What alcohol do you associate with luxury and extravagance? The front runner has to be Champagne. It goes hand in hand with celebrations and frivolity. Another contender is Cognac. Just as champagne is the Queen of sparkling wine, cognac is the King of spirits. So, what is it that makes cognac so expensive compared to other premium products like Scottish Malt Whisky?
Cognac tends to be more expensive than other distilled spirits, like whiskey, because production costs are higher. Resources such as grapes grown in specific regions (the Cognac region of France) and casks made out of Limousin oak are used, which add to the high cost of Cognac.
Read on and find out.
Why is Cognac expensive? (Quick cost comparison)
Cognac is one of the most expensive spirits you can buy. While the inflated price has a lot to do with fancy bottles and branding, it is mainly down to the low production volume and the high cost.
Cognac is a spirit distilled from grapes. Unlike other spirits such as vodka, Gin, and whiskey, grapes are an expensive base ingredient. As a result, the cost of production is higher than other alcohols right from the start. Cognac can only be produced from grapes grown in designated regions and must be aged in casks made from Limousin or Troncais oak to add to the expense.
Let’s put things in perspective. It costs roughly $1 to make a liter of Vodka, $2.20 for a liter of 12-year-old whiskey but a whopping $13 for V.S. Cognac!
Differences in how Cognac and whiskey are made
Cognac and whiskey are both distilled spirits. Cognac, which is a type of brandy, is made from a base of grapes, and whiskey is made from grains.
For Cognac, grapes are harvested, crushed, and allowed to ferment naturally. Once fermentation has occurred, the liquid is distilled twice to produce “eau de vie” (Water of Life). The eau de vie is put into new oak barrels to age for 1-2 years. When the required amount of tannins has been absorbed, the Cognac is transferred to older barrels to age further. Different Crus are blended to create a Cognac, which can then be bottled. Crus can range in age from a few years to over a hundred years. This is another reason Cognac is so expensive.
On the other hand, whiskey is made by distilling a grain mash. Any grain can be used. For example, Bourbon typically uses corn, and Scotch uses malted barley.
A grain mash is created to release the natural sugars. The mash is then fermented in large vats where the sugars turn into alcohol. The fermented liquid is called ‘Wash’ and has an alcohol content of 5-10% A.B.V. This is comparable to a strong beer or ale. The wash is then distilled twice (three times for Irish whisky) and then transferred to oak casks for aging. Whiskey loses roughly 2% volume each year it is stored. That’s why older whiskey is less readily available and also more expensive. Scottish whisky must be aged a minimum of 3 years and while Bourbon has no legal minimum age.
Obviously, Cognac and whiskey’s most significant difference is the base ingredient — grapes for Cognac and grains for whiskey. The actual production process is not too dissimilar, and the aging process is also very similar. Cognac can be blended to a certain extent before bottling; whiskey can be blended or single malt and can even be a single cask.
One notable difference is that Cognac must be aged in barrels made from Limousin or Troncais oak, and the barrels must not have held any liquid other than Cognac. On the other hand, whiskey doesn’t have such constraints. Older barrels are also much cheaper to buy and will keep production costs down. Distillers regularly experiment with different used barrels to impart new flavors.
These methods lead to a key difference between the industries rather than the drink itself. Cognac represents tradition. It’s been typically synonymous with luxury and wealth. It’s a reliable product that has stood the test of time and has resisted the desire to compromise or innovate. Conversely, while whiskey is also steeped in tradition, it has embraced innovation and overhauled its “old man” image to appeal to a new, dynamic demographic with local, small-batch distilleries creating their traditions.
Getting to know Cognac
The first step in getting to know cognac is understanding the different labeling. Cognac is graded according to its age:
- V.S. – Very Special, aged for a minimum of two years. This is the youngest type of Cognac and your go-to for cocktails or longer drinks like cognac and Ginger Ale.
- V.S.O.P. – Very Superior Old Pale, must be aged for a minimum of four years. You can enjoy this grade neat or use it for cocktails. It’s the most versatile grade and a great compromise between cost and quality.
- X.O. – Extra Old, since 2018 X.O. Cognac must be aged for a minimum of 10 years, previously it was only six. This accounts for a jump in price and reduced availability over the past few years. This Cognac should be enjoyed neat, with a little water or ice.
- Hors D’age – These Cognacs are exceptional and considered beyond an age rating. Hors D’age translates as “Beyond Age.” Often they are very old and command a hefty price tag. Enjoy these Cognacs as you would an X.O.
Where to start with Cognac: A quick note for beginners
How you begin your relationship with Cognac will depend on the type of drinker you are. If you are a cocktail lover, then there’s no need to look beyond V.S. or V.S.O.P. grades. For longer cocktails with multiple ingredients, a V.S. should suffice. In a cocktail where the Cognac is the star, a smooth Cognac V.S.O.P. will work best. Please don’t waste your money using X.O., as it won’t improve the cocktail. If anything, it will do the opposite as its flavor can be overpowering and intense.
For those who prefer to enjoy an unadulterated tipple, then start with a V.S.O.P. Cognac. Try a couple of entry-level brands to determine the flavors you like, and then upgrade to an X.O. where those flavors are more complex and nuanced.
What is the best value Cognac?
Although Cognac is a more expensive drink compared to other spirits, it’s still possible to find quality brands at reasonable prices. V.S. and V.S.O.P. Cognacs are your most affordable options. V.S.O.P. is best when it comes to balancing complexity and flavor with a smooth finish.
Some brands worth considering are:
- A de Fussigny– This producer offers a range of bottles in beautifully minimalist packaging. The Superieur is a great entry point. At only $55 a bottle, it is smooth and full of caramel and vanilla flavors.
- Courvoisier– A famous brand at a reasonable price point. Try the V.S.O.P, perfect for sipping or mixing your favorite cocktails. A bottle is only $35.
- Cognac Croizet – Winston Churchill’s Cognac of choice was Croizet. A bottle of their X.O. clearly shows why. A carefully balanced Cognac with wonderful vanilla and caramel aromas. A bottle is a bargain at $50.
- Meekow – A Russian-owned Cognac known for the quality of their V.S. Cognac but it’s worth upgrading to their V.S.O.P at only $45 a bottle.
The world’s most expensive Cognac
There are some costly bottles of Cognac on the market. They are coveted not just for the cognac’s quality but also for the bottles’ artistry and design. A couple of examples are Remy Martin Louis XIII, which will set you back $3,500 a bottle, and Hennessy Paradis, which costs slightly more at $4,000 a bottle. Of course, special edition bottles fetch far more at auction. It’s not unusual for bottles to be sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
However, one Cognac is so rare that it’s basically priceless: Henri IV Dudognon Heritage Cognac Grande Champagne. It’s considered to be the DNA of Cognac because this drink has been aged for over 100 years. This spirit is sold in specially produced bottles that are artworks in their own right. The bottles are dipped in gold and decorated gems such as diamonds and sapphires. A bottle will set you back an eye-watering $2 million!
Enjoy Cognac like a connoisseur
Cognac is a drink that’s meant to be savored and sipped slowly so as you can enjoy its complexity and charms. Cognac is traditionally drunk neat from a balloon-shaped, brandy glass. The glass sits nicely in the palm of the hand, which helps to warm the Cognac, releasing its aromas. Holding the glass and swilling the Cognac around is the classic way to enjoy the drinks and appreciate all it has to offer. You can further open up the aroma by adding a splash of water or drinking it on the rocks.
Many Cognac connoisseurs would be horrified, but Cognac can be mixed with soft drinks such as Coke and Ginger Ale. Of course, there are also plenty of classic cocktails made with Cognac as a base ingredient. When making cocktails, V.S. or V.S.O.P. Cognac is generally used. Just don’t ever add a mixer to an X.O.!
Some classic cocktail recipes include:
- Burra Peg: 3 parts Champagne to 2 parts Cognac. 2 dashes of Angostura bitters and 2 teaspoons of sugar syrup. Shake the Cognac, Angostura and syrup in a shaker with ice. Strain over ice and top up with Champagne.
- Vieux Carre: 1 part rye whiskey, 1 part Sweet Vermouth, 1 part Cognac and 2 dashes Angostura bitters. Serve over ice garnished with a maraschino cherry.
- Stinger: 1 part creme de menthe to 2 parts Cognac served over ice with mint to garnish.
Cognac is an incredibly sophisticated spirit that can be enjoyed by all. While many may consider it to be a luxury beverage, there are affordable options. But, if you want to splurge, there are plenty of options for that as well!