Cognac is, technically speaking, a type of brandy. It is made by distilling wine and then ageing the resulting spirit (the French call it eau de vie, or “water of life.”) in wood barrels.
Cognac is the Champagne of brandy
But mind you, Cognac is anything but regular brandy. Like Tequila, Bourbon and Champagne, the Cognac label can be applied to the spirit only if it was produced in the Cognac region of western France. The grapes are pressed and the resulting juice is fermented into wine. Then, it is distilled to make clear, raw brandy or eau de vie, which is then stored in oak barrels for ageing.
“When a Cellar Master finishes a blend, he draws upon an extremely selective collection of eau-de-vie. A final blend may contain up to 1,200 different eau-de-vie, ranging from 40 years old to over 100 years old,” says Baptiste Loiseau, Cellar Master at House of Rémy Martin, one of the largest Cognac producers.
How To Read A Cognac Label
Loiseau tastes as many as 1,500 to 2,000 cognac samples in five months. He says that Cognac is ranked by age, expense and quality: VS (Very Superior, aged a minimum of two years), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale, aged a minimum of four years), and XO (aged a minimum of six to 10 years, and most producers blend their XO Cognacs from eaux de vie of at least 20 years old or older). Quality goes up sharply from VSOP to XO.
The French Don’t Particularly Like It
While Cognac houses can’t make enough of the drink to meet Chinese demand, the French market has proven rather indifferent to the spirit. Only about three percent of Cognac is actually consumed in France. The rest is exported. While China’s thirst for cognac continues to grow, the United States is fast catching up. “A few years ago, it was vodka but now more and more Americans are veering towards Cognac. They want to go back to their roots and to a drink that respects time, tradition and nature.”
Despite its high alcohol content (40 percent to be precise) over 40 percent of Cognac drinkers are women. Loiseau attributes the trend to the fact that Cognac can be had both as an aperitif as well as in cocktails. The refined smoothness of the drink coupled with its fruity and floral notes resonate with women drinkers, he adds.
Cognac Drinking Etiquette
Drinking Cognac in a velvet blazer by a roaring fire is a thing of the past. Cognac is traditionally enjoyed as either an aperitif or digestif, with less consumption during meals. According to Loiseau, the best way to drink Cognac XO are neat or with a big ice cube just as you might add to a fine Scotch to "open it up". VSOP is best had with ginger ale or tonic water. “Frozen VSOP is a revelation with sushi. But you can cast those rules aside and drink it neat, pair it with a cigar, ice it down, or mix it into a cocktail, however the mood may strike,” suggests Loiseau.
Cognac is best had in a small wine glass. “Hold the glass towards the base of the stem or else the heat from your fingers will warm the drink forcing the alcohol out of the glass and into your nose. Do not swirl. Take your time to inhale the aromas and then sip it slowly”, he explains.
Bartenders are creating cocktails with Cognac as the base as it is a smooth and richer alternative to whisky. Two classic cocktails that feature Cognac are: the Sidecar (Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice, simple syrup) and the French Connection (equal parts Cognac and Amaretto liqueur). It also makes a great alternative to rum in a Dark 'N Stormy (Cognac, ginger beer, lime juice).
Why Does it Cost so Much?
Cognac is made from grapes—from the Grande Champagne vineyards of western France's Cognac region—which are blended and aged in oak barrels that are several hundred years old. Some of the Cognacs are a blend of 1,200 eaux de vie between 40 and 100 years old. So, basically, the cellar master who starts work on the Cognac, never lives to taste the final product. No wonder a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII will set you back by INR 3.7 lakh!
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