Cognac is the most revered brandy, and perhaps spirit, in the world. Anytime a cocktail calls broadly for brandy, cognac is generally the best, and most reliable option. The best of them reach exceptional levels of nuance and complexity while the most economically priced bottles at the other end of the spectrum are consistently dependable. There are even some classics that call for cognac specifically, including one of my personal favorites, the Side Car.
To be unmistakably clear, all cognac’s are brandies, but not all brandies are cognac. Cognac can only made in the “cognac” region in France about 300 miles south of Paris. Furthermore, production must adhere to strict guidelines outlined by an AOC which is administered and monitored by the French government.
Because of these specific production parameters and a widespread tradition of blending for consistency, the stylistic range between cognacs is relatively narrow compared to diverse spirit categories like scotch, rum or gin. Cognac, rather, is more like bourbon. There are certainly differences between them, but they're all in with the same ballpark.
You can generally expect a cognac to have delicate, round and floral qualities with varying notes of fruit, baking spice and other confectionary flavors like vanilla and butterscotch. Some lean more towards rich and decadent, others are more fruity and floral. But while many of them are similar, beneath the surface the potential flavor palette within a cognac is about as wide as they come. A single bottle can contain literally dozens of specific flavor notes for the taster to pick out and enjoy.
The credentials for a great mixing cognac are different than for a great sipping cognac. For mixing, first and foremost, the price needs to be warranted. Even the most affordable cognacs are typically upwards of $40 - in the United States anyway - with higher end bottles getting well into the hundreds and beyond. That's a hefty price tag for a mixer.
The good news is, younger and more affordable VS and VSOP cognacs work great in cocktails and in some cases are even preferable. Older premium cognacs can be so delicate that they fall flat when mixed with, or there isn't a discernible difference.
Another issue to consider is that cognacs, and most grape brandies in general, can sometimes struggle to assert themselves in cocktails because of their soft, floral character. One way to navigate this is using a cognac that's higher proof. That will bump up the flavor to help it punch through a little more. Most cognacs are bottled at 40% ABV, but a few are bottled higher specifically with mixing in mind (see below).
To dig deeper into the connoisseur's world of high end sipping cognac, and learn more about the category in general, check out Nicholas Faith's 2015 Guide to Cognac, free on kindle!
High Proof and Affordable - These are all optimal mixing cognacs.
Pierre Ferrand 1840, 45% ABV - A recreation of an old formula made with cocktails in mind. This is the cognac a lot of cocktail bars use in their well.
Louis Royer Force 53, 53% ABV - A exceptional value for such a high proof.
Meukow VS 90, 45% ABV - Bonus: the panther on the bottle (pictured above) brings Brian Fantana's cologne to mind. Always a good thing.
Gourry de Chadeville Overproof, 55% ABV - 3 years old and no additives (see below). This is a bartender's dream.
Cognac Aging Guidelines - These aging classifications all speak to the youngest spirit in the bottle, but the median age of a blend is usually much older than the minimum. For example, a VS could easily be a blend of 5-15 year old cogancs, with no 2 year at all.
V.S. ("Very Special") - Aged for a minimum of 2 years.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) - Aged for a minimum of 4 years.
X.O. (Extra Old) - Aged for a minimum of 6 years, but that will go up to 10 years in 2018, which is how old most XO cognacs are anyway.
Hors d'âge ("beyond age"), Réserve or Réserve de Famille (Family Réserve), Napoléon, Extra - These labels aren't technically required to be older than XO, but they are generally reserved for the oldest and most exceptional bottlings offered by a producer to distingish them as particularly prestigious.
Major Houses - There are over 200 cognac houses (distilleries). Many of them have been in business for over 100 hundred years, with some going back as far as 300. The four largest houses make up about 80% of the market and are by far the easiest to find. Listed here are some other well known houses, this is just a partial list. Here's a longer one. The baseline bottling from each of these is a fitting option for cocktails.
The Big Four
Martell - Generally, the most affordable of the big 4. Darn good too.
Rémy Martin - Their baseline is a VSOP, they do not make a VS.
Dudognon - I'd like to give a shoutout to this smaller and wonderful production house. They do everything themselves from the growing to the aging, which is rare for a cognac. They also have no additives other than water, (see below).
Louis Royer - See the Force 53 above.
Pierre Ferrand - See 1840 above. Their Ambre is another great well priced option.
How Cognac is Made
There’s no one reason as to why cognac is so remarkable compared to other brandies. A combination of several unique factors all make important contributions, from the region’s unique terroir to the painstaking production methods to the species of grapes and types wood used to make the barrels.
Base Ingredient: Ugni Blanc Grape
While there are technically a handful of grapes varietals approved for cognac production, about 95% use the ugni blanc grape (aka Trebbiano). This is for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it produces a wine that is high in acid and low in proof, more on that below. It is also relatively easy to cultivate, resistant to disease and it buds late, avoiding late spring frosts. Folle blanc and colombard are the next two varietals most frequently used.
High Acid, Low Alcohol Wine
All cognac, as well as most quality brandies, is distilled from wine that is high in acid and low in alcohol. As the saying goes, bad wine makes good brandy. These two traits are connected. More acidity means less sugar, and therefore, less alcohol is produced.
One reason lower alcohol wine is preferable is it can be concentrated more times through distillation, creating denser, richer flavors. For example, 9% ABV wine can be condensed 8 times into a 72% ABV distillate - the common strength of cognac off the still - whereas a 12% wine would only achieve 6 concentrations. Wine for cognac is usually around 8.5%-9.5% ABV.
A key benefit of high acidity is it deters bacterial growth. Many wines have sulphur dioxide added to prevent this problem, but that will creates unpleasant, disinfectant-like flavors when they're distilled. So that isn't an option for wine that's to be made into brandy.
There is no Federal state of Cognac. The area where cognac is be made is merely a collection of vineyards. The borders are drawn by the AOC and stretch across the French departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. In total the territory covers 1,095,199 hectares (4,228 square miles), a little smaller than the state of Connecticut. Vines are planted on about 79,000 of those hectares, less than one tenth of the whole area.
The Charente river flows across the entire cognac region, including through the towns of Cognac and Jarnac at it’s center. These towns, along with nearby Segonzac, are clustered together to form what’s known as the heart of the region. It is where the headquarters and cellars of many of the major distillery are located.
One of the primary reasons this area this so ideal for growing grapes to make brandy is the exceptional soil and unique climate. Together they create an environment which allows the ugni blanc grapes, and others, to develop in such a way that they produce the perfect wine for distillation.
The soil in cognac is a mixture of chalk, limestone, sand and clay. But it is the chalk component that is most consequential. Chalk is a particularly soft and porous type of limestone. It is ideal for growing grapes with high acidity for several reasons. One, it keeps the vines relatively cool, even when it's uncharacteristically warm which helps to avoid over-ripening and maintain an ideal balance of sugar and acidity. Chalk soil also retains moisture, while also providing good drainage so the grape has access to just enough nutrients and won’t get waterlogged when it rains. This also encourages vines to work harder to dig deeper. As is true across all spirits and wine categories, the more effort the plant puts in, the better the result.
Cognac has areas of very pure chalk soil, which is rare. It only exist in large spanses in two other places: further north in Champagne where the famous sparkling wine is made, and in Jerez in the south Spain where they make sherry.
Chalk, and limestone in general, is formed when fossilized marine life - shells, mollusks and coral - has been crushed and compacted over the eons. The foundation of the soil in cognac was laid during the Cretaceous period 70-90 million years ago, back when the region was an underwater seabed teeming with life.
The favorable climate in cognac is thanks in part to it's geography.
The center of the region is just 50 miles west of the Atlantic and about 75 miles northeast of Bordeaux. This is relatively far north for grape growing, which combined with the cooling air from the ocean, keeps the weather from going to extremes. The region has a pleasantly cool average annual temperature of 55 degrees fahrenheit. It has short, mild winters and warm, but not sweltering, summers with long days. It also has fewer late rainfalls that can damage a crop. All these factors contribute to allowing the grapes to ripen gradually, without over-ripening.
The cognac region is divided into 6 sub-regions, or crus (vineyards), based on soil type and quality. The soil deemed best for cognac is an airy, powdery type of chalk. This exists in the highest concentrations towards the inner regions. The Grande Champagne region at the center is considered the best. The other regions radiate out in rings, somewhat like ripples on a pond, getting larger as they expand outward. The soil in the outer regions becomes less optimal with more limestone, clay and sand, though there are pockets of chalk sprinkled throughout. Over half of the inner area is planted with vines, compared to much less further out.
Below is a look at each region. As you’ll see in the descriptions, some are viewed more favorably than others. But it’s important to remember that the differences in the brandies will be most evident in higher end cognacs, not necessarily mixing cognacs. Yes, it’s certainly true that some regions reliably produce better cognacs than others, but the “lesser” regions are still perfectly capable of making delicious cognac, particularly if it’s going to be used in cocktails. The true splendor of a Grande Champagne cognac will be most evident when it’s 40 years old. Any mixing cognac will typically be much younger. So where cocktails are concerned, take these rankings with a grain of salt (or chalk).
This bears no relation to the Champagne region up north that makes the sparkling wine. The word champagne simply means "open country side", a derivative of the root word for campus. The soil in grande champagne is composed of intensely fine chalk which allows cognacs made here to age the most gracefully for the longest periods of time. The soil's superlative qualities are attributed in part to a particularly high concentration of particular fossil - the ostrea vesicularis - which is only found in and around Grande Champagne. If a bottle is made entirely from Grande Champagne grapes, it will be labeled as “100% Grande Champagne”.
Next line after Grande Champagne. The chalk here is less intensely powdery, and a bit more compacted, which means the cognacs won’t age well for quite as long. But that doesn’t make them inferior, just different. And to be clear, we’re talking years within decades. Petit Champagne cognacs are still very highly regarded. Additionally, a bottle that is labeled “Fine Champagne,” means it is a mixture of at least 50% Grand Champagne with the remainder being Petit Champagne.
Bordieres, or “edges”, is a stony plateau and the smallest region. It's soil is a mixture of chalk and clay, but despite that the soil’s suitably soft and crumbly texture makes it, as Nicholas Faith observes, “physically, if not geologically perfect.” Borderies cognacs have a uniquely nutty and floral character to them that's recently led to an increase in popularity. Some even appraise it above Petit Champagne. Camus is one brand that makes a 100% Borderies cognac.
The outer regions surname “bois”, means woods. Much the of the area was indeed at one time wooded and though much of it has been cleared. Fin bois (fine woods) is the only Bois used by the biggest producers along with the inner three becasue it contains pockets of fine chalk along a band of slopes near the town of Jarnac which is close to the Grande Champagne broder.
Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire
Cognacs made here are usually reserved for blends or a type of fortified wine called Pineau des Charentes (pinot de shar-ahnt) which is a mixture of unfermented, or partially fermented, grape must (juice) and cognac. But there’s no shame in that. Pineau des Charentes is a lovely aperitif and an excellent cocktail ingredient.
Bon bois’ (good woods) soil is a mixture of limestone, clay and sand. Bois Ordinaire (ordinary woods) also sometimes called Bois a Terroir is largely sand. It is less ulitized because of its close proximity to the sea, it even includes two islands Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron off the coast. This results in unwanted characteristics in its brandies.
Harvesting and Pressing
To produce a suitably acidic wine, coganc grapes are picked on the green side before they become too ripe. This is typically done in October ahead of the first frost.
The grapes are crushed to extract their juice (must) using a traditional mechanical press, as opposed to an industrial continuous press, which ensures that there aren’t too many tannins or other unwanted flavors extracted. The skins, pulp and seeds are discarded.
Fermentation of the must beings virtually immediately after pressing. Each individual batch takes 5-7 days and no additives are permitted, including chaptalization (the addition of sugar), which is common in many wines, but the added sugar would raise the proof. The result is a wine that is light, delicate and relatively neutral. Perfect for distillation.
Distillation is typically done soon after fermentation, in some cases only after few weeks and by law it must be complete by March 31st This is to capitalize on the wine’s fresh, delicate aromas and to avoid bacterial growth, which the wine is susceptible to at such a low proof with no preservatives.
The cognac is twice distilled in copper pot stills, that are heated with a direct flame, usually fueled by gas, never electricity. The result of first run is called the “brouillis” and is around 28%-32% ABV. The second run is called “la bonne chauffe" (the good heating) which takes it up to 67%-72% ABV. From this, the distiller makes their desired cut to be laid down into barrels. It takes about 10 gallons of wine to produce 1 gallon of cognac. Or 170 pounds of grapes.
Some cognac's are distilled “on the lees”, meaning the dead yeast cells from the previous distillation are included, and not discarded, in the second run. Distilling on the lees contributes a toasted complexity to the spirit and is more common with cognacs destined for longer maturation, while cogancs distilled “off the lees” are cleaner and a bit brighter tasting.
Cognac has a unique capacity for prolonged aging without becoming over-oaked and continuing to mature gracefully. Many aficionados say the best cognacs don't reach their full potential until 30-40 years, and some will sit for up to 50 years or even longer.
One reason for this longevity is owed to yet another benefit of the cognac region. It rains there frequently, but not heavily, which creates a misty, humid climate that causes less evaporation. Most cognac is aged in damp, cool cellars, where maturation happens very slowly allowing the spirit time to unlock it's full potential. This is very similar to Scotland’s climate and aging system for scotch, which is another particularly long aged spirit.
The downside here is more humidity means more alcohol evaporates than water as part of the angel's share. Typically about 1-2.5% of a barrel per year is lost. So a cognac that sits for 50 years can easily be evaporated by more than half. To combat this water is often added throughout the process, see below.
Cognac barrels are made out of French oak from either the limousin (lee-moo-son), which is more common or tronçais (trahn-say) forests nearby. Both forests were intentionally planted in 1670 by Minister of France Jean-Baptiste Colbert with the intention of supplying lumber for their naval ships for centuries to come. The particular types of oak were chosen for their strong yet pliable wood, which is perfect for shipbuilding.
In cognac terms this means barrels with tight grains, which contribute less wood flavor than other types of oak, notably American. They are also very porous, so more oxogen to passes through creating increased oxidation of the spirit. So on the whole cognac barrels impart fewer sweet oak flavors and more complex tannic qualities. Ideal for brandy, which is already a bit sweet and floral.
Tronçais wood (quercus petraea) is a bit softer and more pliable with a tighter grain. It imparts subtler tannins and is generally considered to be better suited for longer aged cognacs. The more prevalent limousin (quercus robur) has more robust and balanced wood flavors. with stronger tannins. More about barrels can be found on the Maturation page.
Casks are typically 270 to 450 liters, about 300 is the most common. The wood is toasted to various degrees to develop the flavors, but not charred (burned) like American whiskey barrels, which is another reason why french oak flavors are less aggressive.
Cognac must be aged for a minimum of two years, but it is typically much longer - see the aging classifications above. For the first a year to year and a half the barrels are new, or very lightly used previously. This is to extract more overt wood flavors up front. The cognac is then transferred to older used barrels that are more nuetral, where it can mature gradually without the wood notes overstaying their welcome. A cognac may be transferred to different barrels several times throughout the aging process.
After about 10 years in a barrel, a cognac will begin to develop the renowned aroma known as “rancio”, which is a highly prized characteristic of a well aged cognac. But cognac producers identify it’s qualities in differing and sometimes contradictory ways. Descriptors range from “nutty, fruit cake-like aromas” to “mushrooms” or “blue cheese”.
Virtually all cognacs are blends. A single bottle may contain anywhere from a handful to hundreds of cognacs from different years, barrels, vineyards, regions, and houses. Blending is necessary for a brand to it to maintain a consistent flavor profile at their required volume, which can be a tall order for the largest houses since the output of every harvest and each barrel differs year to year. Bigger companies only distill a small portion of their cognac, themselves most of it is commissioned from smaller producers.
The blending process is, like the rest of cognac production, a meticulous one. It is undertaken by master blenders who evaluate the different cognacs a house has in stock, which is thousands for the larger ones, and from them constructs a new one. They do this assessment largely based on a cognac’s aroma and are renowned for their remarkable olfactory abilities.
But while the widespread blending of cognac provides consistency at a very high level, the flip side is a lack of variety in the market, which is lamented by some - including yours truly. There are very few bottings of, say, Single Estate, Vintage or Single Barrel cognacs showcasing the unique characteristics of are a particular vineyard, harvest or production house. Interestingly, in Armagnac a few hundred miles south, Vintage releases are very common.
There has been some recent movement in this direction in cognac, probably due in part to the to influence of the whiskey industry where things like single malt scotch and single barrel bourbon are so popular. So I imagine we can expect in the future. That’s my hope anyway.
Cognacs with No Additives - Here are a few brands that are confirmed to have no additives, other than water.
Bache-Gabrielsen, VSOP Natur and Eleganse
There are a handful of additives permitted in cognac production. For many, this realization diverts from cognac's image of integrity. Which I can understand and admittedly also once felt. I love the idea of a cognac being poured directly from barrel to bottle with no adulterations. From a romantic standpoint it’d be great if none of these additions were necessary. But both of those are things unrealistic, particularly if we want to keep fixing up affordable Side Cars.
For the largest houses there is no other way to keep up with demand, which I appreciate, and many of them are making excellent cognac, particularly for cocktails. These types of practices have always been a part of cognac production, and the spirit world at large. There's no reason to hate. Still it's nice to know when they are and aren't used, which is often not disclosed. You can see a list of few brands that don't use any (except for water) below.
Water - Like all other spirits, water is added to cognac bring them down to proof. This is not done all at once, but little by little throughout the aging process, so the water and spirit can blend gradually and won’t “clash”. Some of the longest aged cognacs are diluted with mixture of water and cognac so the proof doesn’t reduce too much through the angel’s share evaporation. Needless to say, adding water not controversial, particularly coimpared ot the other additives, but it is still considered an additive. In some views, the purest expressions of cognac don’t even any water. If aged long enough a sufficient amount of alcohol will to evaporate over time to bring it down to an acceptable proof. These are of course rare, and expensive. Navarre Cognac Vieille Reserve is one example.
Sugar - Sugar is added to many cognacs for roundness and balance. In champagne and sparkling wine terms, this is called “dosage”. Up to 8 grams of sugar may be added, about 2 teaspoons per liter.
Caramel Coloring - Caramel coloring is added to cognac for the same reason it is added to other spirits, to give the appearance of an older cognac, and thus the impression of higher quality.
Boise (Bwah-zay) - This is the most controversial of the bunch. Boise is a dark bitter tasting syrup-y substance used enhance the oak flavors in a cognac to emulate the flavor a longer aged coganc. It is essentially a concentrated oak tincture made by finely blending wood chips with water, boiling it down and stabilizing it with spirit, the final product is about 21% ABV. It is often then aged to take on further wood flavors.
It’s difficult to say how common the use of boise is. My guess would be a lot more than producers would like to admit. Though a colleague of mine in the industry once told to me, “they don’t like to talk about it, but once you get them to open up, you’ll realize they’re actually really proud of their boise.” So it’s not they’re ashamed, in fact house’s boise is often even passed down through generations of cognac producers. It's just kept it quiet because this type of thing is generally frowned. Some purists even call for boise to be prohibited.
I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I do wish there was more transparency, particularly because it’s so common. It’d be nice to know when boise is being used, mainly to be able to taste the difference. I just want to know, is what’s in the bottle.