The Art of Making Cognac and Artisanal Brandy: 19 Things You Need to Know Now

There are a variety of brandy styles and Cognac is just one of them. Beyond the most popular French style made from wine grapes, there are more special designations including  the type of  fruit used, where it is made, the method of distillation, the aging process and more.

If you just learned today that Cognac is a form of brandy, your brandy IQ is in for a real boost.

Unmasking the fine art of brandy making, including Cognac brandy from France, artisanal brandy from in California and so much more…

Before you reach for the most popular brandy and twist the cap, here’s 19 things you need to know now about French Cognac and artisanal brandy. 

1. What is Brandy?

Brandy is a distilled spirit produced from fermented fruit juice. The fruit most often used are grapes but it can be made from apples, plums, cherry, pear and more with the type of fruit listed on the bottle.

Ugni Blanc Grapes / Photo Credit: Rémy Martin
More Fruits Distilled Into Brandy
What Brandy it is not.

Brandy is not a type of whiskey. Brandies are made from fruit – whereas whiskey is made from grain, including wheat, corn and malted barley.

The word brandy originally comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, which literally means burnt wine.

In the 13th century, Dutch traders were busy at European seaports loading their ships with salt. Whenever there was room, they would fill the remaining cargo space with wines from France. But there was a problem. They soon discovered the fermented grapes  would spoil over the long sea voyage. The wines would become acidic and unpalatable, before long turning into a vinegary mess that was worth little to nothing.

The solution? Dutch traders invented – others say stole – a technique that successfully shipped wine in limited cargo space by removing the water by burning it down to its essence. Later, adding the water back into the wine concentrate at the port.

Traders favored the more stable, twice-distilled wine called brandewijn or “burnt wine” as it was known to their fellow Netherlanders.

Like the invention of the number system, algebra, toothbrushes, coffee and more, the spread of modern spirits distillation came to Europe from the Arab world. 

Traders had taken a page from the Arab alchemists’ playbook – boiling down the wine to extract its quintessence.

Although the exact origin of stills and distillation remains unknown, alchemists from Saracena, Italy conducted some of the first scientific studies on distillation from the middle ages and attributed the invention of the Alembic still used for purifying alcohol to Muslim alchemists in the 9th century. In particular, Jabir ibn Hayyan who is commonly referred to as one of the fathers of modern chemistry.

2. The Magic of Alembic Pot Stills

The name Alembic is derived from the Arabic al-anbiq, meaning still or ‘that which refines’, and from the Greek ambix, which means cup or pot.  These early Alembic stills were made from clay pots and glass tubes and share the same basic components of any modern-day copper-pot Alembic still, including a pot, a swan neck lid, and a condensing unit.

Ancient Alembic Alchemist Still

THE BRANDY MAKING PROCESS

First, the fruit is fermented into wine then heated at a temperature generally around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, releasing the alcohol spirit to be captured. Once this distillation process is complete, the aging process begins.

In transporting the burned down spirit, the Dutch happened upon another happy accident:

The wooden barrels used to house the distillate added considerable flavor – with hints of vanilla, spice, and rancio, a sweet nut flavor. The wood added a golden-brown color and mellowed the spirit into the smoother, easier-drinking brandy we have today.

The barreling is key to differentiating both the quality and variety of the brandy. The final step is to blend the liquor with other barrels of brandy and water to taste and alcohol strength.

3. The proof explained: Alcohol Spirits that kindled gunpowder were said to be above proof

The majority of brandies are bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof). To measure the alcohol strength, a given quantity of spirits would be poured on a dish piled with gunpowder, then set on fire. If at the end of the flame, the gunpowder remained dry enough to exploded, it was “proof” there was more alcohol and less water.

But if the gun powder had been made wet with water and the flame extinguished without setting the powder on fire, the proof of alcohol was weak.

Hardly an exact science. The archaic technique only served to prove the alcohol spirit was too weak to kindle gunpowder, but gave little information as to its measured strength. The science has certainly improved.

4. France is the country most famous for making brandy?

The flag of France

The Bordeaux region of Southern France has been making great tasting wines for centuries. But there was a balled-headed stepchild next door: The wine from Cognac.

Even after Cognac wine was burnt down and barreled, the raw distilled version still tasted bitter, sharp and flavorless.

But something had happened during the maiden voyage. The burnt wine underwent a change in taste as it patiently rested in the barrels. The wood yielded its essence to the wine, making it mellow and sweet.

The traders discovered that the third-rate wine from Cognac grapes made a stellar drink that tasted superior to those made from other French grapes.

The legend of French Cognac brandy was born!

5. What is Cognac Brandy?

Cognac Grapes are the worst for making wine but great for making brandy.

Have you ever had wine French wine from the Cognac region? Probably not. But the sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet burnt wine that offers notes of butterscotch and vanilla remains a favorite of brandy lovers all over.

Hennessy and other leading Cognacs have up their prices by 10% and more.

Close to 200 cognac producers exist with Courvoisier (owned by Beam Suntory), Hennessy (LVMH), Martell (Pernod Ricard), and Rémy Martin (Rémy Cointreau) among the best known brands.

“Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine.” 

Brandy made from grapes has always needed special care. The preservation and evolution of the spirit was made possible by the oldest religious orders. One pioneer in the “méthode champenoise,” or the “traditional method” of making sparkling wine, was a Benedictine monk whose name now adorns one of the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon.

Brandy is one of the oldest distilled spirits in the world.

Brandy was first distilled in France around the year 1313, but initially only as a medicine with physicians proclaiming it “the water of life,” or the French “eau de vie”. After fermentation and double distillation period, the Eau de vie of fruit brandy is colorless and typically of a very light fruit flavor.

There are some really strict laws about Cognac also known as French brandy.

To be called Cognac, The Cognac AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée, or appellation of origin) dictates that the French brandy can only be produced in the Cognac region of France by law.

The Cru, also known as the growing region of the grapes or fruit, is a term used more often when talking about Cognac, which has six official growing regions in France.
Cognac grapes vineyard

The “Premier Cru”, or the best group of vineyards, are the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne located at the centre of the six regions. The four remaining crus are the Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.

ugni blanc grapes

Cognac must be made of 90 percent Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and/or Colombard grapes. Another list of approved grapes can make up the remainder. The Cognac’s AOC mimics the regulations imposed by famous French wines.

Cognac grapes must be harvested only in October, and it must be distilled only from November 1st to March 31st.

The white wine used in making cognac is very dry, acidic, and thin and even though it is characterized as “virtually undrinkable”, it is excellent for distillation and aging.

Charentais copper Alembic stills
Cognac is still produced by double distillation in traditionally shaped Charentais copper alembic stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled.

The spirit is then aged in new oak casks for one year and transferred to used oak casks for further aging. Cognac brandy must be aged for at least two years in Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels from one of two specific French forests.

Tronçais Forest is appreciated for its exceptional quality of oak, enabling Charentais coopers to make barrels  for the aging of the greatest cognacs.

If your last name is Cooper there’s a good chance someone in your family’s history was making barrels back in the day.

A barrel maker is known as a Cooper. Photo credit: The Old Corked LIfe

6. Brandy doesn’t continue to age

Unlike the wine it’s made from, Cognac won’t improve with time. But as long as you keep it in a cool, dark place, it will stay just as delicious as the day it was bottled until the day you crack it open.

7. The darker the Cognac, the older 

Younger Cognacs tend to be lighter and more honeyed in color; older Cognacs take on a rich amber hue thanks to the tannins of the French oak.

8. Why people drink Cognac from those big bulbous glasses

Those big bulb glasses called snifters are designed to channel heat from the meaty grip of your hands. Traditionally, Brandy is best enjoyed at around 70 degrees.

9. French Cognac brandy is a versatile spirit

Especially if it’s a young (VS or VSOP) Cognac. Mixing it with Coke, ginger ale, or even Champagne certainly won’t get you kicked out of the club or rejected by your homies.

Photo credit. Bobby Biz

Hennessy and coke for some is a right of passage.

Two classic cognac cocktails to enjoy anywhere are the Sidecar (cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice) and the Old Fashioned (cognac with brown sugar and bitters).

Classic Sidecar Ingredients 50 ml Cognac 30 ml Triple sec 20 ml Lemon juice (freshly squeezed) 15 ml Chilled water (omit if using wet ice)

10) Cognac brandy rating system

A.C.: two years old, aged in wood.
V.S. : “Very Special”, three year in wood. It’s often called “Three Star.”
V.S.O.P.: “Very Superior Old Pale” Minimum aging, Five year in wood, It’s often called, “Five Star.”
X.O.: “Extra Old” Minimum aging of Six years. X.O.s include Napoleon and (Vieille) Reserve.
Napoleon: at least 4 years old, mostly much older than 4 years
Varietal: Armagnac, which has a label, showing Varietal means it may be produced by one kind of grape.
Vintage: It must be stored in the cask until the time it’s bottled with the label showing the vintage date on.
Hors D’age: It means too old to determine the age.

11. The reputation of Cognac has as much to do with the “cool factor” as how it’s made

The French don’t touch cognac. Instead, they export more than 97 percent of it, according to the tourist board of Poitou-Charentes, the administrative region where Cognac is located.

Only a tiny fraction of cognac – just 2 to 3 per cent – is sold in France.

The U.S. is the single the largest market for Cognac and African-Americans are by far the biggest customer

Popularity in African-American Culture

The 5th National Guard Regiment Band, Underwood Archives

Black Soldiers from World War I introduced Jazz to Europe and returned to America with brandy made in France.

The connection between cognac and African-American culture was likely bolstered by Black soldiers returning from Wars in Europe and the arrival of black artists and musicians like Josephine Baker, who filled Paris clubs with jazz and blues during the interwar years, according to Dr. Emory Tolbert, a history professor at Howard University.

Josephine Baker

Back in the States, the more common option was whiskey – a spirit made by American distillers that appealed more to white southerners.

For African-Americans, a brandy from a far away country that celebrated Black culture, instead of marginalizing it, must have tasted exceptionally delicious.

The association with hip hop music and culture began in the 1990s with the first rap references to popular brands like Hennessy and Courvoisier. Today, the brandy called “yak” is synonymous with cool.

China is the third largest market of cognac behind the US and Singapore, but it could be the second largest as a large amount of Cognac imported by Singapore flows to China.

11. Climate change is helping to driving up the price of your favorite Cognac.

No, it’s not a hoax – Climate Change is real! 

The changing climate has thrown off the timing of production. “The grapes are ripening much sooner than they used to,” said Baptiste Loiseau, cellar master at Rémy Martin. “What is key is the balance between sugar and acidity. In cognac we need a lot of acidity to maintain the conservation of the wine because we are not using sulphur.” 

Under French regulations, Cognac can only be made in one 78,000-hectare area of France, using grapes grown in the six regions. This means distillers cannot move production to another part of the country to escape rising temperatures.

Cognac vineyard vines. Photo credit: Cellar Blog Bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis

The hotter, drier summers are making the French region’s star grape, Ugni Blanc, which accounts for 98% of the vines in the Cognac region, ripen quicker and losing acidity as summers become hotter and drier.

To combat over-ripening, climate change has forced cognac makers to consider overturning longstanding tradition, including the harvesting of grapes earlier—September instead of October. Beyond that, the French only have so many options because turning to more resilient varieties of grapes is a tricky subject.

A satellite image of the heat energy emitted from Europe during 25 July 2019 shows this summer’s highest extremes. Credit: European Space Agency.

Climate change is hitting Cognac lovers in the wallet, motivating them to experiment and seek out new alternatives.

Cognac-inspired Artisanal Brandy Made in California Wine Country

12. Brandy Made in America Has a Rich History  

In the New World, Brandy production was first introduced to America through the East and West Coasts.

On the east coast, vineyards were being planted wherever grapes could grow. Colonists, particularly the Dutch and French, produced the earliest versions of American pot-stilled brandy from grapes. They also took to distilling orchard fruits such as pears, apples, berries and peaches.

Brandy was first introduced to the West Coast by Spanish Missions.

In 1779, Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren began growing wine grapes in Alta, California, laying the foundation for the California wine and brandy industries.

Today, American brandies are mostly distilled in California where the best Cognac region grapes can grow in abundance. California has a great climate and soil for growing the best wine grapes in the world. Some of the best technology and methods for distillation are also found here.

Due to the rising cost of premium Cognacs, bartenders and mixologists are re-discovering the advantages of using California artisanal brandy to create their cocktail masterpieces.

13. George Washington, The Father of Our Country, distilled and sold his own brand of Peach brandy

On the advice of his farm manager James Anderson, who had been involved in the distilling industry in Scotland before immigrating to America, George Washington built a large distillery with five stills at Mount Vernon over the winter of 1797-1798. Within two years the distillery was producing nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at the time.

George Washington Apple Brandy

This special bottle of George Washington Peach Brandy™ is one of a limited number of bottles distilled at Washington’s reconstructed Distillery at Mount Vernon.

George Washington maintained orchards on his estate and these orchards supplied the peaches needed to produce the brandy at the distillery. The distillery ledgers indicate that small amounts of peach brandy were produced in 1798 and 1799. A portion of the peach brandy was sold at market and the remainder was sent to the Mansion for use by the Washington family.

14. The original julep was almost certainly made with brandy, not whiskey

It’s hard to comprehend today, but peach brandy was once among the most sought-after of domestic spirits. It was common throughout the South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because peaches were common. Vast orchards planted far and wide produced abundant fruit both for eating and cooking.

Problem was summer peaches were difficult to get to market before they spoiled.

Distilling provided a way to preserve the warm summer varieties, but peach brandy essentially became extinct with the advances in canning and the rise of refrigerated trains and trucks that allowed peaches to be shipped to distant markets, diminishing the incentive to decant bushels into bottles.

15. Wisconsin is one of the largest markets for California brandy, primarily for use in a Wisconsin Old Fashioned made with brandy. Korbel says the state accounts for over 55 percent of its total brandy sales volume.

16. In Cognac, brandy defines the viticulture and winemaking. In California, great winemaking defines the brandy.

In the late 1800s, brands like Christian Brothers marketed brandies from the California missions and customers began to take notice.  E & J, from  Ernest & Julio Gallo were the brothers that founded their namesake winery in 1933. E&J are still giants in the California mass-market brandy industry, beginning their production in 1975.

17. America’s brandy distilling reputation has for too long been placed on the bottom shelf

Less sophisticated California mass-market brandy made from inferior grapes are often the source of additional alcohol in fortified wines.. One big reason why American brandy distillers get a bad rep.

With the exception of the Cognac style, brandy has suffered an identity crisis for years. For some, it represents cigar-chomping old men in suits, dark wood bookcases, robber  barons and union-busting. For others, it’s the preferred drink of the African-American club scene—hip-hop music, sips of Hennessy and VIP bottle service.

Unmasking the differences between Cognac brandy from France and artisanal brandy made in California.

 18. Cognac-inspired Artisanal Brandy Made in America are changing perceptions

Combine the fine art of cognac with the freedom to experiment and you have arrived at the future of California artisanal brandy.

American distilling manuals from the early 19th century recommended ways Americans could mimic cognac, a spirit long considered at the peak of the distiller’s art.

Due to the effects of climate change, the old style of making French style brandy by sticking exclusively to the cognac region has come at a cost.

California grows all of the grapes found in France in abundance.  The new breed of artisanal brandy distillers don’t attempt to starve their grapes into submission by punishing them and stunting their growth.

California Wine Country, Photo credit: Goop Traveller

Until recently, nearly all California brandy makers relied largely on grapes used for the most inexpensive California wines, especially Colombard — a high-yielding workhorse grape grown all over the Central Valley However, not on the grapes traditionally used in Cognac, like Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanc, which produce thin, excessively acidic wines.

All the best Cognac grapes thrive in California soil. So after studying in France for several years, brands like Osocalis are using traditional Cognac techniques to make their Brandy while taking advantage of California’s unique terroir.

Osocalis XO Brandy is made from Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, and Pinot Noir grapes. Founded in the early 1990s, Osocalis is a small family-run distillery located in Soquel, California in the greater Santa Cruz area. .

Less sophisticated California mass-market brandy made from inferior grapes distillers are often the source of additional alcohol in fortified wines, and one reason why American brandy has gotten a bad rep.

With the exception of Cognac, brandy suffers from an identity crisis. For some, it’s the quintessential quaff of the gentry class—cigar-chomping old men in suits, dark wood bookcases, robber barons and union-busting. For others, it’s the preferred drink of the African-American club scene—hip-hop music, sips of Hennessy and VIP bottle service.

The soil in the Cognac region is pretty extraordinary, but so too is California’s. During the 19th Century, there was a healthy brandy industry in California, and brandy cocktails were common in many pre-Prohibition bars. But the industry tailed off during the Prohibition and following years, eventually making a modest comeback  in the mid 1990’s.

Germain-Robin has been around for decades and puts many European brandies to shame. The Cognac-inspired brandy has been publicly praised by connoisseurs and critics for the quality of the brandy. This has provided a big boost to California artisanal brandy and their popularity continues grow.

There’s no question that the quality of California brandy is on the rise. But how to change public perception?  

We are reminded of May, 1976 and The Judgement of Paris.

The world famous blind tasting in Paris pitted some of the finest wines in France against unknown California bottles. Only one journalist bothered to show up and the outcome was considered a foregone conclusion.

Shocking the French judges and the world, the blind taste test concluded that Napa Valley wines outranked the French wines in both the red and white wine categories.

Could the same be true for the generation of American artisanal brandy? A blind taste test of the finest brandies could prove once again that California has what it takes to out perform the taste of your favorite Cognac and popular brandy spirits

Until now, if you wanted a sophisticated cognac inspired brandy made in America you had a tough choice to make.

19. It’s time to change your perception about brandy made in California.

Releasing Spring of 2021, this new spirit called Omage pays homage to America’s passion for French Cognac and artisanal brandy.
The fresh perspective from a new generation of California brandy distillers.
Omage combines the fine art of Cognac with the freedom and sophistication of California artisanal brandy
We’ve been here before: Convincing the world that California can make a spirit that rivals or even surpasses the French. It’s time for a tasting!

Terry Nelson is a iconoclast  wine & spirits marketer based in New York City with a degree in journalism from UNC Chapel Hill.  Nelson has been a key player in the launch and growth of many premiere spirits including Patron Tequila, Bulleit Bourbon, Hennessy Cognac, Crown Royal Whiskey, The Glenlivet single malt scotch, Chivas Regal, Seagram’s Gin,  Martell, Bacardi Rum and the new Casa Noble Tequila made for sipping and savoring in your favorite cocktails releasing in 2021.

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