Your First Steps on Your Cognac Journey
Today, we have brandies representing countries from all over. The drink that we typically refer to when we utter the word “brandy”, however, is cognac. Cognac is only made in one region of southeast France. Made from French oak varieties it’s primary distilled from ugni blanc grapes and aged in barrels for years. Other grape brandies attempt, but fail, to be cognac.
The taste of brandy
Firstly, an unaged brandy should smell and taste of the very fruit that it originated from. The majority of au de vie seeks purity of flavour. Aged brandies tend to have more muted flavours of fruit. For example, cognac grapes mellow into jam and raisin, while fresh sweetness will darken into richer caramel. Smells also change. What can begin as a youthful alcoholic bomb with aggression softens into a floral and pleasant fragrance with time. The most significant flavour source for aged brandies, however, is the wood where they were kept, which can cause them to be infused with just hints of ranch, spice, and vanilla.
Spirits like cognac that are produced in that very style feature a designation system with three tiers: Very Special for the youngest (VS, two years), Very Special Old Pale for older brandies (VSOP, over three years), and Extra Old for the oldest (XO, over five years). Often, consumers have the belief that the older the brandy, the better it is, that it’s more balanced and smoother. It’s more complicated than that, however. Younger brandies are dominated by a clear presence of fruit. Later, it’s replaced by the effects of wood.
The four primary cognac brandies- Martelll, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier, and Hennessy- have been responsible for brandy production since the 18th century. While each brand bears its own distinct house style, the VSOP and VS are the very best ones to begin your brandy adventure. The sweetest is undoubtedly the Courvoisier VS. The drier Rémy Martin VSOP and Martell VS provide improved balance, however.
How to drink it
To experience cognac’s full flavour, try sipping it neat (served at room temperature with a straight pour and no ice). Although, there’s nothing wrong with adding a minimal amount of soda water or ice. It’s also a fine ingredient for cocktails. The classic cocktail in this case is the Sidecar, with a brandy balanced by sour lemon and sweet triple sec. If budget is a concern, there are a number of large, less expensive brands from the U.S. Be wary, however. While domestic bottles can be far cheaper than French brandies, the majority are too sweet. An exception is Paul Masson as its VSOP and VS varieties stand toe-to-toe against starter-level cognacs and with a far cheaper price tag.
Your next step
While cognac is clearly the darling of the brandy, there are other brandies out there. Those who love aged brandies should try a brandy from another French region: Armagnac, the bolder-flavoured and more assertive relative of cognac. American distillers offer innovative varieties, such as Copper and Kings, with its experimental finishes and battles, and Germain-Robin, which has been distilling brandy for decades.