Where Does Cognac Come From: The History of Cognac

Where does cognac come from? Sometimes I just can’t let sleeping dogs lie.

I’m one of those annoying people that need to know what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve found myself enjoying cognac a bit more than usual lately – but my satisfaction doesn’t stop there. I keep asking myself, where does cognac come from and what is its story?

If you’re like me – then high five! Let’s talk about cognac.

Where Does Cognac Come From: The History of Cognac

If you are similar to me, then the first thing on your mind is going to be the history of cognac – not only where does cognac come from, but how is it made?

Interestingly, cognac can be traced all the way back to the 16th century when enthusiastic Dutch settlers visited the Southwest of France to purchase commodities like wood, salt and wine. However, they often had difficulty making sure the wine they brought back from France lasted the distance.

This led them to start distilling wine in this region – but originally they only distilled it once. Perhaps to try to keep it as wine-like as possible. After a bit of trial and error, however, they realized that distilling it twice made for a much more refined and pleasant end result. This is how brandy was born. Today, brandy is made worldwide. However, only brandy made in the Cognac region of France under the strictest guidelines can be crowned cognac. So what are those strict guidelines that differentiate Cognac from all of the other brandies in the world? Let’s dig a little deeper…

Are Brandy and Cognac the Same?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes. Well, sort of. All Cognac is brandy but all brandy is not Cognac. Similar to how all Champagne is sparkling wine but all sparkling wine is not Champagne. Are we seeing a trend with our French friends?!

Where does brandy come from? The Cognac region of France

Victor Hugo, that romantically inclined gentleman who wrote melodramatic tales like Les Misérables, refers to cognac as the ‘liquor of the gods.’ With such a repertoire of art under his belt, I’m inclined to believe him. So, in order for this godly spirit to be cognac, it must come from the Cognac region, which you’ll find in the Southwest of France.

It is believed that the Cognac region has a superior terroir, which means it makes a superior brandy. This is the biggest difference between brandy and cognac – brandy can be made anywhere in the world. So, where does Cognac come from? Cognac can only be made in Cognac. Additionally, there are other subtle yet important differences that elevate Cognac above its brandy brethren.

Cognac Grapes

So brandy as a whole is a distilled spirit made from the fermented juice of grapes. Any grapes at all. Red, white, syrah, viognier, you name it. Technically brandy can be made from any fruit at all, but if it’s not made with grapes the origin fruit must be called out on the label. For example, apple brandy. But for our purposes we’ll focus in on pure grape based brandy since that is what Cognac always is.

Cognac, while similar to Brandy in the sense that it is made from grapes, can only be made from white grapes. Furthermore, these white grapes can only be one of six varietals grown in Cognac: Colombard, Folle blanche, Montils, Sémillon, Ugni Blanc or Folignan.

How Cognac Is Made

Once the grapes are pressed the juice ferments using the native yeast in the region for roughly 2-3 weeks. One of the cognac regulations is that neither sugar nor sulfur may be added, so this is native fermentation at it’s best. Once fermented the resulting white wine, which is dry, acidic and roughly 8% alcohol, must be distilled two times. Distillation is done in beautiful, traditional Charentais Copper Alembic Pot Stills. And guess what? The French even have regulations for the design and dimensions of the stills used to make cognac!

Once distillation is complete and you have a spirit around 70% it is put into French oak barrels that hail from Troncais or Limousin. There your cognac rests for a minimum of 2 years by law. Yup, cognac isn’t afraid to take its time when it comes to aging and, in fact, it’s often aged much longer than the 2 year minimum. Brandy, on the other hand, can be aged as well but isn’t restricted by a minimum aging time.

Once the aging process is over, the Cognac is moved into metal tanks for eventual blending and/or bottling. There are single vineyard and single age/batch Cognacs but more commonly Cognac of different ages are blended to create flavor complexity. When you buy a blended bottle you can be confident knowing that what is listed on the label is the youngest cognac in the blend.

How to Enjoy Cognac

Now, at this point you’re probably about ready to start hearing about how to enjoy cognac. You could be forgiven for thinking of a warm, crackling fire accompanied by white slippers and a burgundy robe. I can’t quite ignore the austerity of this fantasy myself, but I am here to say that Cognac shouldn’t be relegated to posh, regal, winter nights alone! Think of Cognac as your new spirit to work into rotation with that whiskey or aged rum you enjoy year round.

When it comes to deciding which Cognac to buy keep these designations in mind, but also don’t fall int the trap that older is always better. Age, just like any element of alcohol is only one component of the final product and flavor profile. With whiskey, rum, wine and cognac alike I’ve found plenty of examples where I enjoy younger (and yay, often less expensive!) versions just as much, if not more, than the older equivalents.

  • V.S. – very special, which means the youngest cognac in the blend was aged at least 2 years
  • V.S.O.P. – Very Special Old Pale (or Reserve), which is a blend with the youngest cognac aged for a minimum of 4 years.
  • X.O. – Extra Old (or Napoléon), which as of 2018 is a blend with the youngest cognac aged for a minimum of 10 years. Prior to 2018 the regulation was a minimum of 6 years. So the extra old designation just got an extra special aging boost!
  • Hors d’âge – Beyond Age. This is the designation for any cognac that has cognac that exceeds the X.O. age requirements as the youngest in the blend. So basically anything over the 10 year minimum.

Get Sipping! That’s How To Enjoy Cognac

While drinking cognac neat is often the preferred manner and what I would always suggest you do first with any new bottle, cognac can be brilliant for mixed drinks. And we all know that once you’ve opened that Pandora’s box, the possibilities are endless.

How to drink cognac - neat or in a cocktail like a sidecar

One cocktail at the top of my list for how to enjoy cognac is the sidecar. It’s simply cognac, a squeeze of lemon juice, and Cointreau…often served with a sugared rim. But now that I’ve started playing with cognac in cocktails I’m sure there will be many new favorites to come. If you have any we’d love to hear them and try them ourselves so make sure to leave a comment or tag us in any cognac photos in social media!

So, where does Cognac come from? Now you know. The history of cognac, how cognac is made and, perhaps most importantly, how to enjoy cognac. Armed with your cognac knowledge and hopefully now feeling enlightened and inspired it’s time to start exploring. Sipping and trying spirits that we may be less familiar with is always the best way to find what you like and learn. While I’m naturally a bit more of a neat or on the rocks sipper myself, make sure you always do the same with any cognac you’ve never tried before. Even if you’ll ultimately enjoy it best in a cocktail.

I don’t know about you, but next time I find myself out with cognac on the bar, I’m going to see what my friendly bartender suggests. I hope you do the same. If so, make sure to let us know what you find, learn and enjoy!

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