Located about 250 miles southwest of Paris, the small commune of Cognac houses numerous producers of the premium-quality brandy that contains 40% alcohol and takes its name from the town. It’s a highly regulated process to make Cognac, which accounts for its premium quality compared with other brandy. Low-alcohol, high-acidity grapes (primarily the Ugni Blanc varietal) grown in a demarcated region are initially made into white wine, then double-distilled in copper and aged for at least two years in barrels made of exactly 32 staves of French oak (from the Limousin and or Tronçais forests).
Longer maturation enhances its bouquet and flavor of caramel, leather, spice, and the bit of sweetness in its finish; in fact, the classification of Cognac (and to a large degree its price) is based on the amount of time the distilled wine is aged. In order of years aged, the official classifications are: VS (Very Special), aged at least two years; VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), aged at least four years; XO (Extra Old), aged at least six years.* There are also some unofficial classifications, such as Hors d’Age (“beyond age,” usually signifying a Cognac at least 30 years old) and Napoleon (technically an XO but usually at least 20 years old). Importantly, once it’s bottled, Cognac does not age or improve in aesthetics.
As for how and when to drink Cognac, in addition to consuming it undiluted (“neat”) or with addition of some water or ice (both before or after meals), it’s now being used more frequently in high-end cocktails, like the Sazerac, Stinger, and Sidecar. (Top brands readily available at many area wine shops include Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Hine.)
Serving: Makes one cocktail
Recipe courtesy of Archie Grand, White Plains
2 oz of Hennessy VSOP Cognac
¾ oz Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
¾ oz lemon juice
1 orange twist
*In January, 2023, Cognac changed XO to mean 10 years. Many bottles with XO on shelves today are only six years old.