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A Guide to All Things Cognac

A Guide to All Things Cognac

Whether you’re looking to enjoy Cognac as a digestif or mix it into a cocktail, it never hurts to have a bottle on your bar cart.

Here’s a look at what this spirit actually is, how it’s made, the best bottles for every type of drinker and more. 

What Is Cognac?

Cognac is a type of brandy that must be produced in the Cognac region of France. Think of it like Champagne: Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Similarly, Cognac is a brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.

The primary grape used in Cognac is Ugni Blanc. But small amounts of Picpoul (known in France as Folle Blanche), Colombard and a few other varieties are also used.

If you’re familiar with French wine, you probably know that it’s often identified by producers or estates. However, Cognac is recognized by brands—Hennessy, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin and Martell are the four biggest houses.

How Is Cognac Made? 

Cognac is made from distilled white wine. It must go through a double distillation process in copper stills. From there, it must be aged in French oak (specifically Limousin or Tronçais) barrels for at least two years.

Much like Champagne, most Cognacs are blends.

How Do You Drink Cognac?

Like most things with wine, beer and spirits, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference.

To start, Cognac can make an excellent addition to cocktails. For instance, it’s one of the main components in the Almond Orchard cocktail—a hot drink perfect for the holidays. It’s also a key ingredient in the Brandy Alexander, a boozy, milkshake-like concoction with a history dating back more than 100 years.

Cognac can also be enjoyed on its own. Try adding to it a drop or two of water, which will allow the spirit’s nuances of fruit and spice to come forward. Similarly, you can also serve this brandy on light ice—but be careful not to use too much, or you’ll dilute the flavors.

As for glassware, that also depends. Traditionally, Cognac was served in a snifter. However, that practice is starting to change. Many drinks pros say that a snifter’s wide base and narrow top overly enhance alcohol on the nose.

“A snifter is definitely the worst vessel, not only for Cognac, but for all other beverages,” says Maximilian Riedel, president and CEO of Austrian glassware manufacturer Riedel Crystal.

Instead, opt for something with a wider rim, like a rocks glass.

What Do Cognac Labels Mean? 

Eau-de-vie: This French term translates to “water of life.” While the term generally refers to brandies made from fruit other than grapes, it also refers to young brandy that’s aged less than two years—not yet long enough to be considered Cognac.

V.S.: This term means “very special,” and it signifies that the youngest brandy used in a Cognac blend is aged at least two years.

V.S.O.P.:  This labeling means “very superior old pale.” If you get a bottle with this seal, the youngest brandy in the blend was aged at least four years.

Napoleon: The youngest brandy in the blend was aged for a minimum of six years.

X.O.: This term means “extra old.” The youngest brandy in the blend was aged for a minimum of 10 years.

X.X.O.: This newer category was established in 2018. It means the youngest brandy in the blend was aged 14 years.

The Best Cognacs to Drink

97 Points Wine Enthusiast

A limited-edition Cognac in honor of Lunar New Year, look for concentrated caramel aromas and an expressive palate that opens with cocoa laced with clove and cayenne piquancy. The long, complex finish unfurls dried cherry, toffee, allspice and a hint of orange peel, leading to a final leathery exhale. Aged a minimum of 10 years. —Kara Newman


92 Points Wine Enthusiast

Mild oak and almond aromas lead the nose. Dried fig, raisin and baked apple sit beneath a light blanket of vanilla, exiting with brisk baking spice and a flicker of alcohol heat. Best Buy —K.N.

Total Wine & More

93 Points Wine Enthusiast

Look for a bright golden hue and dried apricot and white flower aromas. The soft palate echoes that floral note, layering it with mouthwatering hints of pear, golden raisin and apricot, leading to lively ginger and white pepper sparks on he finish. Made with a blend of four- and five-year-old eau de vie. —K.N.

Total Wine & More

95 Points Wine Enthusiast

This Cognac is aged in barrels that are “steam-toasted,” meaning it’s immersed in water, then toasted. The end result is a deep amber hue and pleasing hazelnut, cocoa and vanilla on nose and palate. Hints of dried cherry and date lead into a nutmeg and cinnamon-flecked finish. Enjoy alongside a dessert pairing or mix into cocktails. No age statement. —K.N.


94 Points Wine Enthusiast

Look for a burnished gold hue and mild floral aromas. The palate is relatively dry, alternating cigar wrapper and espresso with chamomile and honey, finishing long with ginger and clove heat. Pair with a slice of honey cake. Made with eau-de-vie a minimum of 20 years old. —K.N.


91 Points Wine Enthusiast

Sprightly stone fruit and almond aromas entice the nose. The soft palate opens with lush hints of black cherry, toasted almond, and hazelnut, winding into a finish laced with cayenne sting. —K.N.

Total Wine & More

90 Points Wine Enthusiast

This pours a bright amber color, with restrained but beautiful aromas of white flowers, orange, peach and honey. On the palate, it’s full-bodied, with bitter orange peel and stone fruit flavors, with lingering vanilla and oak. The alcohol feels relatively balanced, but it creeps up on you. This needs dilution, so use it in punches as intended and you’ll be fine. Best Buy —K.N.

The Whisky Exchange

96 Points Wine Enthusiast

This Cognac has a deep amber hue and bold allspice and caramel aromas. The palate opens with concentrated caramel and toffee, winding into a deep, warming finish dusted with espresso, black pepper and clove. —K.N.

Total Wine & More

93 Points Wine Enthusiast

A new brand from American rapper E-40, this Cognac has concentrated vanilla aromas. Creamy caramel and cocoa coat the palate, finishing warming with teasing clove and black pepper heat. —K.N.

Total Wine & More

94 Points Wine Enthusiast

Mild coconut and baked apple aromas reveal a palate lightly accented with violet and almond. The robust, warming palate brings clove, cayenne, and ginger glow, glossed with a bit of vanilla. 10 years old. —K.N.


Why You Should Trust Us

All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.

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Published on November 29, 2022

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