All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. The real stuff is distilled in a small and highly protected wine-growing region around the town of Cognac in the south west of France and, like many wines and cheeses, it must meet the strict requirements of the ‘appellation d’origine controlee’ before it can be officially labelled as cognac.
In particular, cognac can only be made using certain grape varieties, the most typical being Ugni blanc, a grape that tastes as bad as it sounds. It’s the most widely planted white grape in France and produces a fairly terrible tasting white wine that’s often blended with other grapes or turned into industrial alcohol, the kind used to make rocket fuel and hand sanitiser.
To turn this nasty-ass wine into something that won’t launch a satellite into orbit, it’s distilled twice in a copper pot before being aged in oak barrels for at least two years. This distillation increases the ABV of the drink to 40 per cent and transforms brandy from a wine into a spirit. For it to become cognac, even the barrels must be up to AOC standards: only brandy aged in barrels from Limousin or Tronçais gets to bear the cognac label. It’s that oak barrel ageing – similar to how whiskies are aged – that gives cognac its deep colour, fruity flavours and warmth.
Cognac was made popular in the US when returning WW2 soldiers brought crates of the stuff back from France, and owing to its mention in a Busta Rhymes track it became fashionable in the hip-hop scene in the early 2000s. But it’s been a fireside tipple for generations of Britons, including Winston Churchill, who was rarely seen without a snifter in his paw. It’s because of this strong trade link between France and England that the grading system for Cognac isn’t en français.
There are four. XO means “extra old” and designates a cognac blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least a decade. VS means “very special”, and marks a blend that’s been aged for two years. VSOP (“very superior old pale”) means four years, while Hors d’âge (“beyond age”) means it’s beyond the official age scale (or that some brandy-sipping klutz forgot to jot down a date on the barrel).
Cognac doesn’t mature in the bottle either, so you shouldn’t bother letting it gather dust. Drink up!