If you've steered clear of cognac out of fear that it's too expensive, too cryptic, too old, or, frankly, too young for your blood -- come back. It's time to embrace the brandy.
Cognac is a type of brandy (wine that's distilled and then aged in oak) that comes only from, well, Cognac, a region in western France. Making cognac is a slow, painstaking process that still largely follows the methods established in the 17th century. The spirit begins as a blend of the region's white wine grapes, which is then double-distilled in copper stills, resulting in a potent clear liquor that must spend at least 20 months in oak before it can earn its name.
The aging process is the first place that cognac picks up its famous rich, aromatic character; the blending process takes it the rest of the way home. Master blenders marry the aged spirits from a variety of vineyards and distilleries, aiming to create any given house's signature flavor profile. The "age" of the final blend is technically the age of the youngest cognac in the mix. Unlike table wine, cognac cannot, by law, be labeled with a vintage year. The goal of a master blender is to churn out a blend, year after a year, that remains consistent despite vintage variations.
Given that cognac's from France, it's no shock that its labeling tends to get a little ornate. There are a handful of acronyms commonly used (and legally designated) to convey a bottle's age.
V.S. -- Very Superior: The cognac is aged less than 4 1/2 years. This level can also be denoted with a series of three stars.
V.S.O.P. -- Very Superior Old Pale: Cognac aged between 4.5 and 6.5 years. These bottlings can also be labelled VO (Very Old), or simply marked "Reserve."
X.O. -- Extremely Old: This is where it gets pricey. X.O. bottlings -- also labeled occasionally as Napoleon, Hors d'age, V.S.S.O.P., Cordon Bleu, Grand Reserve, or Royal -- contain cognac that has been aged at least 5.5 years and up to 40.
If you want to start at the top, proceed directly to Remy Martin, the standard-bearer for cognac quality for nearly 300 years. For an entry level version of the house's finest, start with V.S.O.P., a good starter bottle available for around $35. If you've just won the lottery or had a record go platinum, investigate their Louis XIII bottles, which can run from $2,000 to $100,000. Beyond Remy, you'll find Martell, Hine Cognac, Hennessy, Hardy, and Courvoisier worth splashing into your new snifters.
The Best Part
Cognacs share a smooth, deep flavor with extremely complex aromas that typically include notes of vanilla, caramel, and smoke. While there are cocktail recipes that make use of the spirit, it's best taken straight, in a deep, wide glass that will allow the aromas to accumulate. Adding a steak and a cigar never hurt, either.