Cognac – a type of brandy (we’ll come back to this) – always had an unfairly snooty image. It is the building block for the sidecar and the original Sazarac – real down-to-earth cocktail classics. As a result of the French embrace of black soldiers during World War II, they drank them often. Before it was shouted by all rap people from Tupac to Drake, Hennessy was the first liquor company to place ads in Ebony and Jet magazines. (It was ubiquitous at my cousins’ weddings in Chinese banquet halls, too, where a bottle of Hennessy was on every table, right next to a two-liter 7-up to mix.) Cognac has history, and it’s not just so old white men in tuxedo jackets whirling snoopers is what I say. So yeah, while you can easily pay thousands of dollars for aged cognac in baccarat crystal, great bottles are out there for any price.
What is cognac anyway?
While you’re likely familiar with the Big Four of cognac (Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier), there are nearly 300 cognac producers – many of them small, family-run businesses. And they work in a very specific region of France. The cognac region.
To put it perhaps in familiar terms, where whiskey is the distillate of fermented grains and bourbon is a certain type of whiskey, brandy is the distillate of fermented grapes (or other fruits) – and cognac is a certain type of brandy from cognac. There are various other rules for production, from different grapes to still varieties, but just one rule that you, as a new cognac sipper, must observe: How long does a cognac spend maturing in oak barrels? Here is your cheat sheet:
Cognac age classifications
VS: Stands for “Very Special”. It’s cognac that has been aged in oak barrels for at least two years – the shortest time allowed.
VSOP: Stands for “Very Superior Old Pale”. It is a cognac that has matured in oak for at least four years.
XO: Stands for “Extra Old” and is a cognac that is 10 years or more old. Which is not the oldest.
Vintage: A cognac that has only been mixed with a single harvest from a given year – this year is stated on the label. Just because a vintage says 1990 could have been bottled at any time.
The “at least” in these statements suggests the fact that cognacs are usually a mixture of different ages – and the statement refers to the youngest liquid in the bottle. Expect younger cognacs to be light, fruity, and vibrant, while older cognacs are milder and more complex, with all the rich, warm flavors that wood gives.
Now that you understand the basics of cognac, it is time to … have a drink. We’ve put together a group of experts to give us their recommendations for the best cognac for every occasion, from a casual zoom cocktail hour to a Christmas present.
Best everyday cognacs
This is a bottle with a price so gentle that you can pour it for your random friend who will drink it all without feeling a bit of regret. Cognac Park versus Carte Blanche is a young cognac that H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco and BNIC-certified cognac educator, describes as “beautifully flowery with the bright fruit and acidity you expect from a VS, but with a surprising complexity” .
Cognac Park versus Carte Blanche
For something a little older that doesn’t feel wasted on a casual Tuesday night, recommends Ezra Star, cognac educator and freelance bartender at Drink in Boston Pierre Ferrand Amber. After ten years in oak, it could technically be called an XO, but you’ll find it at a much lower price than any XO offering from the Big Four. Star loves it equally in cocktails or alone, no special occasion required.
Best cognacs for cocktails
Almost 80 percent of the cognac sold worldwide is consumed in cocktails. “Bartenders helped democratize cognac by bringing more and more cognac cocktails to the menu,” says bartender and cognac educator ms. Franky Marshall (their preferred capitalization), which in turn has resulted in an increased number of cognacs that are affordable enough for use in cocktails. Which cognac you choose to mix depends on, of course, whether you’re making a delicate French 75 or a stiff, old-fashioned one. “Some cognacs have more barrel-forward and spice notes, while others have more fruit and floral notes,” said Kellie Thorn, Cognac Educator & Beverage Director of the Hugh Acheson Group in Georgia. “That being said, we tend to use H from Hine VSOP Cognac for a good piece of our cocktails. The company hired bartenders to develop the mind and is versatile. It holds its own in stirred, shaken and long applications. “Star likes H from Hine VSOP in old-fashioned and Ehrmann calls it“ a great example of the complexity achievable in a VSOP, highlighting both the bright fruits of a younger cognac and the flavor and richness of a very old blend. “
Dan Nicolaescu, General Manager of the New York Brandy Library and Copper & Oak and cognac educator, is in favor Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Grande Champagne Cognac. Ferrand developed this term with the help of cocktail historian David Wondrich and developed a blend similar to the cognacs used by 19th century bartenders. “It’s young, fruity and has a high ABV, which makes it the backbone to withstand other components,” explains Nicolaescu. The bartender GN Chan, founder of New York’s Double Chicken Please, likes to use Pierre Ferrand 1840 in hot winter cocktails, combined with flavors of chocolate, spices and candied fruit.
Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Grande Champagne
Best cognac for scotch whiskey lovers
In the far north-west of the Cognac region, surrounded by the Atlantic, is the Ile de Ré or “Island of Ferns”. Camus produces three expressions from grapes grown on the island and ripened in cellars infused with sea air. “The Islay malt whiskey drinker might think so Camus Ile de Ré Fine island cognac familiar with its salty aging by the sea and the touch of peat-like iodine, ”suggests Ehrmann. Marshall loves this expression, the youngest of the three, to accompany oysters, while Star emphasizes the older one Camus Ile de Ré double matured as an example of a cognac “that shows you the ocean and reminds us of how complex the terroir of cognac can really be.”
Camus Ile de Ré Beautiful island
Camus Ile de Ré double matured
Best cognac for rye whiskey lovers
Nicolaescu recommends rye drinkers Hardy Legend 1863which is up to twelve years old in roasted Limousin oak barrels. “This wood is broad-grained, which means that it releases more tannins and, when toasted, makes a fruity and tangy cognac,” he says. It’s also a particular favorite from Star, who says, “Bénédicte Hardy is a brilliant producer, and her intense, fruity cognacs linger on the tongue. I love giving these to every liquor drinker. “
Best bang-for-your-buck cognacs
None of the cognacs in this category are what you would call cheap, but the idea here is worth it. “Paul Beau VSOP is an exquisite ghost that sells for around $ 60, but what makes it a great price is that this VSOP really has an average age of 15, “says Thorn. “This could be called an XO, which typically makes at least $ 100.”
Similar, Guillon-Painturaud VSOP Cognac is also an average age of fifteen and is well above the VSOP designation. “Line Guillon-Painturaud produces on her family’s 18 hectare estate and is one of the few female master distillers in cognac,” says Thorn. “Their cognacs are elegant and fruity, and they are ridiculously cheap considering the age that is in the bottles.”
Guillon-Painturaud VSOP Grande Champagne
Dudognon 20 Years Vieille Reserve Cognac is made from biodynamically grown grapes by a family that has been making cognac since 1776. With twenty years of wood, this cognac could have an XO designation, but that would be half the age of the liquid. Nicolaescu enthuses: “This cognac costs around 90 US dollars and is therefore not only the best value for cognac, but for the entire world of distilled spirits.”
Dudognon 20 Years Vieille Reserve
“The Philbert Rare Cask Sherry Finish comes from a couple of brothers who are determined to go against the grain by experimenting with different barrel surfaces, “says Marshall. Or, as Thorn puts it,” start the “Craft Cognac” conversation. Philbert, who is finished in sherry (or Sauternes) barrels and uses individual vineyards, treats cognac like the wines our favorite wine shops have taken over.
Philbert Rare Barrel Sherry Finish Grande Champagne
“ABK6 is one of my all-time favorite producers in all of cognac and creates beautiful and elegant forms of expression with intensity and subtlety,” says Star. “They are also made by one of the most incredible producers in the liquor world. I particularly like that ABK6 family reserve XO. ”
Some great cognac flexes
“Hennessy is best known for its VS bottling, but what I love Selection of Hennessy Master Blender is that it takes all of the properties you get with the VS – the brightness, the smoothness – and pushes them further. But it’s more than just a hyped version of the VS. It’s a tasteful expression of what the big house can deliver when it really wants to flaunt. “- Esra Starr
Choice # 3 from Hennessy Master Blender
“Navarre cognacs are such a treat. Jacky Navarre is a fourth generation distiller and his production methods are slow and old-fashioned. He harvests the grapes by hand, distilled in small quantities and does not reduce with water, but only allows the reduction in the barrel over time. The average age is 40 to 50 years. Navarre Vieille Reserve is around $ 250 in retail and well worth it. “- Kellie Thorn
“D’ussé XO is a sexy bottle with well-rounded XO properties of dried stone fruits and dark chocolate. It is an effort that is worthwhile. “- H. Joseph Ehrmann