5 Things I’ve Learned About…Cognac

The December 31, 2010 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Cognac.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.

Here’s what I learned in the course of tasting through 20-something different bottles of Cognac, a task which I have to admit, truly did not suck:

1.  Cognac comes from the Cognac region of France. Otherwise, it’s just brandy.

2.  The alphabet stew of classifications – VS, VSOP, XO – can be confusing. VS means Very Special, with the youngest eau de vie in the blend no less than two years old. VSOP means Very Old Superior Pale, with the youngest eau de vie at least four years old. XO means extra old, with the youngest eau de vie at least six years old. Most of the Cognac sold in the U.S. is either VS or VSOP.

3.  Rancio!  It’s a delightfully weird umami-type flavor found exclusively in some aged Cognacs. It reminded me of funky aged cheeses, in the best possible way.

4.  Cognac is the drink of choice for the kings of rap and hip-hop, many of whom back or tout the spirit.  Frankly, this trend has helped revive sales in the category. (Remember the 2001 hit “Pass the Courvoisier”? According to BusinessWeek, sales of Courvoisier skyrocketed 20% after its release.)

5.  There’s got to be another word for “caramel.”  I ran into this same issue with Bourbon and rye reviews. Here’s the thing:  one lovely side effect of barrel-aging is that it produces a brown color and a caramel-like aroma. But it’s lazy writing to describe every spirit as “caramel,” and it ignores all the nuances. So I’m trying to push harder on what exactly that scent and flavor really resembles. Is it really a milky caramel? Or is it toffee, maybe even burnt toffee? Vanilla? (vanilla and caramel seem really similar, until you smell them side by side.) More like honey, or even figs, cloves or flowers?  I’m starting to keep flavor adjective lists, just like when I wrote about stocks, and I had a list of different ways describe how the market rose or fell – edged lower, or plummeted? There’s a big difference. So I tried to discern during the Cognac tastings:  is that a subtle caramel note, or a big honking wall of vanilla?

If you have a favorite Cognac, cocktail featuring Cognac, or even just a helpful synonym for “caramel,” I’d love for you to share it.  I really enjoyed the lively debate over the Absinthe post a few weeks back!


9 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned About…Cognac

  1. I think I kicked off the absinthe comments last time, so I’ll throw something out there again.

    It’s interesting to me how many connections between cognac and cologne there are (as Kara knows, my blog covers both spirits and fragrances). I recently wrote about a luxury fragrance brand called By Kilian, which was started a few years ago by Kilian Hennessy, heir to the Hennessy cognac fortune. Courvoisier licensed its name to an upscale men’s cologne a few years ago (it wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure if it’s still around), building equally on the brand’s hip hop and luxury credentials. And Frapin, the French cognac company that traces its roots back to the year 1270, launched a fine fragrance line in 2002.

    At the Holiday Spirits Bazaar in Brooklyn last month, I sampled the full range of Bache Gabrielsen cognacs. This is an odd brand: it was founded in 1905 by a Norwegian naval officer who married the daughter of a French cognac producer. Apparently it’s big in Norway. The 3 Kors cognac (about $24) was quite drinkable and makes good cocktails. The Hors d’Age Grande Champagne Cognac (about $200) was amazing — particularly after trying a succession of increasingly finer cognacs.

    I’ve been making cognac sazeracs lately with the bottle of Bache Gabrielsen 3 Kors cognac I bought, and they are delicious. After all, cognac was apparently the original ingredient in the cocktail before phylloxera made Americans switch to whiskey as their primary spirit.

    Question: Is Armagnac to Cognac what Mezcal is to Tequila?

    • Harry, thanks for sharing this wonderful insight! So…did any of those colognes smell anything like Cognac?

      PS: Cognac Sazeracs? wow.

      • Did the cognac-inspired colognes actually smell like cognac? It’s funny, but not exactly. I mean, no one would want to smell like a full night of drinking, right? The woody and (uh oh, here we are with that vocabulary problem you mentioned) caramel notes can appear in such fragrances, but there are often so many other elements that cognac is still just an “inspiration,” and not a direct relation.

        When Bombay Sapphire came out with their Infusion fragrance, created by a well-regarded perfumer, it smelled enough like their gin to be called Bombay Sapphire, but not so much that you’d be embarassed to wear it around your parents.

        But back to that vocabulary issue, this is the toughest part of writing about anything so sensual. Smells and tastes are really fleeting. Capturing them so that you don’t sound like you’re making stuff up is really difficult, and I’ve found that far too many bloggers in the fragrance world resort to very personal imagery and sense memories that paint beautiful pictures but do little to help readers.

        One of the keys, as wine classes and tastings emphasize, is trying hard to describe what you’re tasting (and smelling), and talking about it with others to make sure your “earthy” and my “earthy” are at least in the same ballpark.

  2. Yo Kara!

    It’s funny that you just put up an article about Cognac. I was “studying” a Glenlivet 15 last night which was finished in new French Limousin Oak barrels. After doing a bit of research, I came to discover that Limousin Oak is used exclusively to age Cognac. I was wondering why I was picking up a brandy aroma! Weird coincidence or is this the Blogosphere’s way of telling me to pick up some brandy?

    I’m having the same problem with adjectives (#5 above). I keep coming back to the same few descriptors when it comes time to do a beer or whisky review. In my defense, I’ve only been messing with this booze writing stuff for less than a year. You don’t appreciate what a professional writer can do until you try to do it yourself. Only time will tell if I get any better. In the meantime… pour me another drink and let’s talk about it! 🙂

    As far as Cognac cocktails, I had a Sidecar last winter at Keen’s Steakhouse. Excellent drink!

    Happy New Year!

    • Yo back!

      By any chance, was that Glenlivet finished in the same barrels that actually held Cognac, or were they new barrels? I’ve been finding more and more spirits finished in casks that previously held other spirits — and frankly, I love them. So complex and intriguing.

      And yes, I do believe the Blogosphere is telling you to pick up some brandy, stat! 🙂

      • The Glenlivet was finished in new French Limousin Oak barrels. They don’t mention what kind of barrel it was in before that or how long it stays in the French Oak. The vast majority of Single Malt Scotch is aged in used barrels (Bourbon, Sherry, Rum, etc.). I agree… it totally does great things to the flavor. Love the stuff! Need to go to more tasting events in 2011!

        So are there any brandies that your recommend? I’m sure you have a favorite after tasting 20+ varieties. 🙂

      • Bushmill’s does an Irish whiskey that’s aged in used sherry barrels for a good chunk of its life, which adds noticeable brandy/cognac notes over the malty whiskey flavor. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes for some really interesting mixing opportunities.

  3. Better late than never….some of the Cognacs I liked best (in a reasonable price range) were Camus VSOP Elegance ($42), Martell VSOP Medaillon ($46) and Conjure Cognac ($30).

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