How Do I Choose the Best Cognac?

David Bishop

Cognac is a type of brandy made exclusively in the area around the town of Cognac in western France. Cognac distilleries produce this drink by pressing and fermenting local grapes, then boiling the liquid down until it has a high concentration of alcohol. The resulting product is aged for several years and is eventually mixed with other varieties to achieve consistent flavoring. Cognac production is carefully monitored by the French government and must conform to certain quality grades based on age and other factors. A first-time buyer looking for the best cognac for himself might try a bottle labeled "Very Special" (VS), which indicates the cognac has been aged for at least two years; someone looking for a bottle as a gift or for a special occasion could look for a more expensive Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) or Extra Old (XO) designation.

A bottle of cognac.
A bottle of cognac.

Age is the most important factor in determining the value and quality of the best cognac. Less expensive labels marked VS will only have been aged for two years and may have been mixed with water to get the correct alcohol content. These blends will have absorbed less flavor from the combination of aging and evaporation of alcohol. Bottles with the VS label are appropriate for those new to cognac, who may not have developed a sophisticated enough palate to appreciate the complexities of older brandies and, thus, would be spending money unnecessarily if they were to buy a higher-quality cognac. The flavor of cognac does not develop after bottling, so consumers can’t purchase a VS label and keep it on the shelf to age.

Those looking for the best cognac experience should taste from a balloon- or tulip-shaped glass.
Those looking for the best cognac experience should taste from a balloon- or tulip-shaped glass.

The VSOP label denotes a blend in which the youngest component has been aged for at least four years. These bottles offer a slightly more nuanced experience than the VS label while remaining affordable for most occasions. This label represents the best cognac for the experienced consumer who wants to enjoy the occasional after-dinner drink.

The XO, Napoleon and hors d’age designations are applied to blends that have been aged for at least six years. Some of the most expensive cognac varieties may have aged for 20 years or more. These products are for the most discerning cognac consumer and represent a great deal of time and craftsmanship on the part of the distiller. XO labels can be saved for special occasions when the consumer is looking for a unique taste.

Those looking for the best cognac experience should taste from a balloon- or tulip-shaped glass. This glassware allows the delicate aroma of the brandy to concentrate before being consumed. Many cognac drinkers enjoy this drink along with a nice cigar to complete a fine dining experience.

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