Cognac is a type of brandy which comes from the Cognac region of France. It is rightfully famous, requiring a lengthy distillation and aging process that yields a very distinctive spirit. Some are consumed plain, while others are used in cooking, in both savory dishes and desserts. Any decent market or liquor store will carry this brandy, although the quality can be difficult to ascertain. Because good cognac can be quite expensive, shoppers may want to consider looking up reviews before purchasing a bottle.
In Europe, cognac is protected by an origin appellation, which means that only brandy produced in the specific region of France from certain grapes in a certain way may be labeled with this name. This protects the integrity of this often-imitated spirit, and provides some protection to European buyers who might be confused. Outside of Europe, many companies claim to produce this spirit, which can be confusing and frustrating for consumers. In the United States especially, some people are under the false impression that all French brandy carries this name, when in fact, many brandies are produced in France, including Armagnac, another famous and protected brandy.
By law, cognac must contain Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although other grapes may be added. These grapes are pressed and fermented to yield a very dry, somewhat bland white wine, which is subjected to a double distillation process, yielding raw brandy that is routed into oak barrels for aging. The stills used to produce traditional cognac are made from copper.
True cognac must be aged for at least three years. This adds significantly to the cost of the final product, as the spirit must be stored in temperature controlled environments while it ages, and the barrels must be cared for by trained professionals. Producers also experience product loss through evaporation as the spirit ages. After three years, the brandy is drinkable, though very young, with a raw, intense flavor.
The longer the brandy is aged, the better it becomes, developing complex flavors and mellowing in the oak. It also becomes more expensive, for the reasons cited above. Cognac that is aged for at least three years can be labeled V.S. for “very superior,” while V.S.O.P. stands for “very superior old pale.” Even older spirits may be labeled as reserve or XO, and they are very special, in addition to very expensive. When shoppers can find them, products aged more than seven years can be truly spectacular.