Of course, first the basics. For a spirit to be called cognac, it must originate from the Cognac region of France. I would suggest doing an internet search about the area and learning about the smaller geographic denominations that dictate the “crus” or where the grapes are grown. This level of scrutiny preserves the identity of good cognac and doesn’t allow for bootleg spirits or inferior products to enter the market.
Next up, the lingo. Cognac is a type of brandy. Made from white wine grapes, mainly the “ugni blanc,” it is the barreling process and aging in those oak barrels that give it the color and taste you have come to expect. Cognac comes in a V.S. [which is at least 2 years of aging], V.S.O.P [which is at least 4 years of aging], or X.O. [is at least 6 years of aging]. The longer the aging, the deeper the color and more intense the flavoring.
Now on to sipping. I like my cognac neat and in a snifter or tumbler. First you want to warm up the cognac by holding the glass in your hand. The normal heat from your hand should start to subtly warm the glass and essentially start to change the complexity of the cognac. A good rule of thumb is to warm the cognac in your hand for at least 10 minutes. I say try the cognac first without doing this and see if you can notice the difference after the warming effect. After warming, inspect the cognac for its colors. Younger cognacs tend to be lighter while older cognacs will be darker in color. After a slight inspection, swirl and agitate the cognac in the glass. This will aerate the spirit and release more of the flavors. Put your nose to it and take a deep sniff. See if you can identify any of the smells coming out of it. Finally, take a sip. Let it sit on your palate for a second to see if you gather the flavors involved. Each cognac experience will be just that, an experience.
When it comes to food pairings, I would suggest chocolates, red meats, smoked cheeses, hearty soups and roasted meats. If you have the need to mix your cognac, then choose slightly inexpensive labels and look up cocktails you can easily make.
I would certainly recommend the following:
- Hennessey VSOP [Privilege] (https://www.hennessy.com/us/)
- Remy Martin 1738 (https://www.remymartin.com/)
- Martell (http://www.martell.com/)
Cognac, when put against other spirits, can come off as more expensive to purchase. The older the vintage, the pricier it will get. For example, the basic level of Hennessey will get you for about $40 but once you start leveling up to the VSOP [$64] or the XO [$200], you can start to part with more coins. However, the taste of each is different and gives you a variety of experiences on the palate. Additionally, you won’t be mixing the more expensive blends with soda or juice. That would be just disrespectful and wrong. Cognac is a spirit that doesn’t need to be mixed and can be enjoyed with just an ice cube or splash of water. It is a bar staple and should be sought after in the dead of winter. However, once the weather breaks, don’t abandon it, pair it with a nice cigar after dinner on the deck. Cognac is an amazing spirit, take the time to get to know it and I promise you, it will change your life.
Keith Cradle, Ph.D. (@mrcradle on IG/Twitter)