How well do you know your liquor? Can you tell cognac from brandy? Not so sure? Don’t feel bad. Even the most seasoned of imbibers get confused by these two terms, often used interchangeably. While it’s true that cognac and brandy are both types of wine, their flavors are dramatically different. While cognac is made in the Armagnac region of France, brandy can be produced from anywhere in the world, not just California (where it originated).
What Are They?
Brandy and cognac are not just annoyingly similar sounding words. They are products of the same process: distillation. Most distilled beverages, such as whisky, rum and tequila, begin with a fermented mash of fruit or other plant material that is then distilled into an alcohol base. The resulting liquid can vary in color, depending on how it’s aged and what types of barrels the alcohol is aged in. The color is not an indicator of quality -- instead, it’s the flavor that sets the two apart. Cognac and brandy share a very similar history. They both originated in southern French regions and were distilled from wine (a grape by-product). Cognac comes from the Cognac region, while brandy was produced across the river in the Armagnac region. The main difference between brandy and cognac is the type of grape used in production. While cognac is exclusively made with grapes from the Ugni Blanc varietal, brandy can be distilled from different types of wines, including those made from grapes such as Tempranillo and Grenache. Brandy flavor also varies depending on which region it was produced and aged in.
What Are They Called?
Brandy and cognac are both types of brandy (the more general term). However, they don’t go by their generic names in all countries. Cognac is produced exclusively in the Cognac region, while brandy can be made anywhere. Consequently, French law dictates that it may only be named “Cognac” if it was distilled in the Cognac region. French brandy outside of the Cognac region is labeled (Armagnac, Pineau de Charentes, and others). In America and some other countries, both cognac and brandy are referred to as “brandy.” It can get confusing if you’re not sure where it was made. To be safe, look for the term “Cognac” on the label. If you see it, you know that it was distilled in the Cognac region of France (even if it wasn’t primarily made using Ugni Blanc grapes).
Blending and Aging
Cognac and brandy benefit from a second step that other types of distilled spirits don’t undergo – and that’s, blending. This process allows producers to carefully combine the flavors of different batches before they’re bottled. Now for the bad news: this process also means that you’ll have to pay more for a blended cognac or brandy than you would for what you’d typically spend on blended scotch or whiskey. A higher price tag doesn’t mean a better brandy, just a more expensive one. Brandies don’t necessarily have to be aged, though many producers age theirs in oak barrels for at least a few months. The flavors of a young brandy can be harsh and unpleasant, so aging helps mellow them out. While some brandies are aged for several years, the length of time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. On the other hand, Cognacs must be aged in wood barrels or another aging vessel for at least two years. Many producers age their cognac much longer, up to 20 years in some cases. The result is a mellow flavor that’s often described as sweet and buttery.
All Cognacs Are Brandy But not All Brandy Are Cognacs
There is one other difference you might stumble across at your local liquor store: the term XO. Brandy sold as XO (or “extra old”) is a brandy that has been aged for at least six years, which lends it a darker color and richer flavor. Brandy marketers realized they could command top dollar for their product by slapping an XO on the label, even if it wasn’t made with Ugni Blanc grapes. While all cognacs are brandy, not all brandy is cognac. If you’re looking to enjoy a good bottle of brandy, it’s best to know the difference before you buy.
Must be Made from a Special Variety of Grapes
For a brandy to qualify as cognac, it must be made from a special variety of grapes, grown in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) region (with the Ugni Blanc grape as the most dominant ingredient). That is why we recommend against buying cheap cognacs and encourage you to buy fine ones instead -- and by that, we mean those made from grapes grown in France using the correct technique and aging requirement.
Must Be Aged in Oak Barrels for At least Two Years
Not all brandies are aged. But for a brandy to qualify as cognac, the distilled brew has to be aged at least two years in oak barrels. Optimum aging is between four and six years. Aging beyond ten years can mean a better-quality cognac with a deeper color and richer flavor, but it does not necessarily mean that the longer the aging process, the better it tastes.
Importantly: must be made in Cognac, France, to qualify as Cognac
Cognacs produced anywhere else should bear a country name as the brand name (i.e., “Havana Club” or “Bacardi”). If the brand name is Cognac, it must be produced in Cognac. That is not always such an easy thing to spot. For example, many American brandies use the name “Cognac” on their label while substituting some other fruit for the grapes used in Cognacs (cherries and apples, usually).
How Should You Drink Them?
Cognacs are typically enjoyed after a meal, either by themselves or with a cigar. They should always be served at room temperature to bring out their flavor best. The goal is not to overpower the drinker but rather to complement the experience of enjoying quality spirits. Cognacs pair well with dark chocolate and cigars due to their intense flavors. Cognacs can be very expensive, but they don’t need to cost a fortune to taste great. You don’t need to spend extravagantly to enjoy a fine Cognac. Look for bottles that are labeled VS (very special), VSOP (very superior old pale), or XO (extra old). These designations give you an idea of how much time the spirit has spent aging in oak barrels, which is the most important factor in determining quality.
Written by Lily Wordsmith
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