Cognac: Wine or Spirit?

Cognac: Wine or Spirit?

Jimmy QuaileSeptember 04, 2019

Long before Alka Seltzer, Band-aids, Jello, or Kleenex, there was Cognac! With the possible exception of Champagne, Cognac is arguably the most known French word in the world. And like Champagne, Cognac is a place. And that place makes Brandy.

Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice. It can be produced using any grape or fruit. The inception of the spirit can be traced to an enterprising Dutch shipmaster who was trying to circumvent freight costs of shipping barrels full of wine. He hit upon the idea of eliminating the water, thereby concentrating the juice, transporting what he called the "soul" of the wine to its destination in lighter barrels where the water would be replaced. However, when his friends tasted his concentrated wine, they liked it as it was. The Dutch called the new product Brandewijn, (Burned Wine) presumably because fire or heat was used in the process. In time the term was Anglicized to the present-day word Cognac Brandy.

It's good to understand the differences between fermentation and distillation since brandy goes through both processes. In fermentation, the sugars of the fruit are consumed by the natural or added yeast to produce alcohol. In distillation, a heat source must be used and the resulting vapors of alcohol are captured. 

The primary grape in Cognac is Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano in Italy). The area around the town of Cognac, France, is divided into six grape-growing regions. The most expensive fruit comes from the regions Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies. Once picked the grapes are fermented and then distilled twice in copper pot stills producing a colorless alcohol called eau-de-vie, or "water of life"! The spirit is then aged in oak barrels.

The letters on the bottle can be confusing because they date back to a time when Cognac and the United Kingdom shared so close a relationship that words and expressions have British origins. V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), for example, was used by the British Royal Court in 1817 to mean the Cognac was not colored by the addition of sugar and caramel.

V.S. or Very Special is aged at least two years in oak barrels. 

V.S.O.P or Very Superior Old Pale is aged at least four years in Oak. 

X.O. or Extra Old is aged at least six years. 

Note: As of April 2018, a new classification category was added - Napoleon. Napoleon will indicate that the cognac has been aged for a minimum of six years, while X.O will shift to designate cognacs aged a minimum of 10 years.

Today, we can find brandy from all corners of the globe, but the archetype of the category, and the drink most often implied when a nice brandy is called for — is COGNAC!

These four producers have the lion's share of the market and are good places to start your cognac journey:

HENNESSY

This is the largest cognac producer in the world with 40% of the market.  It was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy, an Irishman who settled near the town of Cognac. The company remained in his family’s hands until the 1970s when it merged with Moët and Chandon, forming the drinks part of what is now LVMH – Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy — one of the largest luxury goods companies in the world.

RÉMY MARTIN

Named after the company's founder in 1724, this house exclusively uses eaux-de-vie from Grande and Petite Champagne. The house style achieves its full-bodied flavor by distillation on the lees — rather than filtering out the leftover yeast and other solids found in the wine. It also uses new oak in the early parts of aging to give a more woody character. The result is a robust and concentrated Cognac. 

COURVOISIER

Founded in 1809 and moving to Cognac in 1828, it is the youngest and smallest of the big four. Unlike the rest of the big houses, Courvoisier doesn't own any vineyards. Instead, the company has contracts with producers across the region, giving it a wide range of styles to work with. Courvoisier also has some of its spirit distilled on the lees, giving a richer eaux-de-vie. They launched their  Napoléon Cognac in 1910 with a silhouette of the emperor on its bottle.

MARTELL

Founded in 1715, their house style focuses on eaux-de-vie from the Borderies and Fins Bois crus but also uses Grande and Petite Champagne. The brand exclusively ages with Tronçais oak. The house style is known for its nutty, floral and fruity character. Martell's most famous creation is Cordon Bleu, a Borderies blend first debuted in 1912. It incorporates eaux-de-vie aged between 10 and 25 years.

Odd Facts:

  1. Cognac is often allocated because of its popularity in China. If 11 percent of China drank only one bottle of Cognac per year, the entire Cognac region couldn't meet that demand.
  2. The French are not particularly fond of Cognac! Only about three percent of Cognac is actually consumed in France. Scotch is much more popular in France than Cognac. 

And finally, here's a great recipe you can make with Cognac! Pick up all your ingredients at Roger Wilco to start crafting your cocktail today:

Sidecar Recipe:

  • 2 oz cognac
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • Sugar for rim - optional