Widely considered the king of brandies, Cognac has long had an aura of being a contemplative, sophisticated, even luxurious, distilled spirit. Described by the great French poet and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) as “the liquor of the gods,” Cognac is a brandy made from wine distillate, produced exclusively in the Cognac region of southwestern France. Though getting harder to find here, there are still a few very nice kosher Cognacs available.
Cognac is distilled from white wine made using a handful of specific grapes common to the region. Most Cognacs are more than 90 percent ugni blanc, with smaller amounts of folle blanche or colombard — and sometimes also such varieties as folignan, jurançon blanc, meslier St-François, montils and sémillon.
Once fermented, the fresh wine is distilled — typically together with its lees — in regional alembic copper pot stills, called charentais. The distillate is then distilled again. The resulting eau-de-vie—or “water of life” — must be aged locally for at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais before it may eventually be called Cognac.
Cognac is traditionally created by blending eaux-de-vie of different ages and vineyards, and so most Cognacs do not bear age labels, but rather are categorized based on the minimum ages of the components in the blend.
The three most common legally defined categories of Cognac are V.S. or “Very Special” (in which the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least 2 years old; V.S.O.P. or “Very Special Old Pale” (the youngest part is at least 4 years old; may also say “Reserve”); and X.O. or “Extra Old” (a minimum age of 6 years old; since 2018 the minimum jumped to 10 years).
Despite being French, Cognac is apparently most enjoyed by foreigners. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), 97 percent of Cognac’s production is exported. The single largest market is the United States with 87.4 million bottles sold in 2018, followed by Singapore with 27.2 million bottles, and then China with 24.2 million bottles.
While I do certainly enjoy a snifter of brandy now and again, I’m still more inclined to use that same snifter for a good whisky all things being equal. A good Cognac cocktail, however, can be an unalloyed treat — and were all the rage here before Prohibition. Cognac cocktails have been making a steady comeback these last few years. Here is one of my favorites to try:
2 oz. Cognac
½ to 1 oz. cointreau (proportions vary to taste)
¾ to 1 oz. fresh lemon juice (proportions vary to taste)
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with hard, cracked ice and strain into a chilled glass. The exact proportions will differ depending on the quality and intensity of the Cognac being used — one of the kosher X.O.s would be my choice, like the Godet X.O., the Dupuy X.O., or the Louis Royer X.O. In the past, it would have been made with a V.S.O.P., but for contemporary Cognac production, an X.O. will give better results.
I should also note that this one is strictly for home use. First, no bar carries kosher Cognac. Far more importantly, however, even if they did they’d probably mess it up because this requires fine tuning to personal taste. It won’t take long to tinker, and the results will be well worth the effort. L’chaim!
Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].