Victor Hugo called cognac the "liquor of the gods." It's become known as a symbol of French luxury, the best brandy money can buy (yes, cognac is a brandy). Here's a primer on the liquors.
Where do they come from?
Cognac must come from the Cognac region in Southwest France, which is known for its superior terroir (the soil, climate, and topography that contribute to grape-growing conditions).
Brandy can come from anywhere in the world.
How are they made?
Brandy generally refers to a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice. It can be produced using grapes or fruit. (Calvados, for instance, is an apple brandy from the Normandy region in France).
Cognac, meanwhile, must be made from white grapes from one of six different terroirs; the Ugni Blanc grape variety is its primary ingredient, and grapes from "Grande Champagne" terroir are the most coveted. The liquid must be distilled twice, and its distillation season lasts from October 1 through March 31.
What about blending and aging?
After distillation, the liquid is blended and aged, which is what really makes cognac special. At Hennessy, for example, a tasting committee of 7 people meets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to taste about 40 different samples of "eaux de vie," as the individual distilled spirits known before blending. It takes 10 years of training before one can join the committee, according to Jordan Bushell, the brand's national ambassador.
Cognac must be aged for at least 2 years in French oak, at which point it's labeled "V.S. (Very Special)." After that, these distinctions that break down a bottle's age and quality:
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least four years in oak
- X.O. (Extra Old): the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least six years in oak
How should they be drunk?
Sipping a glass of cognac—especially a V.S.O.P. or X.O.—by the fire on a cold winter night is the stereotypical image of the liquor, but it belies its versatility and suitability for mixed drinks. The Sidecar, for example, is a classic cocktail that uses cognac as its primary ingredient.
Here's how to make it:
1.5 oz cognac
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz Cointreau/triple sec
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice. Shake well and strain into cocktail glass with a sugared rim.
Brandy, of course, can also be sipped neat or in cocktails (the Jack Rose is among the most popular).
Sipping cognac and brandy straight might give flavors of fruits like apricots, oranges, and lemons.
Aged cognacs typically add notes of flowers and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
What are some popular brands and how much do they cost?
Hennessy V.S. ($44.99)
Courvoisier V.S.O.P. ($49.99)
Rémy Martin X.O. Excellence ($169.99)
E&J Brandy V.S. ($8.27)
Laird's Straight Apple Brandy ($33.99)
St. George Spirits Pear Brandy ($39.99)