What is the taste difference between brandy and Cognac? There is no definitive answer to the question because there are simply too many Cognacs and brandies to compare. Not only do you need to compare different geographical origins and production methods but also ages.
Cognac is a brandy, so brandy and Cognac should taste pretty similar right? Unfortunately no. Brandy and Cognac come in different qualities and different styles. In many respects, it is like comparing red wine. Essentially all red wines have a similar color and a familiar smell and taste. But, on closer inspection, you start to notice different attributes such as smoothness, complexity, and aroma depth.
Similarly, the taste difference between Cognac and brandy varies because of each geographical region and grape type, leading to unique flavors that aficionados appreciate for various reasons.
Spending on brandy
When it comes to brandy, Cognac is undoubtedly regarded as the best brandy available. It’s an exclusive drink synonymous with luxury and high living. Don’t be surprised if a bottle of good quality Cognac sets you back over $100. You might be surprised to learn a bottle of high-end Cognac can cost thousands of dollars! Thanks to this expense and prestige, Cognac has gained popularity, especially through the music scene.
Cognac is an exclusive drink for a reason. You can only make Cognac from specific grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. There are also rigorous production and aging rules all producers must follow. Brandy, on the other hand, is not subject to such stringent production requirements.
While brandy is generally made from grapes, you can also make it from fruit or dried fruit. This is typically referred to as Fruit brandy and, unlike Cognac, is often clear in color. Well-known Fruit brandies include Grappa an Italian Pomace Brandy, Calvados a French Apple brandy and Schnapps, a German fruit brandy typically made from stone fruits.
For this article’s purposes, when referring to brandy, I am referring to the spirit distilled from grapes in Cognac and Armagnac’s style.
Recommended reading: Why Is Cognac More Expensive Than Whiskey?
What is brandy?
Within the European Union, only brandy produced from grapes can use the term brandy. The alcohol must also be aged in wood for a minimum of six months. The U.S. also has rules defining brandy. For labeling purposes, if the brandy is made from fruit other than grapes, it must show this on the label. Also, if the alcohol has spent less than two years aging in oak, it must be labeled immature.
Almost all brandy is aged in wood, but there is one exception – Pisco. This is the national alcohol of Peru and Chile and, just like traditional brandy, is distilled from grapes. However, unlike other brandy, both countries specify that Pisco cannot be aged in the wood. Instead, it is usually aged in glass, stainless steel, or traditional clay jugs.
As for Cognac, it can only be produced in a small geographical region of France, making it so unique. It also means that variations in taste and flavor are subtle and come down to aging and blending.
To be able to label a brandy as Cognac, it must meet the following criteria:
- Only use the juice from Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche grapes.
- Grapes must be grown in the Cognac region of France.
- Distilled twice and aged in new French oak barrels
- Cognac must age in oak for a minimum of 2.5 years.
Flavor profile of brandy
Brandy is known as a dark spirit with a similar color to whiskey and dark rum. Brandy’s flavor comes from the grapes and the aging process. In much the same way that grapes alter the taste of wine, they also change Brandy’s flavor. Better quality ingredients result in a better quality brandy. Aging and blending of brandy can soften many of the harsher tones and reduce the burning sensation.
Brandy is considered a sweeter spirit, especially compared to whiskey or vodka. The flavors associated with brandy can be categorized in a similar way to wine. Young brandy will be fresh with floral notes such as rose, jasmine, orange blossom, and honeysuckle. As the drink ages, notes of fruit will start to dominate.
You should expect flavors of peach, lemon, mango, pear, and passion fruit to shine through. These flavors will then develop more depth and intensity and lead to earthy, toasted notes, wood, dried fruit, and earth.
Flavor profile of Cognac
Cognac is the pinnacle of the brandy world for a reason. No other brandy tastes like Cognac because all the grapes grown in the Cognac region are used for, surprise surprise – Cognac. The limited amount of grapes available means no one else can make brandy from grapes grown in the Cognac region. Consequently, no other brandy can taste like Cognac because no other grapes have the flavors from the region’s soil.
Another aspect of Cognac compared to other brandies is the flavor complexity. Cognac is a blend of multiple Cognacs, all with unique characteristics and different ages. There is a real art to creating and blending a Cognac. The Cellar Master must balance the influence of the wood, create layers of flavor, and most of all, ensure the overall result is harmonious.
The top-quality ingredients and level of expertise mean you can find flavors in Cognac that you will struggle to find in other types of Brandy. These include chocolate, tobacco, leather, port, toffee, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
Recommended reading: What Type of Alcohol is Cognac?
Can you mix brandy and Cognac?
Of course you can, but then again, why would you want to?! Both drinks are essentially the same type of alcohol, even though they may have different flavor profiles. As a result, there is little benefit to combining them in a cocktail. It makes more sense to use another type of alcohol to offset or enhance the brandy’s sweetness.
That said, there are cocktails that mix Cognac and fruit Brandy, such as Calvados. For instance, an Aristocrat (Cognac, Calvados, Lillet Blanc, and Benedictine) or a Cognac Sangria (brandy, Schnapps, red wine, mango juice, cranberry juice).
Can you use Cognac instead of brandy for cooking or baking?
Brandy and Cognac are readily interchangeable when it comes to cooking, so there is no problem substituting one for the other in a recipe. However, keep in mind that Cognac is a premium Brandy. Don’t reach for a bottle of Martell X.O. to flambe your crepes! When it comes to cooking and cocktails, you can usually get away with a V.S. or V.S.O.P. Cognac, but you might want to use an X.O. Brandy.
Like cooking with wine, the quality of the alcohol you use will affect the flavor of the dish you are making, especially when using it for sauces. If you can’t bear to drink it, don’t cook with it!
When substituting brandy for Cognac in a cocktail, be sure you use a traditional brandy made from grapes rather than a fruit brandy. Fruit brandy will have a different flavor profile and may spoil the balance of the cocktail recipe.
Classic Brandy Cocktails
- Vieux Carre – Cognac, Rye whiskey, Red vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud bitters, Angostura bitters
- Brandy Alexander – Cognac, Creme de Cacao, Pouring Cream
- Sidecar- Cognac, Lemon juice, Triple Sec
Is there a difference between brandy and Cognac glasses?
Traditionally brandy and Cognac use one of two glasses, the snifter (better recognized as the large balloon-shaped glass) and the tulip glass. Both glass types are designed to have a large surface area to release the drink’s aroma and then a narrow opening to concentrate the bouquet. The large balloon glass is synonymous with brandy. It’s what we see in movies and adverts.
However, the smaller tulip glass is the glass Cognac and brandy producers recommend for drinking their product. It does a much better job of concentrating the aromas and supposedly gives a better, fuller tasting experience. That said, relaxing by the fire, swilling your brandy or Cognac in a large balloon glass is incredibly satisfying nonetheless.
Is there a difference in smell between brandy and Cognac?
The base aroma and flavor profile of Cognac and grape-based brandy aren’t too dissimilar. A Brandy made using the same process as Cognac and aged in an oak barrel for an equivalent amount of time will not smell wildly different. However, not all brandy is aged the same way as Cognac. For example, Spanish brandy is often aged in old Sherry casks. The sherry imparts a rich sweetness to the Brandy and a very different aroma when compared to Cognac.
Alternatively, Australian brandy such as St Agnes or Black Bottle is produced using the same method as Cognac. However, the different grapes make for a much fruitier taste and aroma compared to their French counterparts.
Top brands of brandy and Cognac
With so many different brandy and Cognac producers around, which ones should you try? Often it’s easiest to start with big name brands. They are readily accessible, generally affordable and easy to compare.
- Remy Martin
- Ciroc, French Brandy
- St Agnes, Australian Brandy distilled in South Australia.
- St Remy, French Brandy produced by the Cognac house Remy Martin
- Ararat – Armenian Brandy
- Lepanto – Spanish Brandy
Like red wines, brandy and Cognac are similar but can be very different due to grapes used and the aging process. Each brandy and each Cognac have such distinct flavor profiles that you can’t lump brandies and Cognacs into their own categories — you can’t say brandy taste one way and Cognac taste another way. It is really just a matter of preference.