man in apron pouring cognac from bottle into glass

What Is Cognac? Your Complete Expert Guide

Cognac is a fine aged spirit and a type of brandy, and there are numerous types of Cognac in production with different labels and times spent aging. Many individuals prefer to sip on Cognac neat as an after-dinner drink, and the flavors of this spirit tend to be sweet, spicy, fruity, and somewhat bitter, though the exact flavor profile depends on the brand. 

Our article gives you more details on Cognac so you can understand this fine spirit before you start to sip on it.

Cognac: The Main Facts

Cognac is produced in the Cognac region of France, and the region that produces Cognac is protected by an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). The AOC sets specific rules for how Cognac must be produced and the classification of Cognac after it has been aged for a certain period of time.

Cognac first became popular around the 16th century when the Dutch entered France, purchased Dutch wine, and began having difficulties transporting the wine back home. The wine was further distilled into an “eau-de-vie,” which is the starting point for every quality Cognac around today.

During the 18th century, popular Cognac producers began the process of creating Cognac on a large scale. This process continued on and off with new developments and aging processes coming into play as technology became more advanced. 

By the 20th century, the AOC set six protected growing regions for Cognac grapes. Certain standards came into play to ensure that all Cognac was produced with high quality and classified by how long it had been aged.

Today, the primary producers of Cognacs include popular brands like Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, Billionaire’s Row, and Courvoisier. Categorizations of Cognac aging include the following:

  • VS Cognac – aged for around two years
  • VSOP Cognac – aged for at least four years
  • XO Cognac – aged for a minimum of ten years
  • XXO Cognac – aged for at least fourteen years

The longer that a Cognac has been aged, the more expensive it is likely to be, with popular brands of fine-aged Cognac being aged for upwards of twenty years. In general, Cognac is fruity and sweet with hints of spiciness, dryness, and bitterness, depending on the blend and brand.

Cognac is traditionally sipped neat or on the rocks, though today’s modern bartenders have developed ways to use Cognac in all kinds of drinks, including unique cocktails. If you want to enjoy Cognac in a more traditional fashion, we recommend using a rocks glass and pouring in a shot of your favorite Cognac to sip on neat. You can also add a few ice cubes if you want.

If you are more interested in a Cognac-based cocktail, the Sidecar or the Sazerac are excellent choices for a classic drink. You may also be able to find twists on classic Cognac-based drinks at your local cocktail bars or restaurants.

What Is the Alcohol Content of Cognac?

The alcoholic content of Cognac ranges from 35 to 60 percent alcohol by volume, though many Cognacs end up around the 40 percent ABV mark. You can check the bottle of your preferred brand for more details on the ABV.

What Is Cognac Made From?

Cognac, like most brandy, is made from fruit. Cognac utilizes one of three types of grapes – Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanc, or Colombard grapes, and it must be distilled twice before being aged in a Limousin or Tronçais oak barrel.

Cognac produced in France has to meet certain standards due to the AOC. The regions that produce grapes for Cognac are noted for their soil and the fruity, floral taste of the grapes grown in that region. These flavor notes are often present in the final product, though the final flavor profile can be changed during the aging process.

What Is the Primary Ingredient of Cognac?

The primary ingredient of Cognac is the grape, though different varietals of grapes may be used depending on the distiller. Cognac will be aged in barrels, and the choice of oak barrel, plus the length of aging, does affect the flavor just as much as the blend of grapes does.

How Is Cognac Made?

The creation of Cognac involves the following steps to produce the famous eau-de-vie and properly age the spirit:

  • Juice from the grapes grown in the Cognac region is fermented into wine
  • The wine produced from these grapes is distilled twice, which creates the eau-de-vie, which is also known as unaged brandy
  • The eau-de-vie is placed into oak barrels to age, and they may occasionally be mixed together to create certain flavors or blends
  • The eau-de-vie ages for at least two years in oak barrels, where it picks up the flavors of the barrel and turns a deeper color into the Cognac we are familiar with

Distillers will carefully craft their eau-de-vie and place it into barrels or mix it with other eau-de-vie to create special and unique flavor notes. The longer a Cognac has been aged in a barrel, the more distinctive the barrels flavor notes will be in the final product.

How Is Cognac Distilled or Filtered?

Cognac is distilled twice, something that produces the important eau-de-vie. This eau-de-vie is what makes Cognac unique and is aged in oak barrels to create the final product. Occasionally, distillers will mix eau-de-vies from different grapes together to create special blends and flavor profiles in their Cognac.

Can You Make Cognac Yourself?

You will not be able to make Cognac yourself, as true Cognac is made in the Cognac region of France, and the growing regions for grapes that contribute to Cognac are protected. 

You won’t be able to secure these grapes unless you are a true distiller working in the region. Plus, it will be difficult to distill the grapes and age your Cognac in an oak barrel by only using a home set up. We suggest shopping for your favorite Cognac instead to enjoy this spirit without any of the stress of attempting to make it.

Appreciating Aged Cognac

cognac glass with ice on wooden table with black background

Cognac is one of those spirits that is considered a classic, and the production of Cognac is protected by France. There are many popular brands of Cognac around today, though there may be smaller brands producing unique forms of Cognac on the market as well. 

Now that you know what exactly Cognac is, you can be confident to try this spirit and start easing yourself into the world of fine-aged sipping liquors. Plus, once you're comfortable with cognac you can start to branch out to even more fine liquors like amaro.

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