France commune

What is Cognac? A quick guide to the classic French spirit

Cognac is a bit simpler than the name suggests. The best way to understand the French spirit is to treat it like its closest cousin, wine.

In short, cognac is a kind of brandy made in its namesake commune in the west of France. Like wine, it is linked to a specific place on the map and must be made from a selection of grapes, in a particular style. There are aging and assembly requirements linked to the spirit, a bit like a Chianti or a Bordeaux. It’s also best enjoyed in a particular type of glass (wine comparisons continue), allowing you to really step in and sniff and savor things.

Is it a luxury item? Many would say so, as cognac has been lifted to stardom status thanks to brands like Jay-Z (from Ussé), Ludacris (To conjure), and more. But it is also a spirit appreciated by all types of drinkers, born from a simple desire of itinerant European merchants to have quality croquettes when traveling. The best way to describe Cognac, in short, is a refined version of brandy, sweeter and often more complex.

There is more, of course. Here’s an entry-level cognac course, including useful history, pop culture, and stylistic variations.


There is an enduring tradition in the history of alcohol of distilling something to make it last longer. Dutch merchants did just that with wine in the 17th century, fearing that their fermented grape juice might not last a full trip. So they distilled the substance, ultimately at least twice for a sweet and seductive grape alcohol (the name cognac comes from “brandewijn”, the Dutch term for burnt wine).

Over the generations, cognac has developed its own set of flavors, styles and guidelines. Meanwhile, production methods improve and the resulting spirit takes on its own personality. CognacFrance has become the hotbed of style, largely due to its location. Located along the Charente a few steps from the Atlantic, Cognac is commercially accessible and, with many vineyards in the region, full of grapes just waiting to be distilled, aged in wood and bottled.

storage of barrels of cognac

An interesting aspect of the drink is its popularity within the black community. In the mid-20th century, the drink – largely through popular brands like Hennessy – chose to advertise in a way that attracted more than the simple white male consumer. It was a decision that much of the alcohol market and businesses in general did not bother to make, especially at the time, due to the pillars of systemic racism and the marginalization of many. American communities. Cognac became popular among black Americans, starting around WWII and continuing today.

Like Champagne or Burgundy, Cognac is linked to a specific French place. We can produce something like Cognac elsewhere on the planet, but it can’t boast the name. So let’s see why the spirit of Cognac in particular is so appreciated.


There are four major classifications within Cognac, which basically dictate and describe how alcohol is aged. Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll likely see on a label.


Short for “very special”, this is the title of the younger brandy. He is at least two years old and can also be marked with three stars on the label.


An acronym for “very superior old pale” in which the youngest brandy in the mix is ​​at least four years old.


This title is reserved for a blend in which the youngest eau-de-vie is at least six years old.


This one means “extra old,” which it is, as the spirit in question must have aged at least a decade to boast the name.


As you might have guessed, this title takes it a step further, with 14 being the magical age for minimum brandy aging time.

Out of Age

Or, “beyond age,” refers to a Cognac made roughly like XO, but with some leeway, as producers can go beyond these requirements. Often, these Cognacs have aged for several decades.


What are the ingredients of Cognac? The main player is Ugni Blanc, a grape known in France as Saint-Émilion (again, due to the eponymous region from which it originates). This grape, also called Trebbiano, is the most widely planted white grape in France. This grape, with Colombard and Folle Blanche, should constitute around 90% of the final blend. A short list of other grape varieties is allowed in the balance, such as Folignan and Sémillon.

The juice ferments, by wine, then is distilled in copper stills. It is then aged in barrels, in Limousin or Troncais woods. Finally, it is assembled, bottled and enjoyed. Ultimately, the alcohol tends to reach around 40% BAC and shows refined notes of deep fruit, citrus, dates, spices and more. This drinks like a delicious and more intense version of wine.


Six vintages complete the Cognac menu, all grouped around the French city. Just like with wine, these physical limits are defined by the type of soil, microclimate, altitude, etc., a combination of important factors which in turn change the composition of the grapes and, ultimately, the flavor. and the feel of the grape. Cognac. Some 350 producers operate within these vintages, most of which are so small that you have probably never heard of them. There are also big players, like Hennessy, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin.

From the largest to the smallest, the six regions are Fin Bois, Petite Champagne, Grand Champagne, Bon Bois, Borderies and Bois Ordinaires. Fin Bois is renowned for its Cognacs with a generally supple texture, while Petite Champagne and its chalky soils tend to produce Cognacs with a lot of nuance and roundness. These six neighborhoods have been firmly established since the 1930s.

Go out for a taste! You’re probably already tired of analogies with wine, but with Cognac it’s pretty much the same: it’s about experimenting, discovering, and fine-tuning what you love. Start reading the fine print on the label, get your snifter ready, and have fun.

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