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Is Cognac Better Than Whisky?

An impossible question to answer, it is of course down to personal taste, but we do have a few facts to consider.  Cognac is made from grapes and whisky from grain so cognac can develop a variety of fruitful aromas and flavours which whisky cannot.  Both spirits are aged in barrels and improve over time but cognac is the more complex, takes longer to produce and inevitably, is more expensive.  Additionally, it is double distilled and must be made in accordance with strict regulations.  Whisky can be produced anywhere in the world but cognac must come from the designated Cognac region in France.  In the mid nineteenth century cognac was the most popular spirit in Britain.  Today it is renewing this popularity with very modern ‘rapper’ ambassadors like Jay-Z and Snoop Dog advocating cognac in their music and their personal lives.  In comparison, whisky has always had its fair share of celebrity endorsements and the recent launch of Haig Club by David Beckham is no exception.  Medicinally it’s said that cognac is better for your heart than whisky and rarely results in a hangover – great benefits certainly but for us, the sheer depth and intensity of flavour, fruitiness, warmth and complexity means that cognac will always be the King of Spirits.

A really magical example is the Hermitage 43 year old Cognac, sold by Brandyclassics.

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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.

Victorian Cognac Cocktails

Perhaps because we tend to think of cognac as the venerable grandfather of luxury spirits, the image of mixing it with anything which may contaminate its qualities has isolated it to the peak of individualism – only to be enjoyed by a certain type of aged gentleman, usually smoking a large cigar. On the other hand, perhaps we should thank the big cognac brands who, because of over selling the golden nectar to the Asian markets, are now forced to produce over sugared and caramelised young cognacs which are more readily accepted as suitable for cocktails.

During the mid-nineteenth century cognac became the biggest selling spirit in Britain with nearly sixty five million bottles being sold and the inevitability of cognac mixtures became a certainty. Indeed, Britain was the biggest single market for the spirit until phylloxera struck the vines in the mid 1870s.

Brandy was the obvious choice for mixing with other herbs and fruits as distilled grape wines were the easiest drinks to access for most people. The Benedictine monks in the twelfth century and the Troyan Monks in the fourteenth century who made the plum brandy known as Slivovitz, were famous for their concoctions made from herbs, nuts and fruits, variations of which are still available today. The fruit shrubs, made from vinegar are another form of pre-mixed herbal and fruit essence often used in connection with the modern day cocktail.

By the nineteenth century mixing brandies had become accepted. From the sixteenth century cognac was sold as a strong spirit to be cut back with water and indeed to many it was regarded as a strong wine. It was recorded in the American notes for General Distribution that in 1842, when Charles Dickens made his first trip to America, he made certain to partake of one of the greatest American inventions; the cocktail. Indeed the Cock Tail was the forerunner to the collective range of mixtures for which we use the same name now.  The recipe for the Cock Tail was written down by a Captain Alexander in 1833 and follows:

  • I tablespoon sugar or simple syrup
  • 2oz rye whiskey, rum or cognac
  • 3oz water
  • 4 dashes bitters
  • Nutmeg sprinkled on top.

Captain Alexander also described several other cocktail styled drinks that he had experienced in America including the Apple Toddy (baked apple pulp mixed with sugar, water and brandy) and the Port wine (Sangaree made with port, lemons, sugar and nutmeg).

This was not the first references to cocktails though, indeed during the reigns of the French Monarchy  from around Louis VI lemon was used to both provide a freshness to brandy and to clean the palate. However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spirits were used to make punches brought to our shores around 1632 by sailors of the East India Line. Most of these punches were of the Wassail type with either a wine or spirit base as evidenced in the first Punch House established in 1671. Historically the oldest known punch was the Bajan Rum Punch whose recipe was enshrined in rhyme. One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. These usually contained lemon, orange, pineapple and grenadine but virtually any fruits grown and mixed with the local spirit, or ships brandy taken from the Napoleonic warships, became the norm.

During the reign of Queen Victoria the use of more exotic fruits became favoured by the super-rich to identify themselves as well travelled and wealthy. Oranges, lemons and ginger were quite common additives.  Even some flowers, such as lavender, were used to supplement spices such as cinnamon, cloves and bergamot as well as Asian fruits, such as mangos and pineapple, which by now had become available in the wealthy areas of London.

Although white spirits were available in the Victorian era, they were not regarded in the purist way in which dark spirits were seen. White spirits, especially gin were seen more as cheap spirits which rendered ones senses to a state of inebriation. It wasn’t really until the turn of the twentieth century, when ice became more readily available, that their potential as a carrier of fruit and herb juices became obvious.

By the turn of the twentieth century many of the drinks discovered by the wealthy had started to attract a wider section of the population. The Mint Julip (1837) and the Gin Sling (1862), see below, complimented the more up-market Victorian bars and meeting places as well as the Brandy Alexander, made with chocolate and cream and its variants made with coffee from a brandy base. There were other variations that used banana and cream, also chocolate which perhaps may explain the wide girth of some of the wealthy Victorians.

Mint Julip  (1837)

  • 6-12 sprigs of mint
  • 1 tablespoon fine sugar or sugar syrup
  • 1 ½ oz brandy
  • 1 ½ oz peach brandy

The Gin Sling  (1862)

  • 1 tablespoon fine sugar
  • 2oz gin
  • 1oz water
  • Ice and nutmeg

Most of the cocktails used around the turn of the twentieth century were based on what was available and although the exotic drinks could be found in exclusive bars, such drinks as B and S (Brandy and Soda) and The Horses Neck (brandy and ginger ale) were easy to prepare. Sometimes the lemons and oranges (or mandarins), were combined with sugar to form variations on the more modern Sidecar cocktail where sweeter liqueur drinks such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier are mixed with cognac and lemon juice. Eliminating the orange liqueur and adding sugar, leaves one with a delicious Brandy Sour.

Combinations of the various flavours that were available to the Victorians and their brandies included drinks for every time of the day. Fruit liqueurs and eggs referred to as nogs were sometimes prepared for breakfast whilst brandies and lemons, sometimes mixed with sugar, were used as an aperitif before lunch.  However, the most traditional brandy drink was the neat cognac, often very old and served after dinner with a large cigar as the final drink of the day before retiring to face another day.

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 Limousin forests near Angouleme.  Most cognacs are aged in Limousin 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 – How to Buy Cognac as a Gift

“Christmas” we say with a sigh of disbelief, we have only just recovered from the last annual triumph of food and drink only to be confronted with identifying that special and very personal present for the person in our lives who means so much to us. This year, they say Christmas is for sharing, it is the 2014 theme for retailers so I thought I would share some trade thoughts with you, our unique and individual customers.

Cognac has always been a favourite of ageing fathers and grandfathers, I know, I fit the category myself, but did you know that the majority of our website customers are younger people seeking to find a present that offers a personal and individual offering of thanks or love to those near and dear to them. We recognised more than twenty years ago that customers could easily buy a bottle of highly blended VSOP or XO with all the additives necessary to make the young cognac taste reasonable.  But finding a bottle which is really special and different is a little harder and that’s where we can help.

When you’re buying cognac for someone else it’s sometimes difficult to know what style they prefer so I suggest taking a look at some of our most popular cognacs – Hermitage 2000 (toffee and mocha), Hermitage 1999 (mocha and roasted walnut), Hermitage 10 year old (fruity) and Provenance 30 (chocolate and roasted walnuts) – each one has been individually selected by me for their rich, smooth flavours and as a gift, never fails to please.  Each has been awarded a Cognac Master Medal proving that it is not just us who think they are delicious, the judges did too!  But, if you’re buying for a connoisseur, we recommend trying something more complex.  The Hermitage 43 year old is a triumph of complexity which has matured in a barrel for 43 long years and the Hermitage 1975 is another unique complexity of delicious aromas and flavours, just a little stronger than the minimum of 40%. These too make really special, thoughtful gifts for the cognac lover.

But if Christmas is for sharing this year, how about the Raymond Ragnaud Vieille Reserve Cognac presented with two tulip glasses, ideal for sharing with that special person?  And for those with differing tastes, I have something to share with you.  Pineau des Charentes is made from cognac and grape juice and aged in much the same way as cognac.  At 17% abv it’s the perfect aperitif and its sweet, rich flavour will go with your Christmas pudding wonderfully.  So to help you share this Christmas we are offering a bottle of Chateau de Beaulon 5 y.o. Pineau with 25% discount, with every bottle of Hermitage Cognac you buy.

Cheers and Happy Christmas.

David on Technical Topics – The Age of Cognac

I am not too sure that I should be writing about age as I have just had a rather significant birthday but I wanted to answer some of the questions that regularly come up about a cognac’s age. Many people ask me “what is the age of my VSOP or XO cognac” and the answer is that unless it is stated on the bottle, I simply do not know.  I can tell you what the minimum age should be – a VSOP must be at least 4 years old and an XO, a minimum of 6 years old.  However, these products are blends of cognacs of differing ages so it is impossible to quote a specific age. At Hermitage our cognacs come from single estates so we can clearly state the age on the label and our customers can be reassured about what is in the bottle.

Cognac distillation starts around the end of October when the wines are poured into the copper stills and boiled. This happens twice and after the second distillation the water clear eau de vie is put into a barrel and the ageing process commences. The distillation process must be finished before the 31st of March every year.  At this point the cognac is regarded as being nought years old; the following year on the 1st of April it becomes 1 year old. Cognacs, especially those from the top crus known as the Champagnes, may take as long as fifty or more years to fully develop their characteristics. Of course the majority is bottled when much younger so, to help hide the fiery, pale qualities of the young cognac, the big houses add sugar syrup and caramel.

So you see, I always want to know the precise age of the cognac – but as for mine, I will be keeping that under wraps!

David on Technical Topics – How to Taste Cognac

The brandy balloon glass is certainly an attractive and traditional way to drink cognac and it is probably the image we most associate with it. However, it is far from ideal because the surface area of the cognac in the glass is too large thereby allowing too much spirit to escape from the drink.  This spirit remains in the glass and blinds the aroma of the cognac. The best glass to use is a smallish tulip shaped one.  It should be filled to about a third full and then rotated gently so that the cognac comes into contact with the sides.  One should never swirl the cognac as this releases the spirit and blinds the aroma. The aroma is important because 50% of the enjoyment is in the smell of the drink perceived in the tasting.  Allow the cognac to stand for a while before bringing it gently to the nose. Try and recognise the different smells in the glass. They may be sweet or dry, fruity or nutty, they may be vibrantly fresh or like hay in a field, there are thousands of different aromas which can be identified on the cognac tasting wheel, a copy of which can be supplied next time you place an order with Brandyclassics.

Before tasting wash the mouth with water to clean away previous flavours, take a reasonably sized mouthful of the cognac and hold it in the mouth.  Try and identify where in the mouth you get the flavours and the effects it has in each part. Strong cognacs will often be felt on the front of the tongue whilst those at 40% are more likely to be felt all over the mouth. Compare the flavours and see if the taste matches the aroma.  Lastly, if you are comparing it with another spit it out and wash again.

The Complex Aroma of Cognac

The aroma of luxury cognac is, without doubt, part of its appeal but why is it so significant? Scientists from the Technische Universitat Munchen and the German Research Centre for Food Chemistry have found that food smells have 230 key aromas (or odourants).  The molecules that make up the odour of specific food stuffs comprise a group of between 3 and 40 odourants and it is the combination of these that mean we can instantly recognize a foodstuff by its smell before we see or taste it. The smell of butter, for instance, is created by 3 key molecules, strawberries have 12 but cognac has 36 different key odour molecules categorising it as the most complex of all foodstuffs.  This is important because the chemical codes of these odours are translated by the olfactory receptors in the nose, of which only 42 respond to food odours.  Since our senses of smell and taste are intertwined, the likelihood of us purchasing a product we can smell, which has complex aromas, is therefore greatly increased.  We can’t yet smell products advertised online but this research goes some way to explaining why aroma is so important when choosing different cognacs.

Try the theory out for yourself – our Hermitage 30 Year Old has a wonderful aroma of molasses, bitter chocolate, cardamom spice and ripe cherries whilst the Hermitage 43 Year Old has fresh straw, mangosteen, kumquats, grapefruit peel, thyme, almonds and a host of other wonderful smells  – how many can you recognise?

Protecting the name ‘Cognac’

The name ‘Cognac’ is protected by Geographical Indication – in other words it needs to be grown and produced in the Cognac region of France under strict conditions. Only brandy created using such a method is entitled to be marketed under the name of ‘Cognac’.  But this ruling did not stop Indian based company, KALS Distilleries from producing its own ‘French Cognac Brandy’.  It took a law suit, filed by the BNIC at the Madras High Court, to have the product name changed.  Protection of the name ‘Cognac’ is vital to the value and longevity of the industry and one that we wholeheartedly applaud.   It is reassuring to know that the regulatory body, the BNIC, is working effectively in this area.

In an attempt to further secure the future of Cognac they are also pursuing an application for the region to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although this will need some serious work, if successful it will see the vineyards of Cognac being recognized as sites of extreme importance alongside iconic locations such as the Taj Mahal and Mont-Saint-Michel.  The rules governing the use of the term ‘Cognac’ would certainly then become better known worldwide!

‘Cognac – The story of the world’s greatest brandy’ is launched

A new authoritative guide has just been published, written by Nick Faith and called simply ‘Cognac’. This wonderfully researched book covers every aspect of cognac’s long and colourful history, its development through time and a great deal of information on its production and ageing.  The book also includes a fully updated directory of the top producers and their products.  Cognac is the King of all spirits and has been around since the 16th century. It is a hugely complex and diverse spirit which is several stages on from wine and when understood properly, creates an incredibly exciting encyclopaedia of knowledge.  There are more than five thousand different cognacs, all created in different ways by different distillers.  It is a shame that so little is understood about cognac by sommeliers and bar managers.  Let us hope that Nick’s book gets the attention it deserves; it is not a mere guide, it is the standard to which we should all aspire.