How to make Cognac

  • David on Technical Topics - Adding Water to Cognac

    We call it dilution in the industry and nearly every cognac needs to have a level of dilution to optimise its qualities.  Some cognacs are superbly smooth and almost too easy to drink whilst others are fiery and aggressive and seem to burn the mouth with every mouthful drunk.  Getting the optimum balance between aggressiveness and flavour is a skill that must be acquired in order to maximise the quality of the cognac.

    Adding water to cognac is certainly not just a case of pouring water from the tap into a barrel of cognac.  The water must be pure and not contain any minerals.  Distilled water is the normal choice but there are some special waters supplied in bulk for big blenders.  The addition of this special water is a skill that has been developed over many years of understanding the noble spirit.  In essence, spirit and water do not mix easily and some cognacs have a higher absorption level than others.  A good diluter can taste the water in cognac if it has not been mixed properly.  There are a number of ways that mixing can be undertaken.

    Some producers dilute their cognacs whilst they are still hot and fresh from the still but this can be difficult as the strength of the cognac gradually reduces from the start of the distillation to the cut (the point where one stops collecting the water-clear eau de vie because it is too weak to provide sufficient flavour).  Other producers will make a “Petite Eau”, a weak blend of cognac and water which is aged in casks before adding back into the cognac to arrive at the right strength.  When a cognac has been produced and aged for many years most will dilute it gradually, a couple of degrees at a time.  Each step can take many weeks before the correct balance is achieved and usually, the nearer one gets to 40% abv, the longer each step will take.

    The speed of dilution depends largely on the speed that the cognac will absorb the water.  A good dilution, where the two components mix without detection, may take several years.  Other factors which may influence the dilution process are the size and shape of the still, the maximum temperature of the hot eau de vie and even the age, toasting and size of the barrels used for storage.

    Cognacs should be diluted to a strength that optimises their flavour and so the final abv will vary.  Take a look at our Hermitage 1975 at 47% and Hermitage 2005 at 40%, both of which are beautifully balanced and full of flavour.

    You have probably gathered by now that adding a drop of tap water before drinking your cognac is not a good idea!

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  • David on Technical Topics - Is there a need to Blend Cognac?

    There are between four and five thousand cognac producers in the Charente and Charente Maritime region of France. Only brandy produced here, under strict regulations, is allowed to be called Cognac.

    The world market for cognac is hundreds of millions of bottles but because cognac can only be made once a year, after the grape harvest, the amount that can be sold is limited to how much can be made. The situation is made yet more difficult as even the very youngest cognac has to be aged for 3 years in oak barrels before it can be sold. The big cognac houses supply over 80% of world sales but probably only have direct involvement in about 5% of production.  They rely heavily on the thousands of individual producers to provide enough cognac for their markets.  Blending them provides consistent flavour and is therefore critical to their survival.

    The big cognac names try to assert their authority over the smaller producers, by influencing their distillation methods, with varying levels of success.   By blending hundreds, or indeed thousands, of different cognacs together any of the individual craft and style, which has been developed over the generations of distillation, is lost and the flavour becomes neutral.  Indeed neutrality is encouraged by the major blenders since it is easier to blend neutral spirits than those with complex flavours. There is though, another factor that changes flavour and that is ageing.  By buying their cognacs young and ageing them in their own cellars, the big houses are able to control any variation in style and flavour that may occur.

    Most of the young cognacs sold to the major blenders will be at near distillation strength (67-72%); reduction in strength is therefore necessary.  To enable this distilled water is gradually added, a slow process that can take many years to perform successfully.   Additionally, because these cognacs are so young they will not have developed much colour or taste from the barrels and worst still, they will be aggressive and very fiery.  All these problems can only be addressed with the permitted addition of sugar syrups and caramel.

    The blending process should take years but to meet market demand it is often accelerated.  Blending also fails to promote individuality in the final product.  As a consequence, Hermitage Single Estate Cognacs, with age statements, offer a wide variety of styles, flavours and individuality with which blended cognacs cannot compete.

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  • David on Technical Topics - The Colour of Cognac Part 2.

    Last month I discussed the effect of the natural ageing process on cognac colour but not all cognacs on the shelf have obtained their colour this way.  Some of the big cognac houses try to provide a false maturity to their cognacs by adding a colouring agent.  Most common of these colour additives is caramel and even quite small additions   can make a relatively large difference since its use is usually in relatively young spirit that has only been aged for perhaps 2-3 years.

    Previously I discussed how different types, sizes and toasting of oak barrels all make a difference to the colour of the cognac but colouring in this natural way takes a long time and many of the big cognac houses cannot wait long enough for this to occur.  Much of the spirit they sell is young and so to give it more of a cognac-like appearance, caramel is added.  Usually when caramel is used sugar syrup is also added to obscure the fiery flavour of the young cognac. Caramel can often be detected by sight as it will provide a red tinge to the spirit in the bottle.

    A more natural way of colouring cognac, other than by the ageing process, is with the addition of ‘boise’.  It is made by boiling oak chips in cognac over and over again to produce a dark syrupy liquid and this is then added to the cognac. Although this is a much more natural method of providing colour it can also give the cognac a slightly bitter flavour. Over time this bitterness disappears and the result is a more intense flavour and richness but its use has to be carefully controlled to achieve this effect.  When ‘boise’ is used correctly, the appearance of the cognac remains natural and it can, we believe, enhance the flavour and long term stability of some very old cognacs.

    All of the cognacs we supply at Hermitage Cognacs are aged naturally so the colours have not been altered with the addition of caramel.  For example, the Hermitage Chez Richon 1979 Cognac has been aged for 25 years but still retains a relatively light colour.

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  • David on Technical Topics - The Colour of Cognac Part 1.

    There is a long held view amongst cognac drinkers that the darker a cognac appears the longer it has been aged in the barrel and therefore the better and more valuable it is. There is, up to a point, some truth in this view since during the natural ageing process, the tannins in the wood add colour to the barrels’ contents.

    Cognacs are aged in barrels made from one of two types of French oak, Limousin or Tronçais. The former comes from the Limousin forests north east of Angouleme and is a fairly wide grain oak whilst the latter, which is a closer grained wood, comes from near the Burgundy area of France. Clearly the wider grain oak allows greater penetration of the spirit into the wood and so enables a faster maturation.  For this reason the Limousin oak is the most commonly used.

    Prior to use the oak barrels are toasted to remove any harmful tannins.  This can be done at different levels varying from quite light to heavy toasting.   The heavier a barrel is toasted the darker the cognac will be but as a consequence, it will have more bitterness to its flavour and this can take many years to disappear.  Most cognacs are kept in new barrels for a short period immediately after distillation before being transferred to old barrels where colouring occurs more slowly.  Barrel size also influences cognac colour since the smaller the barrel, the greater the surface area that can come into contact with the cognac.

    The colour of cognac is a very technical subject but one thing is certain, colour is not necessarily an indicator of age.  Indeed we have some cognacs that have been stored in oak barrels for sixty or seventy years and retained a light colour.  A wonderful example is our Hermitage Réaux 65 Year Old.

    Next month I will discuss how the colour can be altered artificially in order to create a false image.

    If you would like to learn more about cognac and other brandies, subscribe to our newsletter here.

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  • David on Technical Topics - Cognac Grape Varieties

    Most people regard the Ugni Blanc as the cognac grape variety but there are in fact 8 different varieties allowed in the production of cognac.  The Ugni Blanc is also known as the St Emillion des Charente, but the Colombard, Folle Blanche, Jurançon, Blanc Ramé, Bouilleaux, Belzac Blanc and Chalosse grapes are also permitted.  More than 95% of all cognacs are made from the Ugni Blanc which was originally an Italian variety called Trebbiano Toscano, from the foothills of the Emilia Romagna near Piacenza.  It is regarded by many as being so widely used that it probably produces more wine than any other variety in the world albeit under a number of different names.  Its popularity is contrasted by its qualities which can be summed up as pale lemon, little nose, notably high acid, medium alcohol and body and short. It produces a quite unremarkable and characterless wine but it has two important qualities for making cognac.  Firstly it maintains its acidity right up to even quite late harvests and secondly it produces huge yields.  These qualities produce a relatively neutral base for distillation.

    The Ugni Blanc vines are planted about 2.8 metres apart and usually stand around 1-1.5 metres tall. They are cultivated along wires in rows to make it easier for machines to spray and harvest them.  The yield can vary according to the weather but most vineyards produce more than 30,000 litres of wine per annum which will make at least 3000 bottles of cognac.  The wine produced from these grapes, apart from being fairly neutral is only around 8 – 10 % abv making it very suitable for the distillation process.

    More adventurous growers will combine the Ugni Blanc with Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes.  The latter can provide some delightful peachy aromas in the cognac. Our award winning Hermitage 10 Year Old is an excellent example of this grape combination as it has aromas of dried peach and apricot with flavours of vanilla, toffee and a little citrus. The firm of Ragnaud Sabourin, in Grande Champagne, actually uses all eight varieties in its delightful, but expensive, 1903 ‘Cognac Paradis’.

    Our Hermitage 10 Year Old Cognac is on offer this month so now is the perfect time to taste it and see if you can tell that it has been made using different cognac grape varieties.

    To read more Technical Topics, go to the Brandy Education page of our Blog.

  • David on Technical Topics - Cognac Vines

    Having spent a very cold weekend in the garden pruning trees, shrubs and roses, I gave some thought to those people who have to be in the cognac vineyards at this time of the year pruning the vines.

    In theory, there is no reason why the vines cannot be pruned as soon as the leaves have died back but at that time of the year, distillation is in full swing so lack of time prevents it.  Most of the distillations have been completed by the New Year and it is then that the work outside begins in order that new shoots can emerge in the spring.   Most vines are cut back to the main stems.  These are usually trained along wires to enable easy access for the machines which need to operate in straight lines during spraying and harvesting.

    The harvest is tough on those who have to go out and do the pruning. It is often very cold, often raining and sometimes even snowing but, it has to be completed by early spring. There are thousands of vines in every hectare and at Chez Richon, for example, most of this work is done by a single person. Madame Forgeron, works from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening.  She takes a packed lunch and works tirelessly 7 days a week for about 3 months - quite an undertaking, especially since she’s 70!

    To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Effect of Barrels on The Ageing Process

    As the New Year rolls in the cognac distillers will be checking the ‘chais’ (cellars) and their existing stocks of cognac in barrels from previous years.  Of course there are hundreds of old cellars all over the Cognac region, each containing large quantities of barrels in a range of sizes, the most common being 350 litres.  Each barrel will have its own characteristics and will impart slightly different qualities into the cognac.

    This ageing process begins annually after distillation, which must be completed by 31 March.  To provide an initial boost the newly distilled spirit is put into new oak barrels, which have been toasted to kill off the harmful tannins in the wood.  About 6 – 12 months later the cognac is transferred to old barrels where it will gradually mature. During this process the cognac reacts with some of the good tannins, such as lignins and a hemi-cellulose, which gradually dissolve forming richness, a quality we often refer to as a “Rancio”. Clearly, the more the cognac comes into contact with the wood the quicker this will happen but there are other factors which can slow or speed up the process.  Some cellar masters prefer to use barrels made from a tightly grained oak which reduces the tannin extraction by the cognac. This hard oak comes from the Tronçais forest but a wider grained oak can also be used.  It is found closer by in the Limoursin forests near Angouleme.  Most cognacs are aged in Limoursin barrels as the spirit penetrates the wood faster than in the Tronçais barrel.  Apart from barrel size and grain of the oak, there is another key factor which will make a substantial difference to the process – dampness of the cellar.  A water molecule is larger than a spirit molecule so the greater the outer dampness of the wood, the slower the spirit will escape through the barrel.

    Cognacs from Grande Champagne may take 60 or 70 years to fully mature in the barrel so spare a thought this New Year for all those wonderful, very old cognacs hiding away in dark and damp cellars that haven’t woken up yet.  When they do, their sublime qualities will be the golden toast of the century.

  • David on Technical Topics - What is Cognac?

    The other day, I was talking to a barman in a hotel and he, like so many other people, wanted to know "what is the difference between brandy and cognac?" Certainly in the trade we all assume that we know the answer to this, so was our barman an exception? I don’t think so.

    Brandy is a spirit distilled from a fruit, it can be any fruit, any strength and aged for six days or 60 years, there really are very few rules. Cognac on the other hand is rather more complex and allows experts to differentiate between different crus, grapes, ages, styles and a host of other factors that create so many variations.  It is a great skill and occupational pleasure to identify each of the thousands produced every year.  The term cognac is defined by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC) as a spirit made from grapes, grown, fermented and distilled in the region known as The Charente and Charente Maritime. The grapes used for the wine can be any of eight different varieties; the principal being the Ugni Blanc followed by Folle Blanche and Colombard and the winemaking must be conducted as per the local custom. Cognac must be distilled twice on an Alembic Still, up to 130 hectolitres can be distilled in the first distillation but only 25 hectolitres may be distilled in the second and the distillation range must be between 67 and 72 degrees.  The minimum strength of cognac must never fall below 40% when sold and every shipment must be accompanied by a gold certificate known as an Acquit Jaune d’Or.   All cognacs must be aged in casks made from the oak trees from either Limoursin, or Tronçais, for a minimum of 3 years.

    So there you have it, there is a lot more to it than you may think.  As they say in Cognac, "every cognac is a brandy but not every brandy is a cognac".

  • Godet, An Historical Lesson

    White Cognac from Coal

    The pressure on cognac houses in the early noughties to sell greater quantities inspired some to try and produce a white or clear cognac. Of course this should not be possible as cognac must be aged in oak and the wood always imparts some colour and most of all flavour. Consequently, when Hennessy introduced a ‘white’ cognac it still had some colour. So, one of the oldest cognac houses, Godet, produced a plan to solve this problem by filtering their cognac through coal. The plan worked and they launched Antarctica as a ‘white’ cognac.  However, Cognac rules do not allow this as the cognac has not been made in the traditional way and the name Godet is associated with cognac. It now seems that the term ‘cognac’ has been dropped but it is still called Godet Antarctica. It is understood that heated discussions about the name continue between Godet, the BNIC and Customs. Rumours in Cognac suggest that the house may be put up for sale but Jacques Godet, the fourteenth head of the firm who conceived the idea after a trip to Antarctica, has recently handed control to his sons suggesting that this is unlikely in the near future.

  • A New Vintage Begins with British Summer Time

    Longer days and lazy evenings are what we are all looking forward to now that British Summer Time has begun. This time of year also marks the end of the cognac distillation process for last summer’s harvest - strict regulations dictate that it must be completed by 31 March - and so, the ageing process for the 2014 vintage has already begun.

    The longer it is left in oak barrels the finer it will be, which is why our very old vintages are particularly special. Hermitage Reaux 1954 was distilled 60 years ago and just oozes rich, dark chocolatey flavours whilst our 1914 Borderies is now a centurion and has the elegance and finesse to match.

    Like the long summer evenings ahead, they really are worth waiting for...

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