Hailing from western France, Cognac is made mostly from Ugni Blanc, a white grape that makes a bland wine. The road from unremarkable wine to amazing spirit begins every winter when master distillers usher the year’s newly fermented wine through copper stills, where it bubbles, steams and condenses following a process unchanged since the 17th century. The resulting harsh, colorless liquid then heads into oak casks, where it ages at least two years—though sometimes for decades. The spirit absorbs color, flavors and aromas from the oak and finally becomes Cognac. Before it reaches the bottle, the cellar-master often blends Cognacs of different ages and regions to achieve a signature style.
Most Cognac bottles are labeled according to the amount of time the youngest Cognac used in the blend spent in the barrel: VS (a minimum of two years), VSOP (a minimum of four years), or XO or Napoleon (a minimum of six years). As Cognac ages, its flavors and aromas change: Apricot, pear and plum flavors become more candied and nutty; vanilla tones give way to chocolate, tobacco and cedar notes. These changes occur in the barrel, not the bottle—there’s never a need to age any Cognac you buy.
Cognac deserves its time-honored reputation as a relaxing after-dinner sip. Served alongside coffee, it’s known as café avec. But Cognac is no stranger to the cocktail glass—until the 1950s, the French often served Cognac cut with water for an aperitif known as fine à l’eau. Today’s mixologists are rediscovering Cognac’s allure as a cocktail ingredient. Try it with ginger ale, tonic or sparkling water over ice. My favorite is when it’s served, martini style, in a classic Sidecar cocktail.
By Wini Moranville, Relish wine columnist.