Cognac, the King of Brandy

history of cognac

Twice distilled and aged up to 50 years, cognac is a refined brandy, elegant and filled with many subtleties for the senses.

To say that Cognac is brandy is tantamount to sacrilege to Cognac’s many rabid fanatics as well as its more rational aficionados. Of course, Cognac is brandy, but it is a brandy so refined, some say, so far superior to the ilk of rank and file brandies that it seems to have surpassed nectar of the gods and tapped directly into the Platonic Ideal of perfection.

Not too shabby for an after dinner drink, eh? Now, whether Cognac deserves its lofty reputation is a matter for debate, and the debate deserves knowledgeable participants. It’s unfair for someone lacking an understanding of classical music to pass binding judgment on Haydn or Mozart, and it would be similarly imprudent for the novice brandy drinker to dismiss the elegance and subtleties of Cognac. 

Making Cognac

Cognac, like Champagne or Chianti, is named for a geographical region—in this case Cognac, France—whose law establishes exclusive legal right to the term.

Vintners near the Charente River in southwestern France have been producing and perfecting Cognac for centuries. The grapes from which the spirit is made are, despite what one might suspect, all white: Colombard, Ugni Blanc or Folle Blanche. All grow in chalky soil in a region characterized by wet winters and relatively arid summers. Despite its current status, Cognac was first developed as a drink for the poor, as a means by which to use up what was left over after the local wines were made.

The first step to making today’s Cognac, however, is to crush the grapes and ferment them, as if one were making wine, for two or three weeks. To raise the alcohol content, vintners distill the wine in copper pot stills until, like most fine brandies, the liquid reaches 40% alcohol by volume. Cognac is actually distilled twice.

Aging Cognac

The distilled spirit is then casked in Limousin Oak barrels. It ages in casks from two to upwards of fifty years. Part of the vintner’s art is to know when a particular barrel is ready to move to its next phase because, unlike wine, Cognac stops aging once it is bottled. In fact, after about 50 years, the spirit will not further age in barrel. Instead, it is either it either finds its way to market, or will be transferred to glass tanks carboys until needed.

While the spirit still lives within its wooden confines, since oak is slightly permeable, a miniscule amount of air is continuously introduced to the liquid. Very gradually, sometimes over decades, the contact with oxygen will alter the spirit; in concert with contact from the wood itself, oxygen and oak work their chemical magic on the Brandy until they develop the characteristics we associate with Cognac.

Oak lets a bit of air in, but it also permits water to evaporate. After roughly ten years, as much as three percent of the spirit might evaporate from the barrels; that which is lost is known as the charming “angel’s share.” Rest assured this evaporation is fully factored in to the hefty market price of Cognac. One can pay $30 per bottle, or $30,000 for a truly special Cognac.

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