Cognac is associated with class and sophistication, but many people are unsure what it actually is. It is sipped like whiskey and has a similar appearance, but it is a completely different alcoholic beverage.
To help you understand this mysterious type of liquor, we have written this comprehensive guide to Cognac. Not only will we explain what Cognac is and how it differs from other types of liquor, but we will also explain what it is supposed to taste like, where it originates from, how it should be served, and much more!
Table of Contents
What Is Cognac?
To the surprise of many, Cognac is actually a specific type of brandy. This means that it is made from a unique variety of distilled grapes. Unlike other grape juice-based alcoholic beverages, like wine, Cognac is a distilled spirit, meaning it is a liquor type.
Where Is Cognac Made?
The key defining feature of Cognac, and the main reason it is different from other types of brandy, is where and how it is made.
All Cognac is made in France. More specifically, it comes from the Cognac region of France, located in the southwest of the country. The region is near Bordeaux, which explains why it has the ideal soil and climate conditions for the cultivation of grapes.
The location where Cognac is made is incredibly important. In fact, according to French law, a bottle of Cognac can only be labeled Cognac if it is made in the Cognac region of the country. This means you could distill your own version of the beverage using the same ingredients and methods, but if you made it outside of the Cognac region of France, it would not be Cognac.
This is similar to Champagne – regardless of whether it’s grand Champagne or petit Champagne – which must be made in the Champagne region of France, or how Scotch whisky needs to be distilled in Scotland to be considered Scotch.
What Kind of Liquor Is It?
Cognac is a specific type of brandy. As a variety of brandy, Cognac is distilled from a unique combination of wine and a fermented fruit match. Since it is distilled, Cognac and other types of brandy are classified as liquors rather than liqueurs.
What Is Cognac Made Of?
Cognac is produced from the distillation of a white wine, which means that it is made from grape juice. The specific type of grapes used to make Cognac are very dry and acidic, which does not sound very pleasant, but the unique aging process helps improve the flavor.
The exact varieties of grapes used in the white wine that Cognac is distilled from can vary from one Cognac brand to the next, but they must be from a specific list of legally recognized Cognac grapes.
How Is Cognac Made?
As mentioned above, Cognac is made from pressed white wine grapes. The juice is then left to ferment for two to three weeks with wild yeast varieties native to the region where Cognac is made.
The wild yeasts convert grape juice and other fruit sugars into alcohol during this process. Unlike certain types of wine, sugar cannot be added during the fermentation process. Once fermentation has occurred, the resulting wine is then distilled using traditional copper stills. The design and exact dimensions of the copper pots used to distill the Cognac are legally controlled.
Following distillation, the resulting spirit has a strength of roughly 70% ABV, but it is completely colorless. From here, the spirit must be aged in a specific type of French Limousin oak cask for at least two years.
After it has been properly aged, it can then be bottled and sold as Cognac.
How Do You Pronounce Cognac?
Since Cognac is a French word, it is not pronounced as it is spelled in English. The ‘G’ in the word is entirely silent. Just like you do not pronounce the ‘G’ in the word Champagne, you should not do so when saying the word Cognac.
To say Cognac properly, it should sound almost like you are saying “Kawn – yak.”
To hear the word pronounced phonetically, you can watch the following short video clip – How to Pronounce Cognac.
What Is the Difference Between Cognac and Brandy?
The two main differences between Cognac and brandy are the type of juice being distilled and the region where it is made. While brandy has looser restrictions on the types of fruit juices that can be distilled, Cognac must be made from specific types of white grapes.
As mentioned, Cognac must also be made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. In addition to where it is made and the types of juices being distilled, other qualifications must be met for a brandy to be considered Cognac.
Not only must it be distilled a certain way using specific types of copper stills and aged in specific types of barrels, it even has to be distilled between October 1 and March 31.
So, while Cognac is technically a type of brandy, the regulations are stringent, and the French Government vigorously protects the label “Cognac.”
For a more detailed breakdown of the differences between Cognac and brandy, consider reading Liquor Laboratory’s guide – What’s the Difference Between Brandy and Cognac?
Types of Cognac
Cognac can be fairly confusing for those unfamiliar with the different types. While it may seem somewhat confusing, most classifications are determined according to the age of the liquor before it is bottled.
The following is a basic breakdown of the different types:
- VS Cognac – VS Cognac, or Very Special Cognac, is aged for at least two years. It is the youngest variety of Cognac. Since it has been aged in French oak barrels for less time than other varieties, it has a lighter, yellow color rather than a rich brown or amber color.
- VSOP Cognac – VSOP Cognac, or Very Special Old Pale Cognac, is aged for at least four years and has a richer flavor profile than younger Cognacs. This makes it more suitable for enjoying on ice or as an ingredient in cocktails.
- XO Cognac – XO Cognac, or Extra Old Cognac, is aged for at least ten years, so it has a complex flavor profile. It is best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
- XXO Cognac – XXO Cognac is aged over 14 years, so it tends to be expensive and flavorful.
- Napoleon Cognac – Napoleon Cognac is technically a VSOP Cognac aged at least six years. The variety takes its name from the iconic French Emperor and is said to be the exact type of Cognac he enjoyed the most.
For a more thorough description of the various types of Cognac, including information about their flavor profiles and top brands for each type, visit The Cognac Expert’s informative guide – Types of Cognac.
Louis XIII Cognac
Louis XIII Cognac is a type of Cognac made by Rémy Martin. It is widely considered the most unique and sophisticated type of spirit in the world, which explains its incredibly expensive price tag.
It is made from a blend of up to 1,200 types of Cognac aged between 40 and 100 years! It is so sought after that a single 750ml bottle of Louis XIII is usually priced at around $4,000. In fact, it is so valuable that counterfeit bottles are often made to defraud potential buyers!
As a result, it has become a true status symbol that is associated with wealth and sophistication.
What Does Cognac Taste Like?
The exact taste and aroma of a glass of Cognac will depend on the age of the specific Cognac that is being enjoyed. Most people agree that the older a bottle is, the better it will taste.
With that being said, most people describe the flavor of Cognac as a combination of the following: vanilla, prunes, caramel, orange peels, apricots, and, of course, grapes. With that said, the unique barrel-aging process even gives off hints of oak.
The oldest varieties of Cognac tend to have a spicier flavor profile, with many believing they taste cinnamon and chocolate.
The truth is, the taste is incredibly complex, which explains why the exact recipes and manufacturing processes are so carefully protected.
What Does Cognac Smell Like?
Cognac tends to have complex aromas, as well as complex flavors. According to several scientific studies on Cognac, precisely 230 different aromas can be detected when smelling the different types of Cognac.
In simpler terms, the smell is often described as a blend of fruity and floral, although some say it even has a coffee-like smell.
What Color Is Cognac?
The exact color of a Cognac will depend on the age and brand, but most tend to have an earthy color profile, meaning they have rich, reddish-brown hues. It has a whiskey-like appearance, which is why many people assume brandy and Cognac are actually types of whiskey rather than entirely separate types of liquor.
How Much Alcohol Is in Cognac?
Cognac has an alcohol content of 40% ABV. That said, the strength can vary slightly, with some brands being weaker and others stronger.
Some Cognacs are labeled as “cask strength,” which are evaporated to leave a much stronger final product. These can range in alcohol content between 50% and 60% ABV.
How Many Calories Are In It?
Since Cognac is made from grapes, it has a similar calorie count to wine before it is distilled. However, the higher alcohol content means that the calories are actually higher per serving than wine, with most 1.5 oz servings of Cognac having 105 calories.
How Many Carbs Does It Have?
Cognac has zero grams of total carbs per 1.5 oz serving. This means it adheres to a ketogenic diet.
How Much Sugar Does It Have?
While natural sugars are present in grapes used to make Cognac, by law, it cannot be made with added sugars. The approximate sugar content is 1.5 grams per liter, which means a single 1.5 oz serving contains significantly less than one gram of sugar!
How to Serve Cognac
Cognac should be served in a short tulip glass to enjoy the complex taste and aroma best. The curved shape of the glass should funnel the rich aromas to the top of the glass. It should also be served at room temperature, but it is okay to offer guests ice cubes.
How to Drink Cognac
Cognac can be enjoyed straight, especially if it is one of the older varieties. It does not have to be served chilled or on ice. In fact, some believe it is better to drink it at room temperature, as the flavors are less dulled. Some people like to add a trace amount of water to the glass, just like you would add still water to Scotch whisky to help open the drink up.
Before taking a drink, it should be swirled and sniffed, as this allows you to really appreciate the unique aroma.
You also have the option to mix Cognac as an ingredient in a range of cocktails and mixed drinks.
What Do You Mix with Cognac?
While it is best enjoyed on its own, you can add numerous mixes to Cognac to completely alter the flavor. Ginger ale, cola, bitters, lemonade, sweet vermouth, and even white wine all mix quite well with this liquor.
Where to Buy Cognac
While it needs to be made in a specific region of France, Cognac can be purchased just about anywhere. Most liquor stores will carry at least a few different types, so you should be able to visit any local store.
You can use our Liquor Store Locator Tool to find your closest liquor store!
Typical Cost of Cognac
Perhaps more than any other type of liquor, the cost varies widely. The most expensive bottles cost thousands of dollars, while cheaper versions range between $35 and $50.
For a basic VS Cognac, you should be able to purchase a 750 ml bottle for about $37.
How Long Does Cognac Last?
If Cognac is stored correctly and left unopened, it has an indefinite shelf life, meaning it will last forever! With that said, it may lose some of its flavors if it is left on a shelf for excessive time, meaning over five years.
If the bottle has been opened, it should be consumed within six months to one year, as exposure to oxygen can cause it to lose its unique flavor and aroma much faster.
How to Store
Cognac should be stored upright, so it does not soak the cork. You should also keep the bottle away from direct sunlight, which can negatively impact the quality. Avoid storing bottles near heat sources, as they should be kept at a constant temperature.