DISCOVERING COGNAC

Cognac has always held a special place in my heart. Not only is it located in one of my favourite parts of France ( just a hop, skip and a jump from Bordeaux) but for me Cognac is one of the most unique and special spirits out there. Each sip tells an evocative story with a unique balance of fruit, wood, and alcohol that is quite unlike any other spirit on earth.

Once considered a stuffy spirit for old- school drinkers, Cognac has certainly had its image problems over the years. However, things are changing, with an ever-younger consumer base lured in through inventive cocktails and flashy bottles, and celebrity hip-hop stars lining up to endorse their favourite brands.

The History of Cognac

Cognac as we know it today started life in the 16th century, when Dutch settlers in the Charente region in the south-west of France discovered a penchant for the area’s wines. Drinking them in situ was one thing; but transporting them home to the Netherlands was a different matter entirely, with significant risk of the low-alcohol, unfortified wines suffering during the long sea voyages which were the only method of transport at that point. Ever the innovators, the Dutch employed the art of distilling to fortify the wines for their travels – originally, this took place when the wines arrived at port in Holland, and created a spirit known as brandewijn (‘burnt wine’).

As demand grew, the Dutch installed copper stills in France itself and added a second distillation to the process which improved the basic eau-de-vie and created a smooth, rich alcohol that kept the flavour of the original wine without sacrificing ease of drinking. This spirit was stored in wooden casks made from the nearby forests in Limousin, and the Dutch inadvertently discovered that their new creation improved with time spent in these barrels thanks to shipping delays! This combination of pioneering distillation methods and serendipity was the genesis of Cognac, with the first dedicated Cognac house (Augier) established in 1643.

Creating a Cognac

Like Champagne, Cognac must be produced in a specific geographic area of France, which is sub-divided into six regions or crus; Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne (not to be confused with the sparkling wine region of northeastern France!), Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. This has remained the same since France released a Decree which defined the region on 1st May 1909.

The difference in soil types across the six crus results in significant differences in the quality of grapes produced. The most prized soils are ancient Cretacean chalk, which, coincidentally, are very similar to the best soils of the Champagne region! The most respected and sought-after crus are the Grand Champagne, which boasts the purest chalk, and Petit Champagne and Borderies, which offer growers a host of chalk-limestone soil combinations and gently rolling hills.

Whilst any type of fruit can be used for once-distilled brandy, the much more refined, twice-distilled Cognac can only be made from a short list of white grape varieties; primarily Ugni Blanc, with much smaller proportions of others such Folle Blanche and Colombard. In fact, Ugni Blanc (an Italian grape which you may know better by its original name, Trebbiano) accounts for 98% of the region’s vineyards and is favoured by producers due to its high yields, high, fresh acidity and naturally low alcohol, a combination which works perfectly for Cognac production.

As a region, Cognac is home to more than 4,000 growers across just over 83,000 hectares of vineyards supplying some 2,000 distillers and 265 Cognac houses, which include the region’s most legendary brands. This is no small operation – in fact, this 83,000 hectares accounts for an enormous 10% of the total French vineyard area! The region is big for a reason. When twice-distilled, 10 litres of white wine makes just one litre of Cognac, so quantity as well as quality is very important here. The traditional system sees the eaux-de-vie of small farmhouse operators purchased by larger houses, from the massive names to boutique producers. And whilst in recent years the smaller, artisanal brands have become fashionable with consumers looking for a story, the ‘big four’ brands, Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier, continue to dominate, producing a whopping nine out of ten bottles consumed worldwide (97.2% of all Cognac produced is consumed outside of France) and providing some of the most fundamental building blocks of any respectable drinks trolley.

 

Behind the Label

There are various quality levels and classifications of Cognac, with a healthy number of different labels to go along with them (see the helpful chart below which explores these in more detail!) but there are a few fundamental principles to which all Cognac producers must adhere.

Cognac must undergo two distillations, a key part of the process which sets it apart from the majority of other spirits in this category – Armagnac and all other brandies are only distilled once. The second distillation is what produces the high-quality eau-de-vie which is then blended, aged, and released when the producer deems it ready.

In fact, the vast majority of Cognacs are blends, composed by the cellar master from an eau-de-vie library of various ages and origins to create a final Cognac that is beautifully balanced, complex and consistent. Finally, distilled water is added to dilute the spirit to the desired strength, which is usually 40% ABV.

UNDERSTANDING THE LABEL

LABEL

MEANING

DETAIL

V.S

Very Special

The youngest eau- de-vie is aged for a minimum of 2 years

V.S.O.P

Very Special Old Pale

The youngest eau- de-vie is aged for a minimum of 4 years

X.O

Extra Old

The youngest eau- de-vie is aged for a minimum of 10 years

X.X.O

Extra Extra Old

The youngest eau- de-vie is aged for a minimum of 14 years

Pass the Courvoisier

At first glance, it’s perhaps hard to believe that Cognac (a sleepy rural commune in southwestern France) has such a strong connection to the world of hip-hop. However, any music lover worth their salt will know that Cognac is in fact a darling of the rap music industry and is regularly name checked by some of the world’s most famous musicians from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z.

Rapper Nas has recently collaborated with Hennessy to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop.

From the early 1990s onwards, the ‘bling’ era of rap saw American artists in particular writing music that focused on luxury, wealth and excess, with the consumption of Cognac (the preferred beverage of the rich and the royal) becoming one of the symbols of this hedonistic lifestyle. Jay-Z’s 1991 track ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’ was the first to name a particular brand with the lyric ‘sipping Rémy on the rocks, my crew’; and with this, hip- hop’s blingy love affair with an old-money French aristocrat had truly begun.

Over a decade later, the year 2002 saw the release of Busta Rhymes’ ‘Pass the Courvoisier Part II’, a collaboration with P. Diddy and Pharrell which celebrated hip- hop’s love of luxury with lines such as ‘rockin the fur coat … diamonds light up the block’ and, of course, ‘pass the Courvoisier’. The video for this song is unashamedly decadent and features lashings of Courvoisier being enjoyed at every turn. Statistics would later show that this song alone had a tangible effect on spirits sales in the US, with some estimates claiming that ‘Pass the Courvoisier’ boosted sales of Courvoisier alone by as much as 30%.

To this day, the most celebrated Cognac producers are a fixture of hip-hop culture in a long-term partnership that has ultimately proved incredibly beneficial – and lucrative – for both parties, with international Cognac sales receiving huge boosts and rappers and stars regularly becoming brand ambassadors and even owners of Cognac houses. Jay-Z is the founder and co-owner, alongside drinks leviathan Barcardi, of luxury brand D’USSÉ (in early 2023, he sold a sizeable part of his stake back to Bacardi in a deal reportedly worth a cool $750 million) whilst 50 Cent produces a Grand Champagne Cognac in a joint venture with French liquor producer Branson Cognac. Kayne West, meanwhile, is a huge fan of Hennessy and it has been reported that he keeps a Hennessy and Coke machine backstage to quench his thirst at concerts … in fact, in the hours before his infamous onstage interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Awards, West had been swigging from an open bottle of Hennessy on the red carpet!

So, to conclude. My simple message is that it’s time to dig out that old Cognac bottle from the back of your drinks cabinet, dust it off and give it the new lease of life it deserves. In my experience, you’ll rarely be disappointed. It might even be the start of a new and lifelong love affair.


Cecily’s Favourite Bottles

THE LAST DROP 1925 GRANDE CHAMPAGNE COGNAC

One of my greatest tasting experiences of all time was thanks to The Last Drop Distillers and their 1925 Grande Champagne Cognac, which I tasted alongside a 100-year-old Pinneau des Charentes at the same estate (also fabulous) in the company of industry veteran and great friend Ben Howkins. One incredible single cask was acquired and bottled by my friends at The Last Drop, having been concealed behind a hastily built wall during the Second World War as the Nazis advanced and forgotten until it was uncovered nearly 80 years later by a member of the family doing some renovation work. This is quite simply the best Cognac I’ve ever tasted. They just don’t make them like this anymore and I cannot find a single word to do this incomparable spirit the justice it deserves. If you ever become one of the fortunate few to acquire a bottle … never let it go.

MAISON PRUNIER, TRES VIELLE GRANDE CHAMPAGNE COGNAC

This is a magnificent example of how to blend great old Cognac. Rich, complex, yet elegant. Ticks all of the boxes for me and at a relatively affordable price. No drinks cabinet should be without it.

HERMITAGE 1975 GRANDE CHAMPAGNE COGNAC

I love what Hermitage Cognacs do. This is superb, distilled at an undisclosed Cognac house and bottled independently by Hermitage. Expect spicy notes such as cloves, turmeric, thyme and rosemary, with a sprinkle of macadamia nuts. Seriously moreish.

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