Bar Basics: Cognac
A beginner's guide to cognac.
What's in a Name?
Cognac can be produced only in the legally defined region of Cognac, France, located between the Atlantic and Massif Central — specifically, at the junction between the oceanic and continental climate zones. The region also straddles the dividing line between northern and southern climates. These four influences create a multitude of microclimates. In addition to the unique climate, the characteristics of the soil also foster a range of wine and, consequently, cognac. In 1909, the French government passed a law that only brandy produced in the "delimited area" surrounding the town of Cognac can be called as such.
How Cognac is Made?
The arduous, time-honored distilling and aging process is what makes this product so special. The cognac we drink today is made using methods that date back to the 17th century. The two-stage distillation process begins by obtaining a first distillate, known as brouillis, which has an alcohol strength of 28% to 32%.
The brouillis is then returned to the boiler for a second heating, which produces a liquor known as la bonne chauffe. The beginning and the end of this distillation (the head and the tail) are discarded, leaving only the heart of the spirit which becomes cognac. The cognac is then sent to rest in oak casks made from wood from the Limousin and Troncais forests.
Maturing slowly over long years in cellars, cognac acquires a smoothness and flavor beyond comparison. The wood and the dark, saturated atmosphere of the cellars work together to develop the aroma of the cognac to its fullest potential. All cognac is 80-proof and aged a minimum of 30 months.
What Are All Those Letters on the Label?
When shopping for cognac, you'll see all kinds of designations on the labels of various brands — Courvoisier V.S., Martell V.S.O.P., and Rémy Martin X.O., for example. The letters and phrases after the brand name are a general indication of the age (and, in turn, of the expensiveness) of the cognac.
Every major brand produces cognacs of different ages. When one of the following designations is used, it indicates the age of the youngest cognac included in the bottle's blend.
• V.S. (Very Special): Aged 2 to 4 years.
• V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): Aged 4 to 6 years.
• X.O. (Extra Old): Indicates the oldest cognac made by a particular house, as do the words "Extra" or "Reserve." It is aged at least 6 years but usually around 20 years.
Cognac is made for sipping, but here are two fine recipes: