Guide: How To Buy Cognac

Variety is the spice of life but it can be confusing when it comes to alcohol. Here are five easy steps to follow when considering what bottle of cognac you should invest in

Guide: How To Buy Cognac

Gentlemen may or may not prefer blondes but they almost certainly have a taste for brandy. To be precise, we are talking about cognac. Cognac is an international drink of class and substance, one that properly classy people swear by. Just as beer is the perfect drink for casual occasions, cognac is the standard bearer of dress formal. 

Considering the variety of brandy, of which cognac is a subset, available, it can be quite challenging to choose the right bottle. Here are five essential points to consider when determining one’s drink of choice.

Know Your Spirit

  • Generally, cognac is a blended spirit. Like whisky and champagne, this is done to create consistency of quality. 
  • You are not buying the vineyard or a vintage but a particular brand’s expression of cognac’s flavor profile. 
  • The blend in question for cognac is of double-distilled white wine at 70% alcohol by volume called eau-de-vie. Eau-de-vie must be aged to become suitable for consumption.
  • Vintage cognacs from single eau-de-vie harvests are unusual because individual eau-de-vies, even aged, are often undrinkable.
  • Single distillery (grapes from across Cognac distilled in one place) and single vineyard (harvest from a single estate within Cognac) are more typical.  

Know the Age

  • Like school, cognac has grades and they are printed clearly on the labels. 
  • VS or Very Special cognac indicates that the spirit has been aged in a cask for at least two years. 
  • VSOP, or Very Superior Old Pale, has been similarly aged for a minimum of four years. 
  • XO or Extra Old cognac has been aged for at least six years but most XO cognacs will be older.
  • How To Buy Cognac The smallest production region of Cognac is Borderies, making cognacs with a majority of Borderies eau-de-vie the rarest, but Grande Champagne is officially recognized as the top region
  • How To Buy Cognac 3Cognac has the highest reputation amongst brandies but it does have competition. An Armenian brandy from the Ararat plain called Dvin is possibly the most famous. Joseph Stalin made a gift of a bottle to brandy-loving Winston Churchill
  • How To Buy Cognac 4One of the world’s best customers for cognac was Kim Jong-Il. He was Hennessy’s pride and joy, spending more than US$800,000 a year. Reportedly, his preference was for Hennessy Paradis
  • How To Buy Cognac 5Jean Martell founded the Martell house in 1715, making it the oldest of the grand cognac brands today
  • How To Buy Cognac 6The USA remains the number one market for cognac, with Statesiders purchasing 48.3 million bottles in 2011. The number two market for cognac is tiny Singapore, which is certainly consuming above its weight class (26.9 million bottles in 2011)

Know the Designations

  • Special designations used to classify the origins of your potential bottle of cognac, which usually identify the specific region or regions whose grapes have contributed. 
  • These classifications or crus include (in descending order of officially recognized quality) Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. 
  • Each region produces a cognac with a slightly different flavor, and most blends are known for defining characteristics dependant on the crus they use. 
  • Perhaps the most famous blend, Fine Champagne cognac is a combination of Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne only. 

Know the Labels

  • Clearly, the label is important because it is packed with all sorts of useful information.
  • Most prominent of all will be the brand or house responsible for your bottle. Most of the information in steps 1-3 will also be on the label. 
  • If you are looking for what might theoretically be considered the best quality from Cognac, then you should look for the following words: Appellation Grande Champagne Controlee (Grande Champagne) and Mis en bouteille a la propriete (Estate Bottled).

Know the Background

  • The other guide you will always have with you is your own knowledge so arm yourself accordingly. 
  • There are excellent online resources such as the official Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac and Cognac World, which also offers links to cognac sellers. 
  • Perhaps best of all are the beautiful books written on the subject of cognac. Here’s a list of recommended reading:

How To Buy Cognac 11

Cognac: A Liquid History - Salvatore Calabrese

How To Buy Cognac 12

Cognac – Nicholas Faith

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Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World’s Most Coveted Spirit - Kyle Jarrard

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The Little Book of Cognac - Christian Pessey

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