At some point, we as bartenders can expect to be asked, "What is the difference between Cognac & Brandy?" To which the bartender usually responds by simply stating, "Cognac comes from France." Although this reply is quite correct, it does very little to differentiate the superiority of Cognac from ordinary brandy. It would be close to impossible to explain Cognac in just one page, but this spirit deserves the attempt.
Brandy can only be labeled as Cognac if it is produced in the designated growing areas in the Charentes region of France. This Cognac region, just north of Bordeaux in Western France, is named after the Charentes River that runs through it. Cognac is produced from three main grape varietals: Ugni Blanc, Colombard & Folle Blanche. It is not only the acidic characteristics of these grapes that make them ideal for distilling into Cognac, but the conditions under which they are grown. We'll begin by looking closer at the grape-growing region of Cognac.
The area is divided into what closely resembles a bulls-eye target.
The Grand Champagne section is in the center, practically surrounded by the Petite Champagne district as well as the Borderies district.
These areas are surrounded by the Fins Bois district, which in turn is surrounded by the Bons Bois district. Outside of this area is the Bois Ordinaires district. Needless to say, the finest Cognacs are produced at the center of the bulls-eye, the Grand Champagne district (which, incidentally, is where Cognac the town is located). This center area has chalky soil rich in calcium carbonate. As you reach the outer areas, the soil contains more clay and sand. The soil, the average annual temperature of 56 degrees, and the climatic influence of the Charentes River all contribute to the perfect growing conditions of the aforementioned grapes. The harvest begins in late September, and the fermentation process takes up to three weeks because there is no chaptilization (added sugar), chemicals, or added acid allowed. These additives unnaturally speed the fermentation process, as is the practice with lesser brandies. Now it's time for distillation, which by law must be done in the time-consuming, labor-intensive copper pot stills. Double distillation is also mandated. Cognac also has legal oak-aging requirements that will determine whether a Cognac will be VS, VSOP, XO, etc.
What impresses me most is not only how long a Cognac is aged, but how it is aged. The wood for barrel production comes from the indigenous Troncais and/or Limousin oak trees that are 80-100 years old. The staves are then dry-aged outdoors for 1-3 years. Think about that for a minute, the wood alone is very often aged longer than some ordinary brandies are aged in total! The "cellars" for storing Cognac are actually above the ground, keeping the barrels closer to the same conducive conditions that the grapevines undergo.
Barrels are rotated as needed from the highest levels of the cellar where it is drier and warmer, to the lowest levels, where the nearby Charentes River keeps it cooler and damper. It takes 15-25 years of aging in this environment for Cognac to reach the much-desired state of "Rancio." This term, ironically translates as "rancid," but on the nose and palate, it translates to perfection. This is what makes Cognac the king of all brandies and keeps the price tag above all other spirits. Beware of the $6.00 bottle of brandy. Not only did they skip a few steps, they probably skipped all of them. As for other worldly brandies that emulate Cognac and follow the exact methods of production, not only do I not blame them, I applaud them.
So the next time someone asks you, "What's the difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Ford Taurus? " Try to resist the simple response, "A Mercedes is made in Germany."
This is a signature cocktail of The World Bar at Trump World Tower on Manhattan's east side:
THE WORLD'S COCKTAIL
Equal parts (1/2 oz. each):
Remy XO, Pineau des Charentes, freshly pressed grape juice, fresh squeezed lemon juice,
and simple syrup.
Shake and strain into a chilled Champagne flute and top with Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Garnish the cocktail with a float of liquid gold.