Thinking of buying cognac and wandering at the shop: “which cognac should I buy?” This article will help you find the best cognac for yourself. You will learn about the distillation process, the aging classifications, the major brands, and what to look for on the label.
Why am I talking about Cognac shopping?
You have to know that I am not an old cognac specialist, however I spent one year in Cognac and tasted lots of spirits visiting several cognac houses and basements of local producers. Therefore, I would like to share my knowledge and advice you which cognac to buy.
You ask me: is Cognac even a place on the map or you lived one year in a bottle? Indeed, it is a place, where cognac (the spirit) was born. Small medieval town Cognac is on the west of France, in Charente region. This area is famous for growing grapes, which are all around on the soft slopes. The region of grapes is wide, reaching the neighbour city Bordeaux, world-wide known for wine production.
As fan of responsible traveling and sustainability I like to support local producers, bee-keepers and appreciate regional traditions around the world. When traveling I am trying to buy products from local farmers and manufacturers. I love locally crafted beers and wines. Cognac is unique for one particular region of France, which proudly carries tradition of cognac production for centuries.
What is cognac made of? Essentials about cognac production
Cognac is made out of grapes. Just after harvesting, the grapes are pressed and left for a short fermentation. Later, distillation will isolate the aromas with the concentration of its alcohol content.
According to the tradition, cognac distillation takes place in two separate stages using copper still. The result of the first heating with 35% alc. vol. is called de brouillis. The second stage la bonne chauffe, where a clear spirit comes out with an average alcohol content of 70%. At this stage it is not cognac yet, but eau de vie – water of life.
Why cognac has its color from?
This spirit is hold in new oak barrels in which it will start slow ageing process. Thanks to the wood porosity the spirit in contact with air from outside will absorb the wood substances. The wood and the aging process are the ways cognac achieve its specific color and bouquet.
After few months spirit goes to older casks with fewer tannins to continue very slow maturation. Each year around 3% of eau de vie evaporates with the oxidation of the tannins. This process is poetically called the angel’s share. Moreover cognac making process creates typical black fungus called Tortula Compniacensis. If you come to this region, you will see it on local walls or roofs.
To create cognac the Cellar Master blends the spirit from different areas and vintages. The blending process starts in huge aluminum tanks. Alcohol content is reduced to 40% with distilled water.
Lastly, the spirit is frozen to -5 degree C to allow possible crystallization of particles, so there is no sedimentations coming up. After cognac is filtered and stored for few months before bottling. In the bottles, cognac does not mature anymore.
Which cognac should I buy?
Cognac is the world’s most complex sprit. Why? Specialists can find several hundreds of various aromas in this brandy. There are numerous cognac houses in Charente region. Some of them keep the tradition since centuries, where others are fairly new in business. But can I really answer the question, which cognac brand is the best?
Unfortunately, there are some major brands which took over the cognac market around the world. These are Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, Curvoisier and Camus. Therefore, you are not able to try smaller, but also good brands making this spirit, unless you go to France. Which cognac is the best for the money? – you ask. Surely, the one you will find in Cognac. The quality, the price are the best straight from the producer.
Guide in cognac kinds
Cognac, like wine, the older the better. Young cognac has very strong taste of spirit, therefore it’s a better fit for cocktails. However, if you want to drink pure cognac in a tulip shaped glass, you have to pay much more money.
I will explain cognac classification, which will allow you to understand how old is particular cognac. These names you will find on each cognac bottle, just under the name of a brand. Please don’t pay much attention for the prices, because they vary a lot from country to another. Of course, the cheapest deals you will get in Cognac, France.
VS – Very Special – the youngest Cognac and the cheapest. Minimum aging is 2 years but it can have 4 or 5 years. It’s hard to enjoy it pure, better to mix with cocktails.
VSOP – Very Special Old Pale – minimum aging is 4 but it can have 10 years
XO – Extra Old – minimum is 10 years but it can have 20. The most popular kind, because of it’s great taste, good to drink pure and in my opinion the best cognac for the money. It has around 20 years and costs from 30 € up.
Beyond the primary types of Cognac here come other names which you can find on the bottles: Premium (VS), Extra (essentially VSOP– with at least six years aging), Napoleon (between VSOP and XO), Vintage, Réserve Familiale (Family Reserve), Très Vieille Réserve (Very Old Reserve), Extra (which can be over 30 years old), Hors d’Âge (this expression literally means that cognac is so so old, and nobody even knows how old), and Heritage (which can have 40, 50, 60 or more years of aging!).
Which cognac not to buy?
Be aware of other names like “black”, “double oaked” or “very fine Cognac” which brands may use for marketing. This can be even a recipe for cognac which include the addition of caramel color or sugar!). Therefore, it’s much safer to stick to the official classifications. Not to mention brandies which use the name cognac but they are far from the original French recipe, for instance cognac from Ukraine.
Check on the label if cognac was produced in France. Remember that cognac is a regional product and only this particular place has a right to name it cognac, with one exception. French specialists of this brandy allowed one place in Georgia (country) to produce cognac as they found the microclimate similar to French and the quality as good as the original. Sarajishvili in Georgia produces spirits since centuries and it’s surely worth trying while in Georgia.
I have to admit that cognac is a kind of brandy, which basically depicts destiled wines. Brandies are common in many countries: Italy, UK, Ireland, Poland and there are plenty of recipes and variations depending of the fruits destiled. Even in France, the region not far from the congac origin produces another brandy, called armagnac. They cannot call it congac as the microclimate is considered different and has influence on the flavor of the spirit.
Ready for cognac shopping?
Cognac is well known French icon with over 97% of its production exported to Asia, Europe and America. Number 1 in cognac consumption are United States, closely followed by China. There are several cognac houses, all different, all carrying tradition for generations. Distillation process slightly varies from the house to another. It is worth to visit any of them to learn about the process of brewing from the beginning to the end.