scorecardresearch
Download the latest issue of Business Today Magazine just for Rs.49
Cognac is elusive. Here’s everything you need to know about the classic alcoholic drink

Cognac is elusive. Here’s everything you need to know about the classic alcoholic drink

Expensive, French and usually seen glistening on the top shelves of bars, cognac is elusive. Here's everything you need to know about the classic spirit

Cognac is a specific type of brandy Cognac is a specific type of brandy

Victor hugo of Les Miserables fame described cognac as ‘the liquor of the gods’. So what makes the amber liquid so special to be given such an exalted status? “Cognac is distilled white wine which is then aged for years. Sometimes for decades, as is the case for Louis XIII. It comes only from the Cognac region in Southwest France,” says Malo Le Mestre, Brand Ambassador in India for Louis XIII, one of the world’s most exclusive cognac brands.

The history of cognac stretches back to the 1600s. The story goes that it was the Dutch who wanted to carry wine from France to the Netherlands. But it did not travel well. So they decided to distil it. At first it was distilled only once, probably to keep it as close to wine. However, they soon figured that double distillation created a far smoother drink. And so was formed ‘brandwijn’ or burnt wine or what we today call brandy. The French then further refined the process. While all cognac is brandy, not all brandy is cognac, similar to how all champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is champagne. The French seem to have a fascination for such things.

Hennessy’s most coveted cognac is the limited edition Richard Hennessy
Hennessy’s most coveted cognac is the limited edition Richard Hennessy

So what is cognac exactly? Cognac is an exclusive type of brandy produced from distilled white wine made from white grapes from three varietals grown in Cognac: Colombard, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc (with a large majority being made from Ugni Blanc). It must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills, and aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The distillation results in what is called eau-de-vie (or water of life). “Regardless of age, eaux-de-vie remain known as such until they’re blended together. The blending, therefore, is a key factor that takes myriad eaux- de-vie and turns them collectively into an exclusive blend such as the Louis XIII,” says Le Mestre. “The challenge that the cellar master has is to recreate that exact blend from 1874 (when the first decanter of Louis XIII was released). The whole complexity is to recreate something knowing that your raw material will vary from one year to another, depending on the grapes growing and weather conditions every year,” he adds. Louis XIII is made from a blend of up to 1,200 individual eaux-de-vie, using grapes grown in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac, making it an extremely complex drink. Little wonder, this very special cognac named after the 17th-century French King—who was the first French monarch to recognise cognac as a category of brandy in its own right—is one of the most expensive cognacs sold, with a decanter priced at Rs 3.50 lakh in Delhi.

Martell, the oldest continually operational cognac brand, has a history stretching back to 1715
Martell, the oldest continually operational cognac brand, has a history stretching back to 1715

Some of the largest cognac brands formed pretty early. Martell, the oldest continually operational cognac brand, has a history stretching back to 1715; Rémy Martin came into play in 1724; and Hennessy in 1765. Courvoisier is the “newest” on the scene. It started production in the Cognac region only in 1828.

Today, Hennessy, part of the LVMH group, is by far the largest distiller, accounting for roughly 69 per cent of global sales volume according to Statista. It is followed by Martell (part of Pernod Ricard), Rémy Martin (from family-owned business group Rémy Cointreau) and Courvoisier (part of Beam Suntory). The global cognac market is valued at $5.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $10.2 billion by 2032, growing at a CAGR of 6.4 per cent from 2022 to 2032, as per market research company Fact MR.

Hennessy’s most coveted cognac is the limited edition Richard Hennessy, named after the army man who built the Maison Hennessy. Offered in a hand-blown decanter in Baccarat crystal, the blend is made from some of the scarcest eaux-de-vie in Hennessy’s reserves. A decanter is priced for Rs 5 lakh in Gurugram and Rs 5.46 lakh in Mumbai.

The exclusive Louis XIII is priced at Rs 3.50 lakh in Delhi
The exclusive Louis XIII is priced at Rs 3.50 lakh in Delhi

Unlike whisky that has an age statement depending upon how many years it has been aged in the cask, cognac has differing grades, shown by V.S, V.S.O.P, X.O, etc. V.S., or Very Special, is a cognac that has been aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Very Superior Old Pale, V.S.O.P., is an older cognac—its youngest eaux-de-vie being aged for a minimum of four years—and is paler in colour compared to the V.S. Finally, the X.O. or Extra Old, designates a blend that has been aged for a minimum of ten years. Earlier this was six years but in 2018, new classifications came into place.

Cognac has a lesser-known cousin—armagnac—produced in the Armagnac region of southwest France. While cognac is distilled twice, armagnac is distilled once. Since most of the cognac is exported—with the US and China being the biggest markets—it is more popular than armagnac that is consumed primarily in France.

So how should cognac be enjoyed? “While traditionally cognac was considered a digestif and was primarily had post meals, in the past decade or so it has become more of an aperitif,” says Magandeep Singh, a Delhi-based beverage consultant. “Just like you can have a whisky before a meal, you can also have a cognac before a meal,” he adds. Singh says that even in cocktails, any cocktail made traditionally with a brown spirit, can be made with cognac. Of course, there are cognac-specific cocktails such as Sidecar—with orange liqueur, lime juice and cognac.

“If you are to mix a cognac with tonic or soda or use it in a cocktail, I suggest go with a V.S. It blends well,” advises Singh. However, if you are having an X.O or anything higher, Singh suggests having it on its own. “Those are so rare and such beautiful spirits that you should have it on its own rather than share attention with anything else,” he says. “It’s like if you had a Picasso or a [M.F.] Husain, you would hang it on the wall all by itself, giving it space, instead of crowding it with 20 less significant pictures,” Singh says, comparing the best of the cognac with high-end art.

With a slight nip in the air and the onset of winter in most parts of the country, maybe it is time to sip some cognac.

@smitabw