To the average drinker, cognac is something reserved for special occasions and the ultra rich. The name alone conjures up powerful men in bespoke suits gathered around a fireplace twirling their mustaches and plotting hostile takeovers, or blinged-out rappers flush with cash and Courvoisier bought with the spoils of a new record deal. Either way, few consider it a drink for the “common man.” But, while some cognacs do have astronomical price tags, there are plenty of bottles perfect for a quiet evening at home with a movie and loved ones of legal drinking age.
Cognac is a form of brandy distilled in the region surrounding the aptly named town of Cognac – a small French city located a few hundred miles southwest of Paris. Oddly enough, given its luxuriant reputation, it was originally a drink fit only for the poor, developed as a way to make use of the dregs of the wine making process. The juice from these waste grapes made for fairly vile wine but was uniquely suited for distillation and aging. So into the still and barrels it would go and out would come a delicious but cheap liquor that the underclass could drown their sorrows in while the king's court guzzled wine by the gallon.
Now there are laws governing how, and where, true cognac can be produced. These laws lay out a very specific process, and distillers must not only follow the rules, but do so within one of the six designated cognac regions. These are Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, Bois Ordinaire, and Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne – with the most expensive and respected output coming from the Grande and Petit Champagne regions. Even the grapes producers are allowed to use are laid out within the legal definition of cognac, but all of these regulations add up to a storied product that's tough to improve upon.
To make cognac, producers set aside the juice from the waste grapes to naturally ferment for about two to three weeks. Using only the natural yeasts present in the air, and no added sugar, the fermentation process begins to convert the sugars in the juice to alcohol. After fermentation, the juice is distilled twice into an eau-de-vie (“water of life”). This liquid is approximately 70 percent alcohol, crystal clear and ready to be laid down into its oak barrel home for a minimum of two years, but often much longer than that. Cognac ages similarly to whiskey, so it gains its color from the cask and continues to mature for decades, concentrating flavors and picking up nuance while losing what's called the “angel's share” as the alcohol evaporates and seeps into the porous wood barrel.
It takes about four decades for true cognac to age down to the requisite 80 proof, but younger cognacs are blended and diluted to that point. That dilution means cognac is graded, and priced, according to its age, with a few special terms that denote high quality outside of aging. The grades include:
• VS – A blend of cognacs aged a minimum of two years in cask
• VSOP – A blend of cognacs aged a minimum of four years in cask
• XO – A blend of cognacs aged a minimum of six years in cask
• Vieille Réserve – Not an age mark, but a statement of quality for some of the most expensive bottles
• Hors d'âge – Similar to Vieille Réserve, it literally means beyond age and is reserved for bottles priced out of reach of most mortals.
So what's an average red-blooded American to do in order to experience the complexity of a good cognac and savor the rich sweetness of this heady spirit on a regular basis? It's not always easy to live life like Snoop Dogg on a working man's budget, but it's certainly possible. You won't be downing XO Hennessy with Kanye, or sharing a $2,000,000 bottle of century-old Henri IV Dudognon Heritage with the Trumps, but you can get a taste of the high life nonetheless.
Camus VS – At only $25 it's a steal. It's lighter than many cognacs and lacks the sheer complexity of an older bottle, but still exhibits some rich butterscotch flavors with an almost orange-like counterpoint. There's surprisingly little heat for such a young cognac, and it goes down all sorts of smooth. This is about as good a place to start with cognac as can be found at an affordable price.
Conjure Cognac – If, on the other hand, you do want to gain some street cred, it's worth seeking out Conjure, a cognac brand brought to the U.S. by none other than Ludacris himself. At $30 a bottle it's not quite the deal Camus is, but it has a ton of sweetness, with brown sugar and apples at the forefront. Where it falls a bit flat is the overpowering peppery smoke of the oak on the finish, throwing everything just slightly out of whack. But it's still tasty, and for big oak fans, it's a good place to be.
Hardy VS “Red Corner” – The most traditional cognac of the bunch with nice heft and body to it. Hardy is aged a minimum of five years and is ridiculously smooth for a $27 bottle of cognac. It's as if Billy Dee Williams in full Lando Calrissian cool mode was bottled and sold. It tends to be on the sweet side, but just manages to balance the mix out with a rich warmth that would do Billy Dee proud.