Briefly put, Cognac is nothing but brandy. But, oh, how misleading is that little phrase 'nothing but'. Not for nothing is this fine spirit as well-known and widely appreciated the world over as champagne.
What is Cognac?
Like that other famous beverage, Cognac derives its name from the region in France that holds the exclusive legal right to use the word. And, also like champagne, calling it merely a type of 'burned wine' is to empty the term of meaning. For Cognac, if it is to be given its real due, is a divine spirit.
True enough the drink is made by humans on Earth. But they seem to have been guided by a light within that urged them to the highest level of ingenuity in the service of pleasure.
But before the poetry must come technique.
Cognac is made from a minimum of 90% grapes from the Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard varieties. These white wine grapes spring from the chalky soil, aided by wet winters and hot, dry summers. In this small region of southwestern France near the Charente River master vintners produce the base that will go into making Cognac.
That product is then squeezed and fermented like wine. But that is only the beginning. The liquid is then distilled in a copper pot still to raise the alcohol content and warm the blood of every Cognac lover on the planet. Most brandy, and Cognac is no exception, is around 40% alcohol by volume, or ABV. Some are as high as 80%, but it's questionable whether the product should have the same name in those cases.
The output then makes its way into Limousin oak casks, where it's aged for anywhere from two to 50 years or more. Like all spirits, and unlike wine, it ceases aging once bottled. Since the oak is porous, some air does gradually intrude. The mixture of oxygen and the distinctive chemistry of the wood lends to the brew a flavor that is incomparable.
One of the consequences of the aging process isn't just to let air in, though. It also evaporates out the other way, causing about 3% of the Cognac to dissipate over an aging period of 10 years. This loss of product is just one of the many sacrifices that fine Cognac makers make in order to produce this outstanding beverage. The master distillers are not bitter, though. The portion evaporated is lovingly known as 'the angels share'.
They know whereof they speak, since the drink they finish with truly deserves the moniker 'divine'. Those who buy it must agree, since they happily absorb the cost.
There is an especially elevated type known as Armagnac. Made by a very similar process, it hails from a region of the same name to the south in Gascony. The oldest type of brandy, it has been made here since the early 15th century. Limousin or Monlezun black oak may be used in the casks with results similar to Cognac.
One of the chief differences is that Cognac is double distilled, while Armagnac is single-continuous distilled. Aficionados, though, say that whereas Cognac is divine, Armagnac rules the universe.
In such a contest, there are no losers.