Cognac or Brandy?
Brandy, a distilled spirit made from fruit, is the generic name for this fine, fiery style of drink. Cognac comes under the umbrella of brandy, but it is just one of the many variations of it out there; a fish to brandy’s pond, albeit a very elegant fish! Here’s what you need to know about the world of brandy and its most famous, well-loved version: cognac.
Just as wine comes from specific regions around the world, so do various styles of brandy. The ingredients may vary and the distillation or ageing processes may differ from region to region, but if the result a spirit distilled from wine made with fruit, then wherever it comes from, it’s a brandy. Usually bottled at around 40% alcohol (80% proof), brandy is traditionally drunk after dinner, with desserts, cheese, and, if you’re feeling dapper, cigars.
Where is brandy made?
Brandy can be produced all around the world (usually in wine regions) and can be labelled simply as brandy, be bottled under a brand name or named after a region. In the UK for example, brandy tends to labelled generically, such as English apple brandy or English grape brandy whether it’s from grapes or apples. In Germany, you’ll find straight brandy but they also produce some cult brands, such as Asbach. It is in France however, that you’ll find the most famous regions that lend their names to the bottles. The three best known are Armagnac, Calvados and of course, Cognac.
Cognac: the queen of brandy
Cognac is a type of brandy named after the town in south-west France and it has been produced using grapes from the surrounding vineyards for over three hundred years. In order to be called ‘cognac’, the spirit must be made according to strict rules which here include using only the authorised grapes (mainly ugni blanc), being distilled not once, but twice in pot stills made from copper and being left to age in French oak barrels for at least two years. The largest and most famous producer of cognac is Hennessy, founded by Richard Hennessy in 1765. Hennessy prides itself on only using grapes from the finest four of the six ‘crus’: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois and produces cognacs at every level of the quality range from V.S. right up to the jewel in the Hennessy cognac crown: cuvée Richard Hennessy. What makes Hennessy cognac particularly special is their 300,000 cask reserve of aged spirits known as ‘eaux-de-vie’, each of which has been aged for at least fifty years before blending (and many of them, for much more). The use of such mature parcels in their cognac blends explains the incredible complexity and delicacy of every drop of Hennessy cognac.
Getting better with age
Cognac is graded according to age and is labelled according to the youngest ‘eaux-de-vie’ in the blend. There are numerous descriptors but the classic ones are as follows: Three Star (***) or V.S. cognac (stands for ‘Very Special’) means the youngest spirit must have been aged in oak for at least two years. With V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), the youngest spirit is four years old and with X.O (Extra Old), which is also known as ‘Napoléon’, the minimum age is six but in reality, the average age of the blend is at least twenty years.