Cognac for Beginners

Learning to love France's famous brandy


Few spirits pack more iconographic baggage than cognac. Mention its name and you'll summon snifters and cigars, club chairs and club-goers. Smoking jackets, hip hop stars, and entourages; squat, cut-crystal bottles worth thousands, poured in libraries and dressing rooms where no luxury is spared. Forget Fernet and skip the scotch: Cognac is where Jay Z and Thurston Howell collide. Are you really going to turn down an invite to that party?

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.
The Basics

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 Blends

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.

The Bottles

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.

The Brands

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.

Mentioned in this article


  • Martell Cordon Blue - Hennessy Paradis - Centaur Napoleon - these are the stuff of dreams!
    I have never been a liquor snob, but if I had to choose between a whole bottle of V.S. or one nice fat snifter of one of the above, I'd go with the "age inconnu" every time. There are workable budget gins and vodkas to stretch your party dollar - treat yourself to a GOOD bottle of Cognac (or perhaps better still, an Armagnac, which pre-dates Cognac in French literature by 400 years!) Even if you only have one drink every year on your birthday, and then back in the rack. Sure, you will...
    ...and while we're at it, the third great French brandy, Calvados, made from apples! Try them all! Your tongue will love you for it!

    Oct 26, 2010 at 10:10 PM

  • A few years ago I found Delamain cognacs, and really enjoy them, find a good value for the dollar. A little lighter, often considered one of the "feminine" house styles, but great depth and a long finish. I would rather buy a single bottle of these than 2 bottles of the entry level of the more common brands, and sip it more judiciously.

    Oct 27, 2010 at 1:11 AM

  • Snooth User: bdf
    601254 5

    After a change in the AOC regulations vintage dated Cognac is now available from producers like Hine.

    A number of far-sighted producers have held stock under lock and key, with the local customs authorities holding the key to ensure provenance, in anticipation of this change, meaning that as soon as it came about stock was available immediately.

    In the UK Hine sell two distinct styles of vintage Cognac, Jarnac matured vintage Cognacs and Early Landed Cognac, which has spent most of its life maturing in cool, humid cellars in Bristol. The Jarnac cellars are less humid, warmer and enjoy a less consistent temperature, which gives a spirit darker and fuller flavoured with more rancio character. The Early Landed style is more delicate, lighter and with more pronounced fruit character.

    Oct 27, 2010 at 4:26 AM

  • Snooth User: Setsuko
    167067 1

    What about some of the "lesser" brands or more cost reasonable brands? Is there some detail, chart or recommends on those that would not insult your palate or your guests?

    Oct 27, 2010 at 7:36 AM

  • Snooth User: hkg
    417442 1

    We are trying to mastch food with a Cognac tasting (the five regions: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois).
    Does anybody have any suggestions apart from foie gras?

    Oct 27, 2010 at 8:36 AM

  • Snooth User: davine1
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    346797 27

    I concur with BAWDY Cliff, Delamain is one of the finest cognacs available. The Pale and Dry (entry level) is aged an average of 20 years, Vesper is 35 years old and they taste like it Very smooth and a little fruitier than most other cognacs. I think it's the Grande Champagne grapes they use.

    Oct 27, 2010 at 10:34 AM

  • Snooth User: bigg6455
    287884 1

    Best value for the dollar? In my book, it is Kelt VSOP. All Kelt products are sent on an "around the world" voyage; the French noted hundreds of years ago that cognacs shipped to the new world were smoother than those sipped at home, and surmised the movement of the ocean passage might be a factor. Seek out Kelt VSOP and give it a try - smooth, hints of caramel, luxurious texture, and a real bargain in cognacs.

    Oct 27, 2010 at 10:36 AM

  • Snooth User: gote
    573107 9

    Sorry guys/gals, nothing, absolutely nothing compares to Remy Martin "Extra", (somewhat costly but worth it) except "Louis X!!!" for the very special occasion
    Roger R

    Oct 27, 2010 at 1:40 PM

  • Snooth User: kulhluk
    90347 12

    Ahhh, the cognacs
    Certainly all of the mentioned are fine, but I would like to add another, purely for comment. Back in the late '60s I had a semiconductor company, and in my office, a liquor cabinet which seemed to come in handy from time to time with my best customers. The cognac was an Otard Napoleon, in an incredibly sensuous cut crystal vessel. Don't recall enough how to relate the taste at that time to what is currently available. Anyone out there old enough to have partaken of this wonderful cognac? Still have the silver "neclace" that declared that it was a Napoleon, somewhere (I think).

    Oct 27, 2010 at 3:15 PM

  • Reading the article and these comments made me go to my bottle of Hennessy XO and pour the last of it into a snifter this evening. It was a bit expensive, but worth every penny. It has brought much enjoyment ! Will now be heading to the local state store this weekend to pick up another bottle. May try something else that others have mentioned.

    Oct 27, 2010 at 6:45 PM

  • Snooth User: JunoDan
    623406 1

    Wow, there are some good comments. Delamain IS good and Kelt is excellent (especially the XO). Let me add a few others... Pierre Ferrand's Abel and Ancestrale can cost you but beat much more expensive ones. Also, give Germain-Robin Brandy a try... out of Ukiah, California in Mendocino wine country. Terrific. Nice to see other afficionados.
    Dan's a fan

    Oct 28, 2010 at 12:02 AM

  • No need to spend a ton of money on cognac check out some small distilers with unknown names i find REMY overrated.

    Oct 28, 2010 at 3:02 PM

  • For all the Cognac drinkers out there I recommend you try a bottle or two of Armagnac. While Cognac companies spent tons of money on spokespersons and packaging Armagnac producers are often too small scale to afford such extravagances and instead pour their energy and focus into making the best product they possibly can. A great bottle of XO Armagnac will often times cost quite a bit less than an XO Cognac would while offering a lot more in terms of richness and flavor. And while Cognac producers are only more recently allowed to release vintage-dated bottles, most Armagnac producers have bottles dating back to the late 1800s sitting quietly in their cellars.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 11:54 AM

  • The Spanish Brandies are equally as good as the French Cognac's.

    Nov 02, 2010 at 4:20 PM

  • Snooth User: srsalo
    306920 3

    What kind of sugar content does Cognac have? Can the sugar content vary? I do not like sweet drinks!

    Nov 02, 2010 at 4:39 PM

  • Cognacs are delightful, if often prohibitively priced. What I want to know -- and I'm beginning to despair in my search -- is are there no American brandies of quality? It's not as if we don't have hundreds of excellent, world-class vineyards and growing regions. If anyone knows of any, please advise!

    Nov 03, 2010 at 12:59 PM

  • Dear gwphillips

    Go to your favorite wine merchant and see what they have in any brandy
    made by Germain Robin. It will give most of the cognacs discussed above a heck of a run for your money Good Luck

    Nov 18, 2010 at 2:07 AM

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    Sep 23, 2018 at 1:33 AM

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