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The lowdown on cognac

A well-heeled member of the brandy family, Cognac is the pricey spirit with the surprisingly broad fan base

The lowdown on cognac
Cognac bottles

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Cognac? The stuff that only old men and rappers are into?
Cognac certainly occupies an incongruous nexus — hitherto the drink of choice for older gentlemen in tweed, it was widely embraced by rappers such as Busta Rhymes and Jay Z, and subsequently seeped into urban culture. And it remains fashionable, with its growing popularity in both China and the US fuelling a massive export boom in French wines and spirits. In this healthy climate, cognac houses are experimenting — earlier this year, Renault Cognac launched a new variant specifically designed to be paired with coffee.
 
What’s the difference between brandy and cognac?
Time and place, in short. While all cognacs are brandies, not all brandies are cognacs, with the real deal being made according to very strict production methods and only in the Cognac region in western France. It’s made by double distilling white wine, primarily Ugni Blanc. The potent result is known as eau de vie (water of life), which is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. VS (Very Special) is a blend wherein the youngest brandy is at least two years old, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) at least four, and XO (Extra Old) at least six years. Hors d’age refers to cognacs that are literally off the scale, some being hundreds of years old. During the ageing process, the oak turns the liquid a rich amber colour, and the rough edges of the flavour profile are smoothed off. The result is a complex spirit with rich flavours of caramel, fruit and vanilla that tap-dance across the tongue. 
 
Do I have to sell all my possessions to afford a decent bottle?
Doing cognac properly is never going to be cheap. The strictures on provenance and production imposed on the 200-ish cognac producers in the world create high overheads and built-in rarity, so the air of exclusivity is intrinsic. The four main cognac houses — Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Rémy Martin — offer a broad spectrum of price points. A decent VS will start at about £30, while the best XOs stretch from hundreds to tens of thousands of pounds — an 1858 Cuvee Léonie sold for £112,500 at an auction in 2011.

Is there a right way to drink cognac?
There are plenty of divergent opinions. Neat or with ice, in a wine glass or in one of those gigantic balloon snifters, on its own or in a cocktail… It’s the perfect drink for indolent indulgence, whether you’re savouring it over the course of an evening as a reward for a promotion or taking solace after the worst day in the world. Unlike wine, cognac doesn’t age in the bottle, so there’s no bump in flavour or value to be gained from hoarding it. The time to drink it is now.

Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food