The ultimate beginner’s guide to cognac

Cognac, with its rich history and sophisticated flavor profile, has been a beloved drink for centuries. This luxurious type of brandy, made from white wine and aged in oak barrels, is produced exclusively in the Cognac region of France, known for its picturesque vineyards and centuries-old distilleries. If you’re new to the world of cognac, let us be your guide on this exquisite journey.

The history of Cognac
The origins of cognac can be traced back to the 16th century when Dutch traders were looking for ways to preserve their wine during long sea voyages. They discovered that by distilling the wine, they could create a new and exquisite drink that would withstand the test of time. This refined spirit gained popularity among the French aristocracy, including Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously referred to it as “the drink of the gods.”

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How is cognac produced?
Cognac is made from specific types of white wine grapes, including Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche, which are exclusively grown in the Cognac region. After the grapes are harvested in the early fall, they are pressed to extract their juice, which is then fermented into a low-alcohol wine. This wine is then distilled twice in copper stills, a process that removes impurities and creates a clear, high-alcohol spirit. The resulting spirit is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, although some cognacs are aged for much longer. During the aging process, the cognac absorbs flavors from the oak barrels, which impart a rich and complex flavor.

What does cognac taste like?
Cognac is renowned for its rich and complex flavor profile, influenced by various factors such as the type of grapes used, the distillation process, and the aging process. Cognacs are typically classified by their age, with younger cognacs having a lighter, fruitier flavor, and older cognacs boasting a more complex, oak-influenced profile.

Younger cognacs, aged for two to five years, are characterized by a light, floral flavor with hints of fruit and vanilla. These cognacs are often used in cocktails or as a lighter alternative to whiskey, making them perfect for beginners who are exploring the world of cognac for the first time.

On the other hand, older cognacs, aged for at least ten years, offer a much richer and more intricate flavor profile. These cognacs often showcase notes of oak, spice, and leather, accompanied by a smooth and velvety mouthfeel that lingers on the palate. These aged cognacs are typically savored neat or with a splash of water to fully appreciate their complexity and depth.

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Who are the main producers I should know?
There are several renowned cognac producers, ranging from large commercial brands to small family-owned distilleries. Here are some of the most well-known names in the world of cognac:

Hennessy: Established in 1765, Hennessy is one of the oldest and most respected cognac producers globally, known for its high-quality cognacs aged for a minimum of two years.

Martell: Founded in 1715, Martell is another esteemed cognac producer in France, recognized for its smooth and velvety cognacs aged for a minimum of two years.

Remy Martin: With roots dating back to 1724, Remy Martin is a family-owned cognac producer famous for its high-quality blends, including VSOP and XO, aged for a minimum of two years.

Courvoisier: Established in 1809, Courvoisier is one of the most popular cognac brands worldwide, known for its smooth and rich cognacs that offer distinctive flavor profiles.

Camus: Founded in 1863, Camus is a family-owned cognac producer that is known for its traditional methods of production and unique blends. The company is particularly known for its Borderies Cognac, which is made from grapes grown in the Borderies region of Cognac and is known for its floral and elegant flavor profile.

Photo credit: Hennessy

Okay but how do I enjoy Cognac?
Cognac is often sipped neat or on the rocks, allowing its rich and complex flavors to be savored slowly. When enjoying cognac, it’s important to use a tulip-shaped glass that allows the aromas to be concentrated and appreciated fully.

Swirling the cognac in the glass before taking a sip can also help release its aroma and enhance the tasting experience. Many cognac connoisseurs also enjoy adding a splash of water to their drink to open up the flavors and make it more approachable. Some even prefer to warm the glass slightly in their hand to further release the aromas.

Cognac can also be used in cocktails, adding a touch of elegance and sophistication to classic drinks. For example, a classic cognac cocktail is the Sidecar, which combines cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice for a refreshing and tangy drink. When pairing cognac with food, it’s best to opt for dishes with rich flavors that can complement the complexity of the cognac. Dishes like roasted meats, dark chocolate, and aged cheeses are often excellent choices to pair with cognac, as they can complement and enhance the flavors of the drink.

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How to choose the right cognac
For beginners, it can be overwhelming to navigate the different options available. Here are some tips to help you choose the right cognac for your taste:

Age: Cognacs are typically categorized by their age, with VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), and XO (Extra Old) being the most common labels. VS cognacs are aged for at least two years, VSOP for at least four years, and XO for at least ten years. Younger cognacs tend to have a lighter, fruitier flavor profile, while older cognacs are richer and more complex. Experimenting with different age categories can help you discover your preferred style.

Brand: Stick with reputable and well-known brands when starting out. Brands like Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Camus are known for their high-quality cognacs and have a wide range of options to choose from.

Flavor profile: Consider the flavor profile you enjoy in other spirits. If you prefer sweeter, fruitier flavors, you may enjoy a younger VS cognac. If you enjoy more complex, oak-influenced flavors, you may prefer an older XO cognac. Tasting notes and descriptions on the bottle or from the brand’s website can provide guidance on the flavor profile of a particular cognac.

Price: Cognac can vary greatly in price, with some bottles costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As a beginner, it’s not necessary to splurge on the most expensive cognac. There are plenty of affordable options that still offer excellent quality and flavor. It’s all about finding the right balance between budget and taste.

Personal preference: Ultimately, the best way to choose the right cognac is to taste different options and discover what you personally enjoy. Everyone’s palate is different, and what may be enjoyable to one person may not be to another. Experiment with different brands, ages, and flavor profiles to find the cognac that best suits your taste buds.

How do I store Cognac?
Proper storage is essential to ensure that your cognac retains its quality and flavor over time. Here are some tips for storing cognac:

Keep it upright: Unlike wine, cognac should be stored upright to prevent contact between the liquid and the cork, which can cause the cork to deteriorate and affect the quality of the cognac.

Avoid sunlight: Cognac should be stored in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight, as exposure to sunlight can alter the flavors and degrade the quality of the cognac.

Maintain consistent temperature: Fluctuations in temperature can also impact the quality of cognac. It’s best to store cognac in a place with a consistent temperature, ideally between 10-20°C (50-68°F).

Seal it tightly: Make sure the bottle is tightly sealed to prevent evaporation and oxidation, which can affect the flavor and aroma of the cognac.

Avoid strong odors: Cognac has a delicate flavor profile and can easily absorb strong odors from its surroundings. Avoid storing it near strong-smelling foods or other potent aromas.

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