Cognac is one of our lesser-explored spirits, but we’re here to shine the spotlight on this liquor cabinet stalwart in honour of National Cognac Day.
When is National Cognac Day?
National Cognac Day is celebrated in the US on 4 June annually.
Although far from an “official” holiday, it’s all about appreciating a drop and raising awareness of this distilled grape spirit – and of course, you can celebrate anywhere in the world!
Cognac v Brandy
Cognac is a type of brandy. Just as the term Champagne is frequently misused, so is cognac. Cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France, while brandy can be made anywhere in the world. Both are made from grapes and come from white wine (though brandy may include other fruits).
Cognac is one of the oldest spirits in the world and can be found in some of the most classic cocktails. Check out our cognac favourite, the Sidecar Cocktail here.
How is Congac made?
Cognac can be made from three different white grapes, though predominantly Ugni Blanc is used in nearly all production. The other grapes you might find are Folle Blanche and Colombard. The brandy must be twice distilled in copper pots and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Troncais (though most cognacs are aged much longer than the minimum legal requirement).
The result is known as the “eau de vie” (a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol) which is then blended and bottled. The final product is 40% alcohol by volume.
Cognac producers in France
Cognac is produced in the wine-growing region which surrounds the town from which it takes its name. Cognac is located southwest of Paris and just north of Bordeaux.
Around the city is the defined, protected Appellation of Origin for Cognac, which was legally classified in 1909 and includes six specified areas (crus or terrorist):
- Grand Champagne*
- Petite Champagne*
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois Ordinaires
*Not the same as the region in France where Champagne is produced.
Each sub-region has different soil characteristics and can produce slightly different tasting “eau de vies”.
There are close to 200 cognac producers, though four dominant international players you are likely to have heard of; Hennessy (by far the largest distiller, accounting for roughly 46% of all cognac production), Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier.
The cognac distillation process begins in October, after the grape harvest and runs through to the end of March.
“The vast majority – some 97% of cognac produced – is exported”Pierra Szersnovicz, Brand Ambassador and spirits consultant for Courvoisier (winemag.com)
Interpreting the labels on Cognac
To a beginner, the labelling of cognac bottles can be a little confusing but it’s actually a very clear system. Unlike wine where you would need to research a particular region for a particular vintage and grape, a lot of the guesswork is actually taken out for you as you are buying a consistent product, based on quality grades set by the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac.
The “eau de vies” incorporated into a Cognac can come from a wide range of ages. Therefore, cognacs are classified based on the minimum ages of the “eau de vies” in the blend.
The legally defined categories of Cognac include:
- V.S. (Very Special) Eau de vies with a minimum age of two years (also known as Three Stars).
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) Eau de vies with a minimum age of four years (also known as Reserve).
- Napoléon Eau de vies with a minimum age of six years (newly recognised classification since 2018)
- X.O. (Extra Old) Eau de vies with a minimum age of ten years (also known as Hors d’Age – Beyond Age – which unofficially indicates particularly old or premium releases).
How should cognac be drunk?
Cognac is a versatile spirit. It can be sipped neat, over ice or diluted with a little water. It can be mixed with quality mixers, such as soda or traditional lemonade to make a long drink, or used to make a cocktail.
As a rule of thumb, you should only be mixing your younger Cognac’s, older cognacs deserve to be drunk neat.
“As soon as there is any depth or complexity with a cognac, it should not be used in cocktails.” Save those pricey XO and hors d’age spirits for sipping.”Flavien Desoblin, Liquor.com
Cognac-based drinks to try
The following are all Cognac-based spirits, commonly used as mixers:
- Grand Marnier – made from cognac and distilled essence of bitter orange
- Pineau des Charentes – a sweet aperitif, composed of eau-de-vie and grape must
- Domaine De Canton – cognac-based ginger liqueur
- Dutch brandy (Vieux) – Dutch imitation cognac, usually containing some cognac
Our favourite cognac-based cocktails
We hope you’ve enjoyed this walk through the background and production of Cognac, marking the celebration of National Cognac Day. If you’ve not tried a Cognac recently (or at all!), why not give it a go today?
Mama Loves A Drink advocates quality over quantity. Always drink responsibly!