Cognac & Brandy
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The Delights of Cognac & Brandy
Brandy is that sumptuous spirit that derives from distilling grapes for wine, before gentle ageing in a wooden cask deepens the flavours further. It is typically taken as an after-dinner drink or as a relaxer after an evening of hard toil, and at 35-60% abv it is a drop best enjoyed in moderation. Most brandies are distilled from grapes, so naturally there is great symmetry between the finest brandy producers and the wine-making centres of the world with French and Spanish brandies blossoming over the last few centuries. There is also a fine tradition of production among many of the Eastern European nations too. Indeed, huge stores of brandy were found in Romanov Court in St Petersburg, and during the October Revolution in 1917 the Bolshevik movement actually stopped what they were doing for a week to, quite literally, enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The distillation of wine (and consequential brandy production) originally occurred because merchants were taxed by volume, rather than quantity, and so distilling was a cheeky way of keeping their taxes low.
A Good Age
The real gem of a good bottle of brandy comes from its ageing process, which is always in wood and sometimes with the addition of caramel colouring to change the look of the spirit but also to add a sweet note to the flavour. It is a liquor best served neat at room temperature, and the gentle warming of the glass in the palm of the hand can actually enhance the flavour (not that you should hold on to it for too long of course). If you prefer your brandy mixed, try the Brandy Sour (add lemonade, bitters and soda water) or a Sidecar (pour brandy, orange liquor and a dash of lemon juice over ice, and mix well).
Cognac is a type of brandy which is named after the French town of its origin. This is a spectacularly good area for wine growing, due to the climate and inclement conditions. For a cognac to be labelled as such, it must adhere to a number of production methods and legal requirements to be considered the real deal and not merely a substitute. The first of these rules is that the spirit must be made from a specific type of grape, of which there are a number sanctioned but the Ugni Blanc (or Saint Emilion as it is sometimes known) remains the most popular.
For cognac to be classed as cognac it must also be distilled twice in copper pot stills, and then subsequently aged two or more years in a French oak barrel from the towns of Limousin or Troncais. While this ageing process is inherent to the cognac name, it also helps to enhance the flavour of the liquor (it is similar in nature to wine and whisky after all), and so many bottles are aged for much longer than the two-year minimum. The grapes are then pressed and the juice left to ferment for 2-3 weeks, with the natural yeast converting the sugar content into alcohol. No extra sugar is added, and the resulting mix weighs in at around 7-8% alcohol proof. The base component of cognac is this ͞white wine͟ that is considered almost undrinkable due to its very dry and acidic properties. However, it is a fantastic liquor for distillation. This, carried out in the traditional Charentais copper stills, is a dual process and one which creates a colourless liquor measuring around 70% abv. The spirit is then aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years, and this process sees around 30% of the alcohol content evaporate. The cognac is then transferred to a glass container for blending. The blending process is designed to create a certain depth and complexity of flavour that would be lacking from a single-blended cognac. The blends will usually be of different aged cognacs to help create a distinctive yet consistent taste.
The resulting cognac is then classified in one of four ways:V.S, or Very Special, cognacs are classed as such when the youngest brandy in the blend has been cask aged for a minimum of two years. V.S.O.P, or Very Superior Old Pale, cognacs are similar to the V.S classification but they have been aged for four years rather than two. X.O, or Extra Old, cognacs identify a blend that has been aged for at least six years. In 2016, this will be changed to a minimum of ten years. This blend can also be known as the Napoleon. Hors d’Age, or Beyond Age, cognacs are essentially the same as the X.O labels, however the term is used by producers to identify a product that has been aged for longer than the six years at present.