Brandy and Cognac: The Differences
Perhaps one of the most common follies among liquor drinkers is mistaken identity between cognac and brandy. I, myself, have been strolling down the aisle way at my local large grocery store looking at whatever mixers or liqueurs they have that might catch my eye when I noticed a woman staring blankly at the shelves with a confused look on her face about fifteen feet away. Out of courtesy, I walked over to ask her if I could possibly assist her in looking for something. After explaining to me that she was interested in cognac, I paused and recalled where I saw the cognac section and walked her over to it. We stood six or seven feet apart due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and I was about three feet from the shelves, so I simply pointed in the general direction to guide her to the right section. But wouldn't ya know it? They stocked their entire line of brandies directly under their stock of cognacs. Next thing you know, I see her walking out of the aisle and off towards the checkout lanes with a bottle of brandy in her hands. I ran to her as safely as I could, and informed her of the error. After taking a deep breath and saying, "Whew! That was close!", she thanked me and went about her way. This is a perfect demonstration of how easy it is to mistake one for another. The differences might seem subtle, but the end result can be seriously impacted by the distinctive variables.
Let's start off by defining Brandy.
Brandy refers to any spirit that is distilled from fruit-based wine, though in general it refers to grape wines. Brandy can be made from any fruit wine such as pear, plum, or apple (Calvados) as long as it is labeled with the fruit it is made from. The taste of brandy varies depending on the fruit it is made from and its age, but generally they are sweeter than whiskey and taste of flowers, fresh and dried fruit, and citrus zest.
One important thing that separates brandy from cognac is the defined age designations placed on distillers for each level of quality assigned. The three major designations under brandy are:
- VS (Very Special) Brandy must be aged no less than 2 years
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) Brandy must be aged no less than 4 years
- XO (Extra Old) Brandy must be aged no less than 6 years
While older brandies are certainly enjoyable sipped straight, the VS, and in many cases, the VSOP are better off mixed in tall drinks or classic cocktails. Brandy is often mixed with coke, but due to the flavor profile of brandy, it also pairs very well with citrus. Consider trying to mix it with lemonade or a lemon/lime flavored soda. Brandy is also a staple for cooking and is great with desserts. When cooking with brandy, only VS should be used.
Some brands are mass produced and kept young and are best mixed regardless of the age designation, such as E&J or Christian Brothers, but there are many smaller brands that are great on their own that are aged much longer. Germain Robin is one such company.
Cognac is slightly unique from brandy, which is evident the sourced components used to create the spirit. As a matter of fact, all cognacs are brandies - but not all brandies are cognacs! For a brandy to be a cognac, they must follow very strict regulations that are governed by the A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in France.
- Cognac can only be made from the following grapes: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, or Folle Blanche varieties.
- It must be distilled twice in copper Alembic stills.
- The resulting distillates, (eaux de vie, or water of life), must then be aged for a minimum of two years in charred oak barrels made from the trees of the nearby Limousin or Tronçais forests.
The first rule dictates the grapes, but also the regions that are distinctively used to create cognac worldwide. These guidelines have been set down by the A.O.C. to protect both the heritage of cognac, as well as the natural sensory profile of cognac, lending it a recognizable and consistent flavor. This has been in place since the large four houses of the Cognac region were originally in power from back in the 17th century. Their grapes were their livelihood. Grapes grown in the cognac region are grown in one of six different terroirs, or growing regions, and include the Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne. The Grande Champagne terroir is the most coveted and cognacs bearing the “Fine Champagne” label must be made of at least 50% Grande Champagne and the remainder Petite Champagne.
Once the grapes are harvested and crushed, they are distilled down in the copper alembic stills, creating the eaux de vie spirit prior to blending. If the spirit is not yet blended, it is still called eaux de vie, once blended, it is then considered to be cognac. All Cognacs are blended which is what gives them their complex flavor. These blended flavors can vary greatly depending on the aging as well as the types of barrels used for aging; the sessile and pedunculate oak wood. Cognacs are almost always considerably older than brandies, even though they are essentially governed by the initial restrictions of brandy, then land within the limit of cognac.
Cognac, being its own separate spirit from brandy, has its own specially assigned designations that refer to both the age and quality of the spirit. The categories of cognac are as follows:
- VS (Very Special) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie with a minimum of two years age in a cask. Other denominators or expressions that are permitted with this class are "3 Stars" or "Luxury".
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged no less than four years in a cask. The VSOP category includes designations such as "Old" or "Reserve".
- Napoleon – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged a minimum of six years. From Napoleon on up, these Cognacs are meant only to be sipped. They begin having noticeable influences from the barrel and will taste of dried fruits and spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The Napoleon grade was introduced by Courvoisier and is more affordable than an XO.
- XO (Extra Old) – Usually a blend of eaux de vie aged a minimum of six years in a cask. although after 2018, new A.O.C. regulations state that the minimum is now ten years. The XO is the standard by which all Cognac houses are judged and is certainly the starting point for those looking for a ‘good’ cognac. Incidentally, "Napoleon" and "Old Reserve" are designations that are used in association with cognac that similar in quality to XO.
- Extra – Considered to be higher in quality than XO, extra cognacs are made from the special reserves of the house’s Paradise Cellar, where their finest eau de vie are stored. They are released each year in limited batches and usually come in handmade decanters adorned with precious metals. The tastes can include notes of jasmine, iris, passion fruit, cigar box, vanilla, and earthy black truffle.
- Hors d’Age (Without Age) – The top marque in any Cognac house. These blends can be 30, 40, 50, even up to a 100 years old! They are often made from private family reserves in very limited numbers. In most cases, once they are gone, they are gone for good. They often come in handmade crystal decanters that are themselves valued at several hundred dollars, and do not accurately depict the magnificent taste of these cognacs.
In addition to the commonly seen categories that you will frequently notice on cognac bottles while perusing the liquor aisle, there are a few designation and marketing labels that can throw some people off. To arm you with the right tools when you march to the battlefront of brandy and cognac, perhaps having some memory of these terms might help you avoid confusion or being duped.
- XXO - The newest grade of cognac that was introduced recently after several cognac companies lobbied the INAO (the National Institute of Origin and Quality) to make it official. This designation requires that the eaux de vie be aged for no less than fourteen years. Placing this grade slightly below Extra, but comparable in quality.
- Extra - In general, cognacs that are designated to be 'Extra' quality have been aged for fifteen years or more in casks. It's generally regarded that a cognac of an Extra quality is superior to that of an XO.
- Vintage - A Vintage Cognac is a Cognac from a single year and a single harvest, not a blend from different eaux-de-vie like an XO or a VSOP. It is also referred to as a Millésime Cognac. In order for a Cognac house to be allowed to bottle a Vintage, there are legal obligations that need to be followed. The National Cognac Bureau (BNIC) has to verify that procedure is respected. In whiskeys, this connotation is equal to "single barrel".
There is also these three, which are considered 'exclusive' and rare grades of cognac, sometimes costing thousands of dollars per bottle. Although the appellation board of France closely monitors the minutia of these definitions, there is one basic commonality between them. Each of these three grade can be aged anywhere between thirty to a hundred years! Subjective palates and the unique complexity of cognac assures that the experience is different for each person.
- Réserve Familiale (Family Reserve)
- Très Vieille Réserve (Very Old Reserve)
One thing to keep in mind, is that cognac has a natural color to it when aged in the casks. After having been aged for a certain period of time, the company will often add dye or artificial coloring to add the alluring hues, making it seem darker and older to the eye.Here is a visual to help you get an idea of where the natural color line begins to fade into the areas where color is added.
Be aware and stay alert for promotional campaigns from larger companies that will attempt to create a trend or follow a current popular social trend by slightly adjusting the recipe, rebranding the label/box or container, or merely assigning it a superlative designation. Promotional designations like “black” or “double oaked” or “very fine Cognac” are used by brands to market their Cognac brandies to signify a special batch. Often times, these special releases contain additional caramel coloring, sugars or artificial dyes to give the visual appearance of having additional quality and age.
Choosing a brandy or cognac is a choice driven by personal preference and your history with trusted brands and vendors. Brandies are multitudinous in variety and flavors, with ethnic and novel types of brandy being introduced to American drinkers all the time. Alternatively, cognac is somewhat limited in the number of notable, major brands that are available to select from, but there are numerous subcategories and smaller brands to choose from that will assure you the quality and sensory profile that you are looking for.
We wish you well on your journey into brandies and cognacs, and we certainly hope that we've been able to assist you with some more information to arm yourself with the next time you visit the store. Enjoy your day, drink responsibly, and have a safe, relaxing day.