What Bartenders Should Know about Cognac
Bartenders should know that cognac can be produced only in the legally defined region of Cognac, France, located between the Atlantic and Massif Central — specifically, at the junction between the oceanic and continental climate zones. The region also straddles the dividing line between northern and southern climates. These four influences create a multitude of microclimates.
In addition to the unique climate, the soil characteristics also foster a range of wine and, consequently, the cognac of each region. In 1909, the French government passed a law that only brandy produced in the delimited area surrounding the town of Cognac can be called cognac.
How cognac is made
The arduous, time-honored distilling and aging process is what makes cognac so special. The cognac you drink today was produced using methods dating back to the 17th century. The distillation of cognac is a two-stage process:
A first distillate, known as brouillis, is obtained, with an alcoholic strength of 28 to 32 percent.
The brouillis is returned to the boiler for a second heating, which produces a liquid known as la bonne chauffe. The beginning and the end of this second distillation (the head and tail) are discarded, leaving only the heart of the spirit, which becomes cognac.
The cognac is then sent to rest in oak casks made from wood from the Limousin and Troncais forests.
Maturing slowly over long years in cellars, the cognac acquires a smoothness and flavor beyond compare. The wood and the dark, saturated atmosphere of the cellars work together to develop the aroma of the cognac to its full potential. All cognac is aged a minimum of 30 months.
What are all those letters on the label?
When you shop for cognac, you see all kinds of designations on the labels of various brands — for example, Courvoisier V.S., Martell V.S.O.P., and Remy Martin X.O. The letters and phrases after the brand name are a general indication of the age (and, in turn, expensiveness) of the cognac.
Every major brand produces cognacs of different ages. When one of the following designations is used, it indicates the age of the youngest cognac used in the blend that makes up what's in the bottle.
V.S. (Very Superior) or Three Stars: Cognac aged less than 4½ years.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): Cognac aged between 4½ and 6½ years. Sometimes called V.O. (Very Old) or Reserve.
X.O. (Extremely Old), Napoleon, Hors d'age, V.S.S.O.P., Cordon Bleu, Grand Reserve, and Royal: Cognac aged at least 5½ years and up to 40 years.
Generally speaking, each cognac producer uses blends that are much older than the minimum required. In the most prestigious cognacs, some of the blends may have matured over several decades.
You're also going to see some of these names on the labels:
Grand Fine Champagne or Grande Champagne: These identify cognacs made exclusively from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac.
Petite Fine Champagne or Petite Champagne: These names mean that the cognac is a blend made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne sections of Cognac. At least 50 percent of the blend must be from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne region.
The terms fine cognac and grande fine, which may also appear on cognac labels, have no legally defined meaning. The designations extra old (E.O.) and very old pale (V.O.P.) aren't officially recognized by the Bureau du Cognac, which makes up all the names and rules.
Note: You won't see vintage dates on cognac labels because in 1963, the French passed a law prohibiting the placement of vintage labels on cognac bottles. Go figure.