Cognac is a revered alcoholic spirit that is celebrated for its remarkable flavours and the complex ageing process. However, it’s rather elusive and some people can be intimidated by its mystique.
Learning a little bit about cognac such as how it’s made can greatly help in understanding the spirit and develop a new appreciation for it.
In this guide, you will learn everything that you need to know about cognac from its flavours and how to drink it:
- What Is Cognac?
- Cognac History
- What Does Cognac Taste Like?
- How To Serve Cognac
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Benefits Of Cognac
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What Is Cognac?
In short, cognac is simply a variety of brandy that is named after a town in the Charente department of France. However, cognac is produced throughout much of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region that surrounds it.
As you will learn in our guide on how cognac is made, its production follows a strictly regulated process as the brandy falls under a number of French appellations. Interestingly, the cognac producing region is divided into several zones, which may each have their own appellations too.
As a brandy, cognac is made by distilling wine, which is then aged for a number of years in oak casks. All of the grapes are grown locally and some of the varieties may sometimes be used for making Bordeaux wine, too.
In France, the resulting distillates for making cognac are regarded as eau-de-vie and in some regions, eau-de-vie is enjoyed unaged. However, all cognac must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels.
Similarly, the barrels can only be made from French oak, which usually come from the Limousin or Tronçais forests.
Like champagne, the cognac you buy in a bottle is a blended product. A house’s master blender or “maître de chai” will marry eaux-de-vie of different ages, zones, and grape varieties to produce its cognac.
Through a careful process that can consist of combining hundreds of different eaux-de-vie, the maître de chai ensures that every new batch of cognac will taste identical to the last one.
Although cognac is often regarded as emblematic of French excellence, much of its history and origins are linked to foreign intervention.
Firstly, “brandy” comes from the Dutch “branewijn”, which means “burned wine” and hints to its origins.
In the 16th century, Dutch merchants travelled to the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region to buy wood, salt, and wine. However, the wine proved difficult to transport and so the Dutch sought new ways to preserve it during shipping.
Therefore, the Dutch started distilling the wine and soon most European merchants sourced brandy from France’s west coast. Given that the wine was then concentrated with a higher alcohol strength, it was cheaper to transport.
Eventually, those from the Cognac area were regarded as superior to those of its neighbours and by the start of the 17th century, producers started distilling the brandy twice as it yielded a smoother flavour.
Although the first stills were made by the Dutch, French distillers started perfecting the technique and soon developed their renowned “Charentaise” distillation methods.
Interestingly, the benefits of cask ageing were discovered by happenstance in a similar way to Norwegian akvavit. The brandy was typically shipped in casks and both frequent delays, as well as the long journeys, caused the spirit’s flavour to marry with the wood.
Therefore, producers starting ageing the eau-de-vie intentionally before it was sold to merchants.
At the turn of the 18th century, the cognac industry started becoming more organised. British merchants introduced local offices that managed both trade relations and logistics. As a result, cognac was classified with English terms such as Very Special Old Pale (V.S.O.P.) and Extra Old (X.O.).
Throughout the 19th century, cognac experienced hardships but continued to innovate. Cognac started being shipped in bottles rather than casks, which launched the local glass industry. Meanwhile, phylloxera swept through the vineyards and reduced production to a seventh of its previous capacity.
However, by introducing American rootstock through grafting, cognac recovered. As Ugni Blanc is more robust than other cognac grapes, it became the preferred variety by the 20th century.
How Does Cognac Taste?
Depending on the way cognac is blended and aged, it can offer you an endless variety of flavours. Generally speaking, cognac has a somewhat vinous flavour given that it is a product of distilling wine.
However, this characteristic is often subdued due to the prolonged ageing process. Indeed, the oak barrels play an important factor and the wood greatly influences the eau-de-vie’s resulting flavour.
A cognac that is well-aged will express the way it was produced with a complex tableau of rich flavours. Typically, cognac reveals candied fruit and citrus flavour on the nose, which are often accompanied by spices. Meanwhile, the cognac’s taste may consist of spices, leather, caramelised fruit, and citrus.
Finally, high-quality cognac is usually quite dry as the beverage can only be sweetened with no more than 1.5 grams per litre of sugar. Combined with the tannins, an old cognac often has a smooth mouthfeel with a velvety texture.
However, younger cognacs can be a little more lively with a robust character and a spicy primary taste.
How To Properly Drink Cognac
Firstly, there is no wrong way to drink cognac as long as you are enjoying it. For instance, cognac is traditionally served neat but it can also be enjoyed chilled with ice or even as part of a cocktail.
Nevertheless, there are ways that you enhance or optimise your tasting experience to really appreciate what a cognac has to offer.
Firstly, we would refrain from chilling or adding ice to cognac. Cognac is specifically hydrated from its original 70% ABV to 40% ABV in order to provide the optimal concentration that offers the best experience. As the ice melts, it dilutes the spirit.
Although some spirits such as whisky can benefit from adding water, you usually only introduce a drop to open the flavours. However, as the ice melts, it often waters it too much and dilutes the cognac until it loses its body.
Similarly, chilling a spirit slows the evaporation. Consequently, it doesn’t release its aromatic compounds and also loses its flavour.
Finally, cognac is often enjoyed as a digestif after a meal. However, it is recently being appreciated as an excellent beverage for pairing with meals. Cognac is known to marry well with cheese yet younger blends can be enjoyed with charcuterie or even fish!
Otherwise, chocolate is an excellent accompaniment and we have even written extensively about pairing cigars with cognac, too!
What Glasses To Use For Drinking Cognac
Typically, you’ll likely see cognac being poured into large balloon-shaped brandy snifters. However, purists will argue that cognac is best served in finer tulip glasses. In both cases, the glasses offer a concave shape, which is designed to capture the aromas so that they can be appreciated.
Nevertheless, a brandy snifter, which is a great way of appreciating cognac too, does have a few shortcomings. For instance, it is usually cupped in the hand, which can warm up the spirit. Similarly, its large size means that it’s difficult for properly sampling small quantities.
Meanwhile, a tulip glass will feature a tall stem, which is convenient to hold and prevent warming the spirit. Furthermore, its small and carefully-designed shape will optimise the tasting process.
Should you not have access to either type of glass, small wine or even tulip-shaped champagne glasses can offer similar benefits for tasting cognac.
Otherwise, you can learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.
Similar Drinks & Cognac Substitutes
Brandy is a surprisingly common alcoholic spirit and there are many varieties around the world with their own techniques. As mentioned above, cognac is a brandy. However, it is a brandy that is produced in a specific region while following regulated techniques.
Armagnac is cognac’s closest relatives and they share many similarities but a number of key differences, too. For instance, Armagnac is often made using a column still while cognac can only be produced with a copper pot still.
Otherwise, there are a number of eaux-de-vie de vin, which are distilled in a similar way to cognac but often unaged.
Finally, grappa is not technically an eau-de-vie de vin as it’s produced using the pomace rather than the juice. Nevertheless, some aged grappas may occasionally be reminiscent of cognac.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Cognac?
Unlike a variety of other liqueurs and spirits, cognac was never initially conceived as a medicinal aid. Indeed, it has always been regarded as a beverage for pleasure. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that cognac might have a few health benefits as long as it’s consumed in moderation.
For example, cognac may contain sufficient antioxidants to improve heart and blood circulation as well as protect against either gallstones or type 2 diabetes. However, cognac must be respected like any alcoholic spirits and too much may impact your health.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Cognac
As cognac production is limited to only 1.5 grams of sugar per litre, it is a somewhat lean spirit. Indeed, a single shot should contain no more than 100 calories much like other distilled spirits like vodka or rum.
Similarly, cognac contains no carbs or fats. Additionally, as it’s double-distilled from wine, cognac is naturally gluten-free and perfectly fine for people with celiac’s disease or any other sensitivity to the protein.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to cognac, let’s dig deeper and learn more!