When someone hears “Cognac,” thoughts of expensive alcohol may come to mind. The price of a 750 ml bottle of LOUIS XIII Cognac is almost $4,000, although there are plenty of less expensive Cognacs! For beginners who may not be familiar with distilled spirits, one may ask, what type of alcohol is Cognac? Some may have heard it is a wine or a whiskey. But here’s the truth.
Cognac is actually a type of brandy. Brandy is a liquor that is the result of the distillation of wine, and Cognac is a particular variety of brandy. There are a few things that make Cognac distinct from other brandies, including the regions where Cognac is produced, the types of grapes used, and some specifics in the distillation and aging processes.
This article will break down the things that make Cognac distinct from other brandies, as well as its inherent difference, as brandy, from wine.
How Brandy is Different from Wine
Wine is an alcoholic drink that is the result of fermenting fruit (typically grape) juice. Grapes are mashed into a juice and pulp mixture into which yeast, water, and sometimes sugar, is added. This mixture is left to settle for a period of several days or weeks, during which time the yeast converts the sugars into ethanol, carbon dioxide, and heat.
The resulting product is a low-sugar, higher-alcohol (about 11 to 13 percent) liquid. This liquid is then aged for a period of weeks, months, or years, filtered, and bottled into an airtight container. This product is now considered wine.
In contrast, brandy is a liquor that is the result of distilling wine. Wine is placed in a distillation container (called a still) and brought to a simmering boil. During the distillation process, excess water evaporates off and several distillate substances (called the foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails) bubble out of the still’s spout.
The hearts (which contain less “bad alcohols” than the other parts) are collected into containers, poured into glass jars or barrels, and left to age. The resulting product — now 35 to 60 percent alcohol by volume — is considered brandy; it can also be distilled and aged once again.
How Brandy is Different from Whiskey
Some may think that brandy is a type of whiskey, but the two drinks are very different. Unlike brandy, the distilled spirit is made of fermented grain mash and can use a different variety including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. For the most part, whiskey is aged in wooden casks, generally made of white oak. Bourbon, which is a type of whiskey, needs to be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.
Whiskey and brandy are similar in alcohol content. The range of ABV for whiskey is 40 to 50 percent.
For additional info, check out this article about whiskey barrels!
How Cognac is a Distinct Type of Brandy
Cognac is a type of brandy. It is named after the administrative district of Cognac, France. For a brandy to be considered a Cognac, it must be produced in specific French areas following highly-regulated production methods.
Where Cognac is Produced
Cognac must be produced from grapes grown in soils in and around the Cognac region, with the mainstays of production in the Charente and Charente-Maritime administrative districts. Different vineyards are called crus — these are regions that have different soils, which in turn produce grapes of distinct and recognized quality.
Among the different crus in and around the Cognac region are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, Bois a terroirs, and Borderies.
The Grapes Used in Cognac
Cognac is made from a white wine which consists of several grape varieties. For a Cognac to be considered of a recognized cru, its originating wine must consist of — at a minimum — 90 percent Ugni blanc, Colombard, or Folle blanche grapes. The remaining 10 percent can consist of Semillon, Montils, Select, Meslier St-Francois, Folignan, or Jurancon blanc grape varieties.
If a Cognac is not labeled under a recognized cru, it must be at least 90 percent Montils, Semillon, Colombard, Jurancon blanc, Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, or Meslier St-Francois, and up to 10 percent Select or Folignan.
The white wine is about 7 or 8 percent alcohol. In order for it to be considered Cognac, it must be distilled twice. This is usually accomplished using alembic (two-chambered) copper stills. The resulting liquid (also known as Eau de Vie, or “water of life”) is colorless, but now around 70 percent alcohol.
Cognac Aging and Blending
Cognac must be aged in oak barrels from the Limousin or Troncais regions of France for a period of at least two years. As the liquid ages, the alcohol evaporates, with the average alcohol content reducing to 40 percent per volume after ten years.
After at least two years, these aged liquids may be blended, and finally bottled, together. The blended liquids are said to complement one another in the resulting Cognac.
As mentioned above, a bottle of LOUIS XIII Cognac can cost almost $4,000. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of Cognacs that are way more pricey than that one. Here’s a list of a few Cognacs that come in at a higher price point.
- Hardy Cognac Printemps – $18,000. Why is this so expensive? There are only 400 bottles available in the world!
- Hardy Cognac Privilege – $11,000. Made from the same company as above, this one comes in a bottle that is handcrafted and encased in wood & leather. The blend dates back to before 1914.
- Hennessy Paradis Imperial – $3300. From the famous Hennessy brand, this one has hints of jasmine and orange flower.
- A de Fussigny Extra Cognac – $250. Much less expensive than the previous Cognacs, but still up there. This one received the Double Gold award at the San Francisco Worlds Spirits Competition.
If spending thousands of dollars isn’t your thing, then maybe some budget, yet tasty Cognacs will suit your needs.
- Salignac Cognac VS – $11. This one is pretty highly rated according to Total Wine. Reviewers call it smooth and a great value for the price.
- Courvoisier VS Cognac – $14. Another highly rated Cognac. Shout out to Busta Rhymes!
- Hennessy VS Cognac – $22. The famous Hennessy brand! This one is a blend of 40 eaux de vies.
- Maison Rouge Cognac VSOP – $25. This one has notes of tobacco, cedar and vanilla.
Cognac is not wine, but a brandy. Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from wine — but it is not a wine itself and should not be confused as such. Cognac is a distinctly French brandy that is well-regulated in its components, processing, and aging.