Brandy refers to any spirit that is distilled from fruit-based wine, though in general it refers to grape wines. Brady can be made from any fruit wine such as pear, plum, or apple (Calvados) as long as it is labeled with the fruit it is made from. The taste of brandy varies depending on the fruit it is made from and its age, but generally they are sweeter than whiskey and taste of flowers, fresh and dried fruit, and citrus zest.
Brandy must be aged in barrels and has different age designations for each level of quality.
VS (Very Special) Brandy must be aged no less than 2 years
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) Brandy must be aged no less than 4 years
XO (Extra Old) Brandy must be aged no less than 6 years
While older brandies are certainly enjoyable sipped straight, the VS, and in many cases, the VSOP are better off mixed in tall drinks or classic cocktails. Brandy is often mixed with coke, but due to the flavor profile of brandy, it also pairs very well with citrus. Consider trying to mix it with lemonade or a lemon/lime flavored soda.
Some brands are mass produced and kept young and are best mixed regardless of the age designation, such as E&J or Christian Brothers, but there are many smaller brands that are great on their own that are aged much longer. Germain Robin is one such company.
Brandy is also a staple for cooking and is great with desserts. When cooking with brandy, only VS should be used.
All Cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are Cognacs. In order for a brandy to be a Cognac, it must follow very strict regulations which are governed by the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) in France.
All Cognac must be grown and produced in the Cognac region in the southwest of France. It can be made only from the Ugni Blanc, Colombard, or Folle Blanche grape varieties. It must be distilled twice in copper Alembic stills. The resulting distillates, known as eaux de vie or waters of life, must then be aged for a minimum of two years in charred oak barrels made from the trees of the nearby Limousin or Tronçais forests.
Grapes grown in the cognac region are grown in one of six different terroirs, or growing regions, and include the Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne. The Grande Champagne terroir is the most coveted and Cognacs bearing the “Fine Champagne” label must be made of at least 50% Grande Champagne and the remainder Petite Champagne.
All Cognacs are blended which is what gives them their complex flavor. Prior to blending, all cognac is still referred to as eaux de vie. Only after blending will it be called Cognac. These blended flavors can
vary greatly depending on the age and types of barrels used for aging. While they are governed by the three age designations used for brandy, Cognacs are almost always considerably older.
VS (Very Special) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie 2-8 years in age. These young Cognacs have flavors of flowers, fresh fruit, and citrus and are primarily meant to be mixed in cocktails and pair great with light mixers such as citrus flavored sodas, soda water, or lemonade.
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged 4-12 years. These Cognacs are certainly good for sipping on their own, but are often the best choice for classic brandy cocktails such as the Sidecar. Their flavor profile is generally dominated by dried fruits and flowers.
Napoleon – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged 10-20 years. From Napoleon on up, these Cognacs are meant only to be sipped. They begin having noticeable influences from the barrel and will taste of dried fruits and spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The Napoleon grade was introduced by Courvoisier and is more affordable than an XO.
XO (Extra Old) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged 20-35 years. The XO is the standard by which all Cognac houses are judged and is certainly the starting point for those looking for a ‘good’ cognac. Flavors vary substantially depending on the maker’s preference but are usually very rich with the taste of dried fruit and warm spices, to toffee, nuts, chocolate, and cigars.
Extra – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged 30-50 years. Extra cognacs are a cut above XO and are made from the special reserves of the house’s Paradise Cellar, where their finest eau de vie are stored. They are released each year in limited batches and usually come in handmade decanters adorned with precious metals. They possess a unique flavor that only comes out after about 40 years of aging which is known as ‘rancio’. The tastes can include notes of jasmine, iris, passion fruit, cigar box, vanilla, and earthy black truffle.
Hors d’Age(Without Age) – The top marque in any Cognac house, these are usually a blend of eau de vie aged 50-100 years and often even older. They are often made from private family reserves in very limited numbers. In most cases, once they are gone, they are gone for good. They come in handmade crystal decanters that are themselves valued at several hundred dollars. One cannot truly describe the taste of these cognacs. They are so complex that no two sips are the same. Rest assured though that what lies within is worth every penny!
Cognac is dominated by the ‘big four’ houses of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier and these are always solid choices, but there are many smaller houses that Cognac drinkers often like better.
When drinking it neat:
While brandy and Cognac are traditionally seen served in balloon snifters, today it is common to sip them from ‘tulip’ glasses. The colder a cognac is served, the more the spices and barrel flavors will dominate. Cognac warmed gently in the hand will taste less of alcohol and will bring forward the fruit flavors. The most important thing is to drink them in whatever fashion you like best.