What is Cognac?

The French Don’t Drink Cognac

Well, strictly speaking that’s not true. France makes 12,000,000 cases of Cognac or Eau de Vie (Water of Life) per year and sells enough of it to the nouveau riche of China to generate 80% of their profit; mostly because people who drink cognac are perceived to have high status. The remainder largely goes to the rest of the world, save for 3% that is actually used in France itself. Most every buyer in the world is on allocation, which means you get a fixed amount, based on their ability to produce it.

In truth, the French actually prefer to drink scotch, drinking an amount equivalent to the amount of cognac they export. Wine may be their water, but scotch is their liquor, to the tune of 12,000,000 cases a year. In other words, one bottle of cognac is consumed for every 15 French people, compared to two bottles of scotch for every French man, woman, child, and newborn.

So what IS Cognac? Basically it is brandy, which, by definition is distilled wine that has been aged in a wooden barrel. Big whoop! I personally can’t stand the stuff but some people just can’t get enough of it. What makes it Cognac (instead of plain old Brandy) is the place where it is made—the Cognac Region of Western France. It has a birthright, just like Champagne, which can only be called Champagne legally if it comes from the Champagne Region of France. You might be familiar with other instances of sole domain of a name with the products called tequila and bourbon.

If you are a cognac-fancier and (somehow) you are invited to a Paradis, don’t expect anything fancy. That is the name of the cellars where the oldest, finest, cognacs are stored by the oldest, finest, cognac houses. They generally look like some place that Indiana Jones would frequent, filled with ancient casks caked with many years’ worth of dust. All that’s missing is a bunch of dead-fall traps and an artifact for him to retrieve because “It belongs in a museum!”

How is it served?

It’s served in a snifter. Sometimes, like scotch, it is served with a few drops of water, or a small chip of ice. These glasses are designed and optimized for capturing the bouquet (smell) of the brandy, which enhances the experience of actually drinking it. Balloon glasses are designed to be held with the bowl in the hand and the stem passing between the two middle fingers, as if you were performing a Vulcan salute. This cupping effect warms the brandy and increases the number of volatiles thus making it easier to enjoy the scent. However some brands, like Martell, suggest the tulip glass, held by the stem so the alcohol isn’t overwhelming, nor the scent too strong. Don’t overfill the glass. 1 to 1 ½ ounces is normally proper. If you’re not sure, use the sideways rule. Lay the glass on its side with the rim of the base touching the same flat surface. The brandy or cognac should not spill.

What Kinds of Cognac Are There?

Martell, Hennessey, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Alizé spring to mind as bar basics. Then there are your top-shelf cognacs such as Hennessy Timeless, Remy Extra, Courvoisier Napoleon, and so on. It is going to depend largely on the demands of your region or specific customers.

Why is it popular?

Sales were sort of average-to-waning until the 1990s in North America. It was more associated with stuffy English Club rooms, rife with cigar smoke, and elderly men that had shot zebras, elephants and rhinos on various expeditions. Then an entertainer named Tupac Shakur produced a rap piece called "Thug Passion" where he mentioned Hennessy, Alize and Moët Cristal (champagne) and the products’ popularity peaked and had remained high since. One thing I’ve learned – you don’t have to like it to sell it – but do be knowledgeable about it. To learn more sign up for our online bartending school!