, viscosity and transparency.
- Lift the glass to within an inch or so of your nose, and inhale gently. Depending on the individual Cognac, you might detect a range of floral or fruity smells, including rose, plum and grapefruit.
- Take a small sip of cognac, holding it in the front of your mouth for a moment and then letting it pass slowly over your palate. Inhale through your mouth as you swallow, then exhale gently through your nose. Your sinuses will fill with the cognac’s aromas, complementing the flavour notes from your palate.
Most cognacs don’t require six-figure investments, but given all the branding, marketing, and elaborate packaging, Cognac is not cheap. But that doesn’t mean that you should use a VS or even VSOP to mix up some amazing Cognac-based drinks.
Cognac has been used for cocktails as far back as the 19th century. One of the all-time classic mixed drinks, the sidecar, supposedly invented in Paris during World War I, is composed of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice.
Above, we have 7 Cognac Cocktails that are well worth trying and will go a long way to showing that Cognac is nowhere near as old fashioned or stuffy as you might have thought.
3 Fun facts
- If 11 percent of China drank one bottle of Cognac per year, the entire Cognac region couldn’t produce enough to meet that demand.
- The French themselves aren’t that fond of Cognac – only about three percent of Cognac is actually consumed in France. The rest is exported.
- Nine litres of white wine must be distilled to create a single litre of Cognac.