From historic houses to innovative, modern ventures, explore cognac, a bartender's must-have, with Curiada.
There are few spirits as old and historic as cognac. But, there are also few spirits as innovative and vibrant as the modern category. At once complex but approachable, it is a wonderful addition to every home bar.
What is cognac?
Cognac is a variety of brandy produced in the Cognac region of France. Made primarily from Ugni Blanc grapes, it is double distilled in copper pot stills and aged in French oak barrels to create a smooth, complex spirit. The long aging process allows it to develop notes of fruit, spices, flowers and oak.
What are the different types of cognac?
There are several grades of Cognac based on aging time:
- VS (Very Special) - Aged at least 2 years
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) - Aged at least 4 years
- XO (Extra Old) - Aged at least 6 years, generally much longer
- Napoléon - Aged at least 6 years
- Hors d'âge - Aged over 10 years
Beyond these broad categories, Cognac houses produce vintage and single estate offerings that highlight distinct terroirs and winemaking traditions.
How is cognac made?
Production begins with a double pot still distillation of white wine made primarily from the thin-skinned, acidic Ugni Blanc grape. The grapes are harvested in early October and pressed quickly to avoid tannins from the skins.
The wine undergoes initial fermentation for 2-3 weeks before a first distillation in copper pot stills traditionally heated by an open flame. This brouillis distillate has an ABV of 28-32%.
The brouillis then goes into a second distillation in smaller antique stills. The 'heart' of this distillate becomes eaux-de-vie. It is traditionally distilled to around 70% ABV.
The new spirit then ages in French Limousin or Tronçais oak casks for at least 2 years to become cognac. However, most is aged far longer - upwards of 4 to 6 decades for the most high end expressions!
During aging, the spirit interacts with the oak, picking up caramelized wood sugars and tannins while evaporating water to achieve an ideal 40% ABV. This long aging brings subtlety, complexity and the spirit's signature rancio character.
How should I drink cognac?
Cognac is a spirit made for sipping and savoring neat. The flavors and aromas are best experienced at room temperature in a tulip shaped tasting glass. Swirl to aerate and bring out aromas before each sip.
While VS is quite mixable in cocktails, VSOP and XO expressions really deserve to be slowly enjoyed on their own. Their nuances are lost when buried under too many other ingredients. Keep cocktails simple to let the cognac shine.
How does cognac taste, smell and look?
Cognac offers layered aromas including fruit, oak, caramel, vanilla, dried roses, cinnamon and leather. On the palate it provides an elegant spectrum from fresh apple and pear to rich, spiced butterscotch and coffee. The best examples express a wonderful rancio character of oxidized fruit, nuts and cheese.
Fine expressions feel smooth and satiny on the palate. The finish is long, with a persistent warmth. Color ranges from pale, golden yellow for younger VS up to dark amber-mahogany for decades-aged XO.
How do I mix cognac into amazing cocktails?
Try some of our favorite cognac cocktail recipes.
Here are some tips for using it effectively in cocktails:
- Keep it simple. Choose just 2-3 complementary ingredients that won't mask the cognac.
- Use VS expressions for basic mixes. Save the VSOP and XO for shaken or stirred drinks.
- Allow aged expressions' oak and vanilla notes to shine by using recipes with chocolate or nut liqueurs.
- Let its grape character complement berry liqueurs or fresh lemon/orange juice.
- Stir it up in autumnal cocktails featuring apple cider, maple or spices.
- Layer cognac with flavor opposites like herbal liqueurs or smoky scotch.
What is the history of cognac?
The Charente River region of France has produced lightly distilled 'brandewyn' wine spirits since the 16th century, which found favor in Dutch and English trade.
In the 17th century, the town of Cognac became the hub for these lightly flavored wines destined for eau-de-vie production. The unique microclimate and soil along the river produce excellent grapes for distillation. Early cognacs were crudely produced in a single pot still process. But rapid innovations in the late 18th century like double distillation and aging in oak led to a more refined spirit. Houses like Hennessy, Martell and Rémy Martin helped define the region.
Phylloxera devastated the vineyards in the late 1800s, forcing replanting and emphasis on Ugni Blanc grapes. This also marked the establishment of tightly controlled AOC regulations governing all aspects of cognac production.
The last half of the 20th century brought renewed global interest in cognac. Leading brands were acquired by large beverage companies. And iconic cognacs like Rémy Martin Louis XIII defined ultra-luxury prestige. Today, consumer thirst for small batch craft spirits is bringing artisanal producers back to prominence. But the handful of large cognac houses still dominate export markets. Their multi-century traditions maintain cognac's benchmark status among the world's great spirits.
Why shop Curiada's selection of cognac?
At Curiada, we're fans of big cognac houses like Hennessy and Courvoisier. But we specialize in small producers that express unique terroir and continue generations of tradition.
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