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How to make Cognac

  • How Did Double Distillation Become Part Of The Cognac Process?

    double distillationThere are all manner of theories, assumptions and legends relating to the actual birth of cognac. Many relate to Chevalier de la Croix Maron, an aristocratic wine taster and Lord of Segonzac. Legend has it that on returning home from the Crusades, he found his wife in bed with his neighbour. He shot them both. But afterwards Maron could not sleep as he was plagued by dreams of Satan coming from the dark and roasting him not once but twice over a fire. One night after waking from another roasting he sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers wound round a glass of his favourite drink, burnt wine. He wondered if this recurring nightmare might be a message from above.  Looking into his drink he asked his servants to distil the wine again and so provided it with a magical smoothness.  Another story tells of the Chevalier finding a hidden barrel of peasant brandy in the corner of his cellar. It was too crude for his aristocratic palate, so he ordered it to be distilled again.  The pure fruitiness of the double distilled brandy delighted him, and the practice of double distillation had begun.

    It is probable that the second story is nearer to the truth. The art of distillation was founded by the Moors as they travelled from the South through France. Originally, they distilled perfumes in pot stills, but they taught the peasants in Gascony how to distil their wines.  Using pots heated by wood fires they extracted the vapours and then allowed them to condense back into strong and fruity spirits.

    The Cognaçais also learnt the skills of distillation in order to prevent their wines from becoming rancid during the long journey along the Charente river to the port of La Rochelle.  On reaching their destination they were bartered for leather, timber and copper (which was used to make their burnt wines). Wines were also distilled to reduce their volume prior to shipping to foreign ports.  It was found that distilling them a second time not only reduced them further but also gave them a higher quality and finer taste.

    It is also said that Chevalier de la Croix Maron took some barrels of the double reduced wine, or brandy as we know it today, to the local monastery. The monks tried some but disliked its fiery taste. Years later they opened another barrel and found that the brandy had turned golden and the flavour had changed to be rich and fruity.  The benefits of barrel ageing had accidentally been discovered.  It seems that the Chevalier de la Croix Maron has much to answer for in the origins of cognac!

  • The Effect of the Cellar on Ageing Cognac

    CellarsWe place much emphasis on the ageing of cognacs as it is critically important that they gain the maximum maturity whilst in their oak casks. We have spoken before about the barrel size, shape and type of oak but the actual cellar chosen for storage is also vitally important.  The conditions of storage can make, or break, a fine cognac.

    French cellars used to house cognac are typically quite small, perhaps only housing a couple of hundred barrels.  Most are also old and damp, often old stores or farm buildings, perhaps old chapels or buildings that would normally be thought unsuitable for storing such valuable spirits.  Many do not even have a proper floor, just the earth, perhaps where animals have been kept during cold winter months, but it is these old buildings that provide the finest conditions for cognac ageing.

    Good barrel ageing extracts the useful substances from the oak barrels. Tannins form around 5% of these substances but others, including lignin and hemi-cellulose, are also useful.  As these substances gradually dissolve in the maturing spirit, they impart the agreeable sweetness found in some older cognacs. It is therefore very important that cognac spends as much time as possible in contact with these useful elements found in the wood.

    There is of course a limit as to how long these substances last in the relatively neutral oak barrels so it is important to ensure that the barrels are stored in the finest conditions.  The humidity of the old stores in the Charente ensures that the barrels are largely damp on the outside.  This prevents the smaller spirit molecules from escaping and retains them in the oak for a longer period.

    An agreeable climate in the Charente provides more suitable ambient storage in these old stores than in purpose made warehouses on other shores.  ‘Early landed’ cognacs are brandies which are stored in bonded warehouses abroad and have customs documents proving when they were made.  The provision of this additional storage may be an advantage but both the length of time the cognacs are stored and the conditions in bond may fall some way short of ideal.  Only by constant, expert monitoring can it be established when a cognac is ready for bottling and indeed if the storage conditions have allowed the cognac to gain the full benefit from the barrel.

    We hear of all sorts of ideas for brandy storage but whatever is happening on the outside of the barrel, there are only two factors which affect ageing inside: temperature and humidity.  It is the reaction of the old oak barrel and the cognac that will provide us with the finest cognacs.  It therefore seems strange to me that some brandy houses want to age their cognacs in unusual places. A rather well-known Norwegian house has chosen to age a barrel of their 40 year old cognac in a fort in the mouth of the Charentes for a few months “to see how maritime weather affects the finished product”. If the barrels are stored correctly and tightly sealed with a cork which is waxed over to prevent the ingress of air, what difference will the maritime weather make?

  • The Importance of the Cognac Cellars

    Cognac CellarsThe concept of barrel ageing is said to have been conceived by wine merchants when shipping their wines from the harbour at La Rochelle. The weak and commonly sweet wines that were shipped along the Charente from Cognac often became rancid.  The wine merchants therefore reduced their volume by distillation, before shipping abroad in oak barrels. After their arrival in foreign ports it was noticed that the clear distillates within had coloured and gained in flavour.

    Many centuries later we have learnt much about ageing our cognacs. The considerations of barrel age, size and wood are regarded by many as secondary to the dampness and location of the cellar.  Dampness in the cellar helps the cognac to mature in the barrel for longer as it reduces evaporation of the spirit through the wood.  There are thousands of cellars in the Cognac region which also hosts two major rivers.  The Charente passes through the middle and the Ne passes round the southern half of the top cru Grande Champagne.  It is therefore reasonable to believe that many of the finest cognac cellars are situated close to these rivers, taking advantage of the increased humidity.

    However, ideal damp conditions can be created in other ways.  Many old stone-built stores were converted outhouses which had had their floors ripped out, thereby removing any damp course between the building and the earth.  New custom-built stores, mainly owned by the big houses, are complete with humidifiers which regulate the atmosphere.  A more questionable method of creating damp barrels is to spray them with water but this is usually only employed during very hot conditions.

    Of course, wherever they are kept, the atmosphere inside a sealed barrel is unlikely to change.  The temperature may alter slightly, and the amount lost to evaporation (known as the Angel’s Share) may differ but otherwise the quality of the cognac should remain the same.

  • The Role of Cellar Masters

    Probably only the big cognac houses have imported cellar masters.  Usually they are recruited from family firms whose skills and experience have, over the years, kept the industry in very good form.  Currently most cellar masters are male so, whilst explaining the role, I will use the pronoun ‘he’.

    Cellar masters

    In truth, the cellar master is a multi-skilled person whose understanding of the cognacs in his cellar starts with the fresh eau de vie. He needs to understand how it was made, including the quantities distilled, the distillation temperature and when the cut was made. This information will help him choose the correct barrels to use for both the initial storage and the long barrel ageing in his cellar. Most cognac houses have their own style of cognacs, normally recognisable by experts.  He will try to replicate that style throughout his cognacs.

     

    Modern cognacs are usually made for blending.  To do this they are poured out of their barrels into large wooden tanks which may hold as much 100,000 litres. Blending is a complex job and much emphasis is placed on the knowledge gained from the cellar’s historical background. Mixing cognacs requires a great deal of experience.  It does not follow that mixing two fine cognacs together will produce something of a similar quality. In some cases, especially when very high quality eaux de vie is used, the quality of the final blend is a total disaster.

     

    The cellar master’s role also includes an in-depth understanding of his barrels - their size, the oak used and what they have previously contained (the second stage of ageing is always in old barrels). He also needs to understand how much they were toasted and where he is going to keep them.  Many cellar masters move their barrels around the cellar to make full use of the humidity and to keep the cognac moving so it is exposed to every part of the barrel.

     

    Lastly, he tests the cognac by taking samples and checking the level of alcohol.  This is done by measuring the temperature and using an alcohol meter.  All official alcohol measurements are made at 20 degrees Celsius, so it is important to be able to calculate the actual strength at different temperatures. Small samples are taken to gauge the cognac’s maturity and balance at regular intervals as each barrel produces a cognac with a slightly different flavour and colour. The skill of bringing all these properties together takes many years to learn.  It is for this reason that the cognacs produced by family firms are often of a far higher quality than those from the big houses, which are highly blended.

  • Distilling Cognac on the Lees

    roadside pressWe have often talked about distillation on the Lees but rarely described why we do it or indeed what ‘the lees’ are.

    Many years ago, during cognac production, whole bunches of grapes were crushed in presses to release the grape juice.  The process was fairly crude and some stalks, pips and skins found their way into the juice.  This negatively affected the flavour of the wine and sometimes even contaminated it. Grape crushing was therefore banned after the turn of the twentieth century.

    The newly designed horizontal presses had slats on the sides.  These rotated slowly putting very little pressure on the grapes, so only the juice escaped.  Modern rotating presses also have hydraulic plates at either end.  These plates exert slightly more pressure on the grapes which extracts the maximum amount of juice and some of the pulp (but not the skin, stalks or pips).  This combination of juice and pulp is known as ‘the lees’.  It is the pulp which provides more of the grape flavours.  A wine producer might refer to it as the second pressing.

    Most cognac producers will use ‘the lees’ in their distillation as it adds to the quantity produced as well as the flavour.  Not all distillers will admit to it though.  There is a fear that some buyers believe cognacs distilled not on their lees will be purer, albeit with less flavour.  There is also a problem if the producers sell to the big houses as they ask distillers not to use the lees.  The big houses require cognacs with greater neutrality for blending with many others from different distillers.  Extremes of flavour will affect the uniformity of products which are sold in vast quantities.

    Whatever the case for or against this process, those seeking greater individuality of flavours should always look for cognacs that were distilled on their ‘lees’.  The Hermitage range is a classic example.

  • Why Buy Vintage Cognac?

    There are said to be 5000 cognac producers in the Charente, the vast majority make cognac for the big cognac houses and sell it to them within a couple of years.  But some, perhaps around 10%, have learnt to wait until their heavenly nectars have matured for longer.  Locked away in dark cellars they gradually develop the individual and very personal qualities of their makers. When you buy a specifically aged or vintage cognac, you are buying the makers’ skills and experiences that have been honed over generations into a single taste experience.  Every cognac distillation is different. The very finest come from Grande Champagne and those kept as vintage stock will age for much longer than any generic blend and will develop far greater natural flavours during their long sleep in oak casks.

    Blended cognacs are produced to feed the insatiable greed for mass volume sales. The big cognac houses produce very little of their own cognac. More than 99% of the cognacs used in their blends are supplied by the thousands of small growers and distillers in the Charente region.  Not only are these cognacs young and still relatively tasteless, when they are mixed with up to 2000 others to provide one generic blend it is impossible to distinguish individual flavours.  A blend, even in its finest form (XO), needs only to have been aged in a barrel for 6 ½ years.  It is therefore little surprise that every generically blended cognac relies heavily on the addition of sugar syrup and caramel to obscure the fiery and tasteless spirits.

    Jean Monnet, the famous cognac producer and politician, once said “The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait, but time and God and the seasons have got to be on your side”.  I would add to that by saying “Very few know where to find the finest and most individual Premier Cru Cognacs and Hermitage is one of them”.

  • Why Chill Filter Cognac?

    Non-chill cognacPernod Ricard has launched the first Martell non-chill filtered cognac. Chill filtering is a process routinely employed by the larger cognac houses. It is a means of clarifying the appearance of the drink as it forces the spirit and water to mix more quickly and effectively. (The effect of mixing spirit with water can be seen when water is added to whisky as it often becomes cloudy). Young, mass-produced cognacs need to be reduced with water quickly to prepare them for market so chill-filtering is a useful tool - although it is only effective on spirits with an abv of less than 46 degrees. The temperature of the cognac is reduced to between -10 and +4 degrees to assist reduction and a fine absorption filter is also used to take out very small particles. This filtration reduces haziness but also captures some of the esters and fatty acids which are produced during the production and ageing process. Most experts claim that this filtering affects the flavour since some of these esters and fatty acids form into congeners (flavouroids) which add flavour. We do not chill filter at Hermitage Cognacs as all our cognacs are reduced naturally or over a very long period of time.  Take our Hermitage 1917 for example - distilled 100 years ago.

  • Cognac Balance

    cognac stillThe process of distilling cognacs requires that the wines are distilled twice, the second distillation must be between 67-72.4 degrees. The spirit, known as eau de vie, is water clear and tasting it can render the tongue numb for several days. Little surprise then that young cognacs, aged for the minimum time, have to be reduced to a lower level of alcohol and additives used to colour and hide the aggressiveness of the spirit and so achieve some Cognac balance.

    The natural colour of cognac is derived from the tannins in the oak barrels. The use of new barrels after distillation to give the cognac a quick boost can actually provide a more aggressive fieriness in the spirit in the early stages. Whilst a level of colour will develop in the spirit during the first stages of ageing, nothing can overcome the huge imbalance between alcohol and taste until the cognac has been in the barrel for at least ten years. Both sugar syrup and caramel are therefore often used to help address the fieriness and lack of colour in young brandies, a process known as obscuration.

    About twenty years ago there was an unscripted charter between the big cognac houses that the maximum obscuration of cognac would be no more than 2%. The increasing demand for young (and cheaper) cognacs has meant that the big houses now buy their cognacs for ageing sometimes only eighteen months after distillation. Often they are bottled as young as 3 years old. This creates a massive problem especially when they are blended with cognacs from the Champagnes which age at a much slower rate than those from other crus. Inevitably, the younger the cognac the more sugar and caramel is needed to create an acceptable level of flavour and balance. As available cognacs become younger, the obscuration level has had to increase and it is now substantially more than 2%.

    Of course there is another element to balancing cognacs – dilution. Cognacs will gradually reduce naturally, however, nowhere near quickly enough for the big houses to sell profitably. Young cognacs between 60-65% abv will need more than 50% water adding to them before they can be sold. Water itself is difficult to add successfully though very quick chilling of the cognac can help.

    Perhaps the most accepted additive, and one that is far more natural than others, is the use of boisé. Produced by boiling oak chips over and over again in cognac, it is dark in colour and can be viscose. When added to cognac it can provide quite a bitter effect until it has had time to complete its accelerated ageing process. Some people refer to this as a “false ageing” but it is not. It uses exactly the same ingredients as occur naturally in cognac so in effect, it is an age accelerator. However, too much can provide an undesirable bitterness when used in young cognacs.

    Balancing the strength and flavour of fine cognacs is a great skill. There is a place for some additives but we avoid the use of sugar and caramel as we believe that any cognac from the Champagnes under ten years old is not sufficiently developed to ever create the truly memorable qualities found in Hermitage Cognacs.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • The Rancio

    Brandyclassics MDProfessionally, as an industry assemblage of blenders, cellar masters, connoisseurs, distillers and negoçiants, our aim is to provide the very finest cognacs we can for each market sector. We know that there is no alternative to long ageing in oak barrels to enhance the distillers’ skills and provide the flavour and richness (Rancio) that is so desirable. Perhaps it was by accident in the 16th and 17th centuries that the chemical changes taking place between wood and spirit were noticed. Over the centuries the effects of ageing have been recorded and gradually formed the criteria by which the standard of a modern cognac is defined.

    Cognac cellarsPerhaps also by accident, after discoveries of old barrels in the corners of family cellars, it was found that some of the oldest cognacs had acquired a sort of maderization and developed an interesting richness. This effect was noted in some cognacs after only 20 – 30 years of barrel ageing but those from the Champagnes took longer to develop it. Charles Walter Berry of Berry Brothers is said to have described this character of fullness and fatness in some brandies as rankness (rancio), an effect also noted by some tasters of Roquefort cheese.

    cognac ageingIt is the oak barrels which produce this most agreeable ‘rancio’. Oak has little or none of the resinous substances found in other woods (that can pollute the spirit with undesirable tastes) and it provides a number of useful elements: tannins the best known comprise a mere 5% and lignin, equally vital, a further 23%. Much of the rest is made up of the relatively neutral hemi-cellulose which gradually dissolves in the maturing spirit and imparts an agreeable sweetness found in older cognacs. The tannins and lignins dissolve at different rates so after 5 years 10% of the lignins and 20% of the tannins will have been absorbed. After ten years this will have doubled but in later years the rate of absorbtion will slow. Conventional wisdom says that in some cases it takes 50 – 80 years to absorb all the tannins in the wood.

    Chemically, rancio derives from the oxidation of fatty acids in the spirit into ketones which produce the richness felt on the palate. It is reminiscent of an old madeira wine, a sort of rich pineapple mustiness which we all hope to find when tasting old cognacs. But this is only one of many chemical reactions and their effect on the palate. One team of scientists, led by Dr Heide, detected 334 ingredients in cognac; 24 acetals (ethylates of aldehyde and alcohol), 27 acids, 63 alcohols, 34 aldehydes, 25 ketones, 77 esters, 19 ethers, 3 lactones, 8 phenols and 44 diverse substances. Many of these substances have still not been separated and analysed; some form an important part of the mix; some strongly influence the taste. For example, ethyl compounds are strongly reminiscent of rotten fruit. Finding the right combination of these elements in an old cognac does not always happen but when it does you will know that you have tasted a very fine cognac that may have started its life as much as a hundred years ago. Perhaps the very best example of 'rancio' we can offer is the Hermitage 1914 Borderies.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Cognac Houses Address Climate Change

    As temperatures steadily rise across the globe, the knock on effect of climate change on viticulture is being felt by all wine producers. In the Cognac region it has been found that during the last 30 years, a 1°C increase in the maximum daytime temperature during the growing period of the vine has resulted in a 10 day advancement of the harvest. Whilst harvesting early has so far been successful, temperature increases also compromise the acid levels in the grapes (high acidity is essential for cognac production.) Longer term a different solution must be found so some of the big houses have got together to try and find one. Currently the majority of vineyards are planted with Ugni Blanc, a grape known for its high acidity levels, so a new grape variety, Monbadon, is now being trialled. Monbadon is known to have a higher level of acidity and lower level of alcohol than Ugni Blanc but it should have a similar aromatic profile and harvest later. Due to the ageing process of cognac, the overall experiment will take nine years but it is in 30 years’ time that the solution will be required, when global warming will have made a real impact.  Hermitage Cognacs are hand selected to take advantage of careful harvesting and ageing processes used during their production.

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