All About Cognac | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

All About Cognac

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L’Chaim delves into the Cognac-making process and shares his Sidecar recipe

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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 in the US, there are still a few very nice kosher Cognacs available on the market.

Legally, Cognac can only be made (meaning every step from grape to bottle) in the designated region of Cognac and in strict accordance with myriad regulations and established production methods. Cognac is distilled from white wine made using a handful of specific grapes common to the region. The primary varietal is Ugni Blanc known locally as St. Émilion, but better known internationally in its Italian guise as Trebbiano. Most Cognacs are over 90% 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 special regional alembic copper pot stills called Charentais. The distillate is then distilled a second time. 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 be called Cognac. In the region, the term eau-de-vie is also commonly used to designate Cognacs in their ageing process, prior to their bottling as Cognac. While not strictly mandatory, Cognac is traditionally created by blending eaux-de-vie of various different ages and vineyards; often dozens or hundreds of different components are assembled in the final blend.

Because of the typically wide range of ages for the component eaux-de-vie in the final Cognac, most Cognacs do not bear age labels, but rather are categorized based on the minimum ages of the components in the blend—though in practice most every Cognac house uses eaux-de-vie much older than the stated minimums.

The three most common legally defined categories of Cognac include: V.S. or Very Special (in which the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least two years old; it may also feature three stars on the label); V.S.O.P. or Very Special Old Pale (the youngest part is at least four years old; may also say Reserve); and X.O. or Extra Old (a minimum age of six years; since in 2018 the minimum jumped to 10 years). Despite being quintessentially French, Cognac’s age categories are in English, reflecting the historically heavy British involvement in the industry.

Also, despite being so very French, Cognac is apparently most enjoyed by foreigners. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the official trade organization for Cognac, 97.7% of Cognac’s production is exported to over 150 countries; 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, the next largest market—just to give a sense of the drop-off—is the UK at 9.7 million bottles sold in 2018.

Of those who enjoyed the 4.2 million bottles of Cognac sold in France in 2018, a healthy proportion seem to drink it the way we might drink gin or blended whisky—on the rocks, mixed with soda or tonic, or in a proper cocktail. BNIC offers no consumptions figures to further breakdown that 2.3% of their total sales to their domestic market, but they spend a seemingly large amount of space on their website offering serving suggestions beyond the popular—at least here in America—luxury image of simply serving it neat in a brandy snifter.

This is just as well, for 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 in the US pre-Prohibition. Cognac cocktails have been making a steady comeback too these last few years. Here is one of my favorites to try, it’s been around since the late 1910s so far as the published record goes, and when well made it simply astoundingly good:

The Sidecar

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