Cognac is certainly one of the most dignified, noble, and aristocratic alcoholic beverages around the world. The extraordinarily interesting history of the creation of cognac has been described more than a million times, but we want to be unique in our cognac article.
It has long been known that cognac originated quite accidentally in the small French town of Cogniac. However, strange as it may seem, practically on all websites devoted to cognac and other kinds of alcohol, this truly “great town” (despite its population of 20 thousand) is for some reason completely incorrectly called either a province or a department or even a region which is categorically wrong.
Perhaps these authors have simply never been in this nice and cozy town and are not exactly familiar with the peculiarities of France. In fact, Cogniac has long been part of the New Aquitaine region and is located in a department called: Charentes.
Once we know the origin story, it’s time to understand how is cognac made. To obtain cognac spirits, the wine is distilled twice on copper cubes-alambics. After distillation, the spirits are placed in French oak barrels (most often those grown in the forests of Limousin or Troncet). The process that follows takes several years and sometimes decades. During this time, the amount of alcohol, as well as its strength, decreases, and the spirits are saturated with a deep, noble flavor.
The strictest rules are applied to the French cognac, therefore each cask is duly sealed by authorized representatives of BNIC (National Bureau Interprofessionnel du Cognac) and locked in the cellars for a fixed period. Only a strictly limited number of people have access to it afterward. The decision as to the completeness of the aging of the spirits is made by the master of the cellars of the cognac house.
Most often, cognac is bottled as a blend – a mixture of spirits of different ages. Much more rarely, producers produce Single Barrel cognacs – from one barrel, millesimal and vintage varieties.
Cognac is made up of spirits of different ages and years of production and therefore, the specific vintage is rarely indicated on the label. Usually, grades of cognac are classified by the youngest spirits in the blend:
Before 2018, XO cognacs could include spirits aged 6 years and older, and the Napoleon class was considered unofficial. The decision to change the minimum age and legalize the additional category was because leading producers – such as Martell and Remy Martin – were using Eaux-de-vie of 10 years, and older in XO cognacs. Raising the age of XO and introducing the Napoleon category allowed the cognac houses to significantly expand their product lines legally.
All cognac spirits are aged in oak barrels, but even these can impart quite different flavor characteristics to a strong drink. This is not least because Limousin and Tronçais oak barrels are more porous: Limousin oak has a higher porosity and therefore oxidizes faster. It is not uncommon for tanks to be reused, provided no other non-wine spirits (whiskey, bourbon, etc.) have been stored in them.
The barrels used differ not only in age but also in volume. They are often much larger than American bourbon barrels. Most cognac producers give preference to barrels of 450 and 540 liters. The House of Hennessy keeps spirits in 270 and 350-liter barrels, but for special releases may use smaller volume barrels. For example, for the 250th anniversary of the cognac house, the spirits were aged in 250 liters containers.
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