From Winston Churchill to Snoop Dogg, whether you’re rolling around Long Beach or defeating Hitler, it pays to know your XOs from your VSOPs. The world of cognac can be an intimidating one, filled as it is with esoteric nomenclature, so we’ll start with the basics. All cognac comes from a small and highly protected area of southwest France, so while it’s true to say that it is a type of brandy, not all brandies are cognacs. Among serious drinkers, calling a bottle of Hennessy XO a brandy will get you the same sort of looks that you’d get if you called Bollinger a “sparkling wine”.
There are four main cognac houses who dominate the world market:
Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. For the connoisseur, there’s also a wide range of small family-owned distilleries producing cognac to suit individual taste. Cognac is made by distilling wine for a second time to make a clear 70 per cent alcohol known as the “eau de vie” (French for “spirit”). This is then aged in oak barrels. As a general rule, the longer the spirit stays in the barrel the smokier and woodier the drink tastes. Cognac only ages while it’s in the barrel, so buying a 20-year-old bottle and putting it away at the back of a cupboard to “mature” is senseless. If you’ve got a bottle gathering dust somewhere, you’re better off just drinking it.
Of the most common cognac designations, VS (“Very Special”) is the youngest blend and will have been aged for at least two years in the barrel. VSOP (“Very Superior Old Pale”) has to have been aged for at least four years, but commonly it will be much longer.
XO (now commonly referred to as “Extra Old” but the symbols originally stood for “Age Unknown”) must have been aged for at least six years, but in reality tends to have been aged for around 20 years for the finest blends.
A cognac connoisseur will balk if you start diluting the older stuff, so if you’re looking to make cocktails we’d recommend going for a younger blend like the Courvoisier Exclusif, which has been specifically designed to capitalise on the brand’s surge popularity in clubs over the last decade. As you’d imagine, Busta Rhymes is a popular man in the south of France.
If you want a more traditional cognac, the sort of drink you can reach for to accompany a soul-bearing after-dinner conversation, then a good place to start is with a Hennessy XO. This is a strong, smoky drink with the classic cognac taste. If you’re looking for something more niche, then Delamain produce a true wine drinkers’ cognac. Aged only in barrels which have already been used to produce cognac many times in the past, the drink retains a fruity wine taste even as it ages to become an XO. Our personal favourite of the smaller distillers is the peerless Pierre Ferrand. If you want to really impress a cognac drinker, produce a bottle of Cognac Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges.
Once you’ve chosen your cognac, the only remaining question is how to drink it. Traditionally cognac should be savoured slowly, allowing time to enjoy the aroma, but as with somuch in life if you’re looking for something more adventurous then follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice.
They called this technique “Carburetion”, based on the science of an engine’s carburettor, and you’d imagine it must have raised just as many eyebrows in 1930s Havana as it did when we tried it in the sedate town of Cognac. However you drink it, if it’s good enough for Hemingway, Churchill and Snoop Dogg, then it’s got to be worth reaching for a cognac the next time you finish a moveable feast.