The beguiling drink called cognac has certainly captured the tastes of Americans. More than 35 million bottles of cognac are consumed in the United States every year, according to industry statistics, making America the number one consumer by far. Cognacs singular flavor satisfies palates like no other liqueur.
What is Cognac
Cognac is a type of brandy produced in the region surrounding the town of Cognac in France. Aside from being produced only in this region, true cognac also must:
- be aged at least two years in sealed French oak barrels
- be distilled twice in copper pot stills
- be made from at least 90 percent Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes. The remaining 10 percent can be made from grape varieties such as Folignan or Juranon (however, most cognac is made only from Ugni Blanc).
Origin of Cognac
Cognac production stems from vineyards first planted in the third century AD, which later spread to the banks along the Charente River. The Cognac Delimited Area extends from the Charentes banks out to the Atlantic Ocean, generally covering about 197,000 acres.
The town of Cognac is at the center of this area. It sits 290 miles southwest of Paris and 75 miles north of Bordeaux. The cognac region is segmented further by six growing regions:
- Bois Ordinaries
- Bons Bois
- Fins Bois
- Grande Champagne
- Petite Champagne.
Around the 12th century, Dutch transporters and French wine producers started distilling wine from this region to reduce its volume for exporting to Norway. The spirits, stored in oaken casks, were discovered to mature with age. Once double-distillation was discovered, the spirit was improved again. Trade in cognac (as we now know it) was first produced in the 17th century.
In essence, cognac is specially distilled white wine made from grapes grown in any of the six growing regions. This wine does not make for proper drinking, as it is thin and acidic. However, it is suitable for distillation. The distilled spirit (roughly 70 percent alcohol) is aged, and the final product is diluted to 80 proof (or 40 percent alcohol) using pure and distilled water.
Cognac is actually a blend of these spirits, also called eau de vie (pluralized as “eaux de vie”). The blend uses different ages of eaux de vie, as well as spirits from the different growing regions. The age of cognac depends on the youngest eau de vie used in the blend. Through blending, cognac achieves a desirable complexity of flavors.
Single-vineyard cognacs have grown in popularity. These blend eaux de vie of different years but from the same vineyard. The Hennessy cognac brand is an example of a popular single-vineyard cognac. Hennessy released its first single-vineyard cognac in 1999.
Types of Cognac
Though unofficial, three grades are used to market cognac:
- VS — Very Special (also seen as *** or three stars): The youngest brandy is stored in a cask at least three years with five years being average.
- VSOP — Very Special (or Superior, Old Pale, or Rserve): The youngest brandy is stored in a cask at least four and a half years, though the average wood age is older (cognac casks are only made from oak trees that are anywhere from 60 to 100 years old).
- XO — Extra Old (also known as Cordon Bleu Centeur and Antique): The youngest brandy is stored in a cask for at least six years, with 20 years and up being the average duration of aging.
Premium brands include Courvoisier cognac, Remy Martin cognac and Hennessy cognac:
- Louis XIII cognac by Rmy Martin is made of more than 1,200 eaux de vie and aged a minimum of 55 years. As one of the most expensive liquors in the world, Louis XIII is sold in a Baccarat crystal cognac bottle.
- Richard Hennessy, by Hennessy, blends more than 100 eaux de vie, aged as much as 200 years. It, too, is sold in a Baccarat crystal cognac bottle.
- L”Esprit de Courvoisier by Courvoisier is bottled in hand-cut Lalique cognac bottle and is blended from eaux de vie as old as 200 years.
Tasting and Drinking Cognac
Tasting cognac follows a classic ritual, much like wine tasting. First, the cognac is poured into a cognac glass, which is most often tulip-shaped. This particular shape helps capture and steadily release the cognac”s aromas throughout the tasting process.
Drinkers judge cognac visually using three criteria: transparency, color and viscosity (the degree to which the cognac is clear and free of sediments). Tilting the glass will display the effect of tears or legs, indicating good age.
Expert tasters will smell the subtle aromas that most novices dont pick up. To properly capture the aroma, the taster:
- brings the cognac glass to within an inch of his nose, then smells more closely until finally smelling deeply with his nose in the cognac glass.
- stirs and tosses the cognac in the glass to release new aromas. This step can be repeated several times.
- takes small sips, holding each one in the front of his mouth to appreciate the cognac”s taste (the interplay of softness, acidity and bitterness) and touch (more tactile expressions such as roundness, strength, warmth and oiliness).
A subsequent longer sip can fill the whole mouth and bring out more flavors.
In the United States, people tend to consume cognac drinks neat at room temperature. In France, they prefer to drink cognac in a tall glass with ice and a variety of juices or sodas. Tonic water, ginger ale, cranberry juice and bitter lemon soda (popular in Europe) mix nicely with cognac. Remy Martin cognac mixed with lemonade is also a popular combination.
With its strong flavors and character, cognac tends to hold its own in nearly any mix. Here are some cognac drink recipes that will help you enjoy the potent flavors of this liquor.
Lutteur III Horses Neck
- 2 oz. of Hennessy cognac
- 4 oz. of ginger ale
- a few dashes of Angostura bitters.
Over ice in a rocks glass, pour the Hennessy and ginger ale. Add bitters to taste.
- 2 oz. VS cognac
- 1 oz. cherry brandy
- ? oz. vanilla liqueur
- 3-4 oz. blood orange juice.
Layer the VS cognac, cherry brandy and vanilla liqueur in a rocks glass with ice. Fill the remainder of the glass with orange juice and enjoy!
- oz. triple sec
- ? oz. cognac
- oz. fresh lemon juice.
In a cocktail shaker with ice, pour in all ingredients and shake. Strain mix into a shot glass, then throw back this delicious shooter!