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Learning about Brandy

  • 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.

  • Eau de vie (water of life) and eaux de vie (plural)

    This is probably the most used term in the cognac industry since it covers the transformation of the wine to a brandy. Cognacs are double distilled, the first distillation will transform the wine to a cloudy liquid with a strength around 27-30 %abv and known as brouillis The second distillation transform the brouillis into a water clear and very strong (67-72 %abv) spirit we call eau de vie which is then aged in oak casks for many years.  The eau de vie gradually mellows and changes colour as a result of the chemical (tannins, lignins and hemi-cellulose) contact with the wood. This transformation of eau de vie into good cognac is very slow and can take many decades although most is diluted and sold young, using sugar syrups and caramel to hide the fiery nature of the spirit.

    You can also buy ‘eaux de vie’ where various fruits have been added to the wines before distillation.  The resulting mixture can be sold as a clear fruit flavoured spirit such as Reserve Eau de Vie de Cerises - Kirsch . Most of these eaux de vie are produced in the Alsace region of France. They are not aged in oak like cognac since this would give them a colour.  In some cases they have macerated fruits added which produces a liqueur such as Doulce France - Liqueur de Framboise.  The fruit provides a much lower alcoholic strength and a distinctive and usually quite powerful flavour.

  • Numbers on Bottles (Age Statements) -The value in the bottle

    Throughout drinking history the age of a bottle’s content has always been contentious, in particular for wines and spirits where age can represent a substantial part of the bottle value. Defining the age of a cognac has, for the vast majority of companies, become all but impossible as they have to buy and blend as many as 3000 different cognacs to meet their sales requirements. To clarify the situation, a set of rules was created by the governing body of cognac, the Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac (BNIC). They require cognacs to be aged in oak casks for a specific period of time in order to fall into one of three categories. The youngest is the VS where cognacs must have been aged for more than two years before bottling. The second category is called VSOP where cognacs need to be more than 4 years old and the third category is Napoleon and XO, both of which must be more than 6 years old.

    But cognac ages very slowly, especially when stored in the ideal conditions for the spirit, and it is this ageing process that gives it both colour and taste.  Perhaps even more significant is that depending on the region or cru where it is aged, some cognacs can take three or four times longer to acquire an acceptable quality. Cognacs from the Champagnes (Grande and Petit Champagne) may take as long as 50 to 80 years to reach the desired level of maturity and quality.  They have to be distilled at 70 degrees in the final distillation so the subsequent reduction in strength can be very slow and the flavour take time to develop. Additives are widely used by the big houses to improve the colour and to reduce the fiery nature of young spirits.

    At Brandyclassics our policy is to only buy cognacs where we know the age and where, particularly with young cognacs, the flavour is not impaired by their youthful aging. We refer to ages, for example a 10 year old where the cognac has been aged in an oak cask for 10 years, and vintages, for example 1975 where the cognac was made in that year and can be any number of years old up to the bottling date. Once the cognac has been bottled, or in the case of some very old ones stored in bonbonnes for later bottling, the quality and taste of each cognac will not change, unless the cork is left out for a considerable period.

    Of course, the value of the bottle of cognac with an age statement depends on a number of factors. Firstly, where the cognac comes from, if it is from the top cru, Grande Champagne then it will usually be of greater value than one from a lower cru, say Fins Bois or Bon Bois. Secondly, if the cognac is very old, it will have aged in cellars for a long time and that is expensive. Lastly, many vintage cognacs are in very short supply, particularly those that were made in the early 19th century.   For example where the cognac is very rare and has a story attached to it such as the Massougnes 1801 and 1805, the value can easily be between £10,000 and £150,000.  However, it is worth noting that with some younger cognacs the age of the cognac may be well short of the period between the date and the vintage on the bottle. So when buying old cognacs always try and establish the actual barrel age.  Hermitage Cognacs will always have a bottling date on the back label so that you can be sure how old the cognac is.

  • Did You Know? The First Pineau

    The Summer months are the best time of the year to consider the cool and refreshing Pineau des Charentes - a drink that has found favour with all those who taste the magical richness.

    There is no official record of how the drink first came about but the common belief is that it was first made in the sixteenth century. Legend has it that Pineau was created when a winemaker accidently dropped some grapes into a barrel which contained some brandy. The resulting taste after it had aged was found to be so good that it became a regular practice and a new drink was formed.

    The most common type of Pineau is white and made from the indigenous grape varieties such as ugni blanc, folle blanche, sauvignon and chardonnay. The Charente also grows cabernet sauvignon and merlot, found in many of the great clarets from nearby Bordeaux. The rules are that the eau de vie and grape juice (or “must”) have to come from the same producer and the resulting mixture is aged in their cellars. Most of the Pineau is aged from anything between three and ten years, but some have been kept in their oak casks for more than twenty years. There are even a few vintage Pineau’s available now, the finest of them being the 1995 from Beaulon which was aged in casks from Chateau d’Yquem.



  • Did You Know? 19th Century Cognac History

    Continuing from our previous post about early Cognac history, some more historical dates in time about the golden nectar...

    • 1835 Felix Courvoisier and Louis Gallois found Cognac Courvoisier
    • 1849 Martell use their own labels on their bottles for the first time
    • 1854 Cognacs depict 4 different zones of cognac. Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Premier Bois and Deuxième Bois
    • 1856 Hennessy start to label bottles
    • 1858 The House of A E Dor is founded in Jarnac
    • 1865 Hennessy start to use stars to denote cognac quality
    • 1870 The maps of the Charente regions show Fins Bois and Bon Bois for the first time
    • 1872 Phylloxera destroys most of the vines in Cognac
    • 20th Century Phylloxera resistant Ugni Blanc Vines imported from America largely replace Folle Blanche and Colombard.
    • 1909 The six cognac crus are established and are protected by law
    • 1927 Fine Champagne is defined on Remy Martin VSOP bottles
    • 1936 Strict new rules of definition for cognac production introduced
    • 1946 The Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac is founded
    • 1993 Cognac region expands to 87,313 hectares
    • 2003 America becomes the biggest cognac importer
  • Did You Know? Early Brandy History

    Very few of us are aware that French Brandies have a long history, indeed they are some of the oldest distilled spirits. Here are a few facts for your next bar quiz..

    • 1411 First brandy, as we now know it, distilled in Armagnac, mainly for farmers.
    • 1494 Francois 1 is born in Cognac and later allows traders to use the Charente river to ship salt to the ports.
    • 1549 First Brandy appears in Cognac, a merchant from La Rochelle produced four casks of “good cognac”.
    • 1643 Philippe Augier founds first cognac house, Augier Freres. 1678 Cogniack Brandy is mentioned in the London Gazette..
    • 1696 Louis XIV grants Frapin Family high aristocratic status. 1715 Jean Martell arrives in Cognac from Jersey.
    • 1724 Paul-Emilie Remy Martin and his father start Remy Martin. 1725 Isaac Ranson starts a trading house in Cognac.
    • 1762 James Delamain becomes a partner of Ranson Delamain.
    • 1765 James Hennessy from Ireland starts trading Cognac Hennessy
    • 1795 James Hennessy marries Marthe Martell. Otard Dupuy started.
    • 1797 Thomas Hine and Elisabeth Delamain marry
    • 1817 First use of classification VOP-very old pale and VSOP used

    More to follow next month!

  • Did you know? Distillation

    Distillation is essentially a physical rather than a chemical action and is in effect the concentration of a wine mixture or fermented fruit or grain. It is a means of separating the constituents of a liquid mixture by partial vaporisation of the mixture and the separate recovery of the vapour and the alcoholic residue. In the case of making brandy, the grapes must conform to strict standards, mainly to control their quality and defects since both are concentrated in the distillation. The grapes used to make fine brandy have to combine both acidity and fruitiness but in cheaper distillations such as pomace brandy the pips and skins are also used. The main quality required is for the wines to be “clean”, the term generally implies free from sulphur dioxide which can occur if the grapes are left too long before crushing. The principle of distillation is simplicity itself, the process is designed to remove the alcohol which boils at 78.3°C and other impurities in the wine from the water which is the bulk of the liquid and then capturing the alcohol separately. The alcoholic steam rises to the head of the still before condensing through a series of pipes back to a liquid.

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