Every weekday morning, I make sure to give myself ten minutes of “me” time before I start the usual “metro, boulot, dodo” routine. It isn’t much, but it’s just long enough to make an espresso and read the daily NOWNESS post in peace. This morning they covered Hennessey V.S.O.P’s sleek new bottle and the rituals that surround cognac, filmed through the eyes of Dustin Lynn.
While the video was stunning, I found myself distracted, wondering what a V.S.O.P. cognac was. Then I realized – forget V.S.O.P., I don’t know what cognac even is! I mean, I know it’s an amber-toned liquor, best experienced neat, that warms you like nothing else on a cold winter’s day…but as far as what it’s made from, or what its distillation and ageing process is like, I had no clue.
Unlike most girls, I actually enjoy the taste of a beautiful hard liquor that hasn’t been spoiled by a mixer. And being a curious person by nature, I love learning how such spicy spirits make it from a vineyard’s harvest to a relaxing nightcap. So the Googling began, and in no time I was enthralled in all things cognac.
Now I admit – while any oenophile would probably have much more to say about cognac, here’s the simpler, more interesting (and not too long!) version of the story. Cheers!
Cognac: A type of brandy named after the town of Cognac, France.
Made from: Specified grapes from the Cognac region. 90% must be the Ugni Blanc, also known as the Saint-Emilion grape.
Fermentation: Grapes are pressed for 2 to 3 weeks. Sugars are converted into alcohol, resulting in a wine that’s 7-8% alcohol.
Distillation: The not-so- tasty wine is twice distilled in copper stills. Now we have what they call “eau-de-vie,” a colorless spirit of about 70% alcohol. (By the way, eau-de-vie is great by itself too!)
Aging: The eau-de-vie is placed in wooden casks made of oak from Limonsin or Troncais, France. The eau-de-vie must be aged for a minimum of 2 years in these casks to be considered a true cognac, though most are aged for much longer (upwards of 50 years!). It is these barrels that give the spirit its distinct amber color and “tannin” flavor.
La Parte des Anges: Or “the Angel’s Share” in English, is the name given to the 3% of eau-de-vie that is lost during the aging process due to evaporation. Producing a black fungus on the exterior of the building where the cognac is aging, this 3% might not seem like much, but it adds up. In fact, it represents 22 million bottles of cognac per year! That makes the “angels” the second largest market for the spirit after the United States.
Blending: This step is what distinguishes a Hennessy from a Martell, a Rémy Martin from a Courvoisier. Each house has their own distinct way of blending, which in turn brands their flavor. The marriage of differently aged eau-de-vies from different local areas is done by the maître de chai, or master taster. And they really have to be masters; since the delicate blend is so closely tied to the house’s identity, it has to taste the same today as it did in 1950. Likewise, it will have to taste the same 50 years from now. Now that’s what I call a trained palette.
And of course…
V.S. or ***: Very Special. A cognac that’s been stored in casks for a minimum of two years.
V.S.O.P: Very Superior Old Pale. A cognac that’s been stored in casks for at least four years, although the casks are usually much older.
X.O.: Extra Old. A cognac that’s been stored in casks for at least six years, and upwards of 20 years.