Wearing a lush robe to sip cognac is optional. But it's highly encouraged. It just puts you in the right mindset for enjoying the velvety spirit and most famous variety of brandy. People don't raise their voices while holding snifters, but if you find yourself in a very civilized argument about brandy vs cognac, here are the key differences. Cognac is a spirit created from distilled wine, making it a form of brandy. But, like champagne, cognac must be made in the area around the town of Cognac, France. Once it's distilled twice in copper pot stills, it's transferred to oak barrels for aging.
Know Your Roots:
Just as sparkling wine isn't Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France, true cognac is made in the area in or around Cognac. It's a small commune (not the hippie-infested type, but France's version of a township) with a population of about 20,000. Cognac is on the river Charente and, commercially, got its start when King Francis I granted them the right to trade salt along the river. As any successful businessperson knows, salt trading naturally leads to wine trading, which evolves into brandy production.
What's in a Name?
When it comes to cognac, everything! To receive the coveted cognac designation, the spirit must be created using strict guidelines. It begins with white wine that's produced from special grapes grown in the Cognac region. Next, small portions are double-distilled in copper pot stills. Finally, it's transferred to oak barrels and aged anywhere from two to two hundred years. (Kidding aside, many cognac houses still have barrels dating back to the 19th century waiting to be blended and finished by their cellar masters. It's serious stuff.)
How High is Your Top Shelf?
Cognac falls into three basic categories. VS (Very Special) is aged at least two years. VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) must be aged at least four years. XO (Extra Old) is aged for six years or more. If you're wondering why these designations aren't in French, it's mainly because the Irish and the British were the main consumers and producers of the spirit. They put their extensive knowledge of whiskey distillation to work, and thus cognac was born.
Generally, the older a cognac is, the smoother the finish. This is why older cognacs are best served neat, in a snifter. Younger cognacs are excellent for mixing. Some of the more common (if anything involving cognac can be called "common") mixed drinks include the Sidecar, the Mata Hari, the Vieux Carré and the French 75.
If you're looking to pair your cognac with food, killer combinations can be found by exploring such edibles as cheese, chocolate and mushrooms. These highly savory and complex flavors match well with the equally intriguing cognac.