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The Mystery and Delicacy of French Cognac

A Liquor With Spirit

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Of all the romantic and colourful turns of phrase for describing the creation of food and drink, the one that goes along with the distillation of liquor, including French cognac, has to stand out: “the angel’s share.”

The angels get their share at the final stage of an intricate process that takes years, when the cognac is sitting in oak barrels and evaporating. (They get the vapor.) In some cases, the mortal remainder can retail for thousands of dollars.

A proper French cognac has to fulfill three criteria: it must be produced in the Cognac region of France, with specific grapes from that region; it must have been double distilled; and must have been aged in oak casks for at least two years.

Cognac is known as the “water of life,” or “eau de vie” in French, because it is the crystallisation of so much: soil, nutrients, sunlight, water, the fermentation of grapes which are then twice distilled and then the final step: the long wait for the oaken barrels to impart their colour and flavour over a period of years.

Vineyard in Borderies, one of six zones authorized to produce French cognac
Vineyard in Borderies—one of six zones authorized to produce cognac in the idyllic countryside, France. Photo Courtesy of Camus

In the world of cognac four scents prevail: spicy, oaken, floral and fruity. As the cognac ages, subtle flavours of spiced preserved fruit or even the scent of hyacinths is said to develop.

The discovery of cognac was hit upon through a combination of experimentation, happenstance, and raw necessity. Before the 18th century, when wine was exported by ships, the long distances from France to the final destinations would result in much of the wine perishing or deteriorating en route. To prevent that, winemakers began distilling the wine before exporting it. The process not only saved space, but it tasted better after being stored in oak barrels. The next step was to distil it once again, bringing the alcohol content to around 70 percent. Nine litres of white wine make one litre of cognac.

The distilled wine, originally a colourless and odourless spirit when poured into the barrel, goes through a series of subtle changes before becoming the nectar that is cognac. It absorbs the colour and aroma of the oak casks, taking on a mesmerising amber colour and gaining a flavour that only those who have tried it will ever know.

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing: having read this far, you may soon find yourself web searching for a pair of last-minute plane tickets to the southwest of France. There, you can enjoy a breezy walk through French farmhouses and ancient chateaus, or cast your eyes over the vast, verdant hills that characterise the region. In Cognac, vineyards are everywhere.

Cognac, 400 kilometres southwest of Paris, differs little in appearance from many other pleasant French towns: grey houses with red-brown roofs, crumbling stone walls and ivy-covered estate ramparts. Also ensconced there is the mansion of Remy Martin, one of the foremost producers of Cognac in the world, with a history of 300 years and a reputation to match.

A bottle of Louis XIII Cognac, a French cognac
A bottle of Louis XIII Cognac from the prestigious house of Remy Martin containing Grande Champagne eau de vie aged. Photo Courtesy of Remy Martin

Also in Cognac, not far from Remy’s reprieve, sits the house of Hennessy. A banner flutters proudly above, because Hennessy is the world’s top-selling brand of cognac, and the headquarters holds the world’s largest collage of vintage eau de vie. Tours to Hennessy include an amble through the wine tasting room, the showroom, a museum, and a few cognac storehouses, on both sides of the Charente River. A boat ferries visitors to and fro.

Sommeliers man the Hennessy tasting room, ready to dispense their knowledge about the technique and the art. The cognac is poured into a tulip-shaped snifter, meant to enhance the smell of each quaff. Three tastes are necessary, they say, to get a true sense of the cognac in hand.

A trip to Camus’ distillery, founded in 1863 leads to cellars with an encyclopaedic catalogue of cognac, per region and vintage, across the spectrum. Under the guidance of a master blender, cognac aficionados extract their own eau de vie from oak casks, which are then poured into a decanter, labelled, and placed in an exquisite wooden box. A harvest of “XO,” or extra-old grade cognac—the industry standard—is worth a pretty price.

Few who have ventured to France for the tour will miss the joke that goes around: “Making cognac is easy… if you have a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather who have devoted their lives to it.”

Nearly everyone in the cognac industry, whether a boutique family workshop or an international cognac house, whether the grape grower or the oak cask builder—all are passionate about the drink they devote themselves to. There is no doubt that this heart and tradition also finds its way into cognac’s deep redolence.

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