Cognac. What is it good for? Absolutely everything.

Well, not everything. But many of the things that count, such as drinking, drinking and drinking. Oh, and baking! (I make an amazing bread pudding with a cognac sauce. I could teach you, but—you know the rest).

As I mentioned in last week's column ("Last week." Doesn't that sound so familiar? You and I, we totally go together!), I had the great fortune to take a trip to Cognac, France this past Summer. There, I got a look at the process by which grapes transition from  l'eau de vie (brandy, "the water of life") into one of the world's finest spirits. If ever you have such an opportunity—go. In the meantime, I have five things that every drinker (or host/ess) should know about cognac right this second.


1) What is Cognac?

Cognac is a fine brandy produced in the Cognac region of France. It must bear the appellation d'origine contrôlée ("controlled destination of origin"), the French certification that indicates that the spirit is from the proper geographical location and crafted under the proper production methods. On my trip, I heard an anecdote about a Asian dignitary who spoke about how vineyards on his continent would soon be able to grow grapes of the caliber needed in order to make their own cognac—don't hold your breath, homeboy. Not made in Cognac, not cognac. Beyond the location requirement, cognac also must be produced with grapes grown from one or more of six locations (Bols Ordinaire, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne) and the brandy must be twice distilled in copper stills and aged in oak for at least two years.

2) What are the different types of cognac and why?

You know that cheap stuff they sell in the grocery store that can't technically be described as wine and instead is sold as a "wine product"? There's no cognac equivalent, thanks to the high production standards. You can go to the liquor store and purchase the least expensive cognac brand on the shelf and know that you are getting a quality drink. (Is it the best tasting, or the one that will taste best to you? Different conversation.) There are four major brands that produce most of the world's cognac: Hennessy, Martell, Courvosier and Rémy Martin, and upwards of 200 other cognac producers (among them: Louis Royer—remember this name, it will come up later— and the uber-trendy Jay Z-favorite D'Usse.)

But are those letters that appear after the names of the houses that produce them? What's the difference between a VS and a VSOP, aside from price? They let you know how long the youngest eau de vie in the blend has been aged. The most common three grades you'll come across are:

  • VS (Very Special): The youngest brandy is aged at least two years in a cask.
  • VSOP (Very Special Old Pale): The youngest brandy is aged at least four years in a cask, but the industry average is much higher.
  • XO (Extra Old): The youngest brandy is aged for at least six years, but often for upwards of 20 years. 

3) What does "neat" mean and why is it such a big thing?

A neat drink is served without ice, mixers or a chilled glass. Just booze in a cup. You could also call this "straight." Cognac is often enjoyed this way because of the quality of this spirit. You wouldn't drink plastic bottle vodka on its own because it doesn't taste good and needs a bunch of bells and whistles to make it palatable. Cognac, however, is enjoyed straight by both serious and social drinkers alike. BUT if you don't care for it that way, don't feel like you're doing something wrong when you reach for that mixer (or even just a splash of water.)

4) I'm buying my first bottle ever, where should I start?

Keep it simple. Courvoisier VS is a great value at around $25-28, and is very easy to drink: oaky and smooth, with subtle floral notes . If you want your entry point to be a little bit flossier, go with Rémy Martin VSOP, which is still affordable at under $40, and is also super smooth and pleasing, with gorgeous hints of vanilla and pear.

5) Which one should I buy for entertaining? For gift giving?

Well, your budget is certainly something to consider.  A 750 mL bottle of Hennessy VS (affectionately known as a fifth or 'fif') retails for around $30. Same size bottle of VSOP, closer to $55. The XO? Be prepared to shell out $180. And if you're drinking in a club, the markup on those shots and cocktails is real, kids, it's so real.

Cognac cocktails, which are awesome, are great with VS. Save the older, more complex blends for drinking straight. Last week, I mentioned my favorite cognac cocktail and we'll circle back to those in a future post.

If you're hosting your cousins'nem and you know that folks are going to be drowning your cognac with Coke or Pepsi? Keep it VS. However, if you want to dazzle and serve a punchy, top quality cocktail? Consider Louis Royer Force 53, the only 106 proof Fine Champagne VSOP. Yes, an overproof cognac. TURN UP! Personally, it's a little bit strong for me to drink straight, but it mixes beautifully and allows your cocktails to have cognac flavor without the sauce being lost (get it?)

If you'd like to invest in something to savor neat—a special bottle for special occasions, even if your "special occasion" is the Law and Order SVU episode when Alexandra Cabot comes back from pretending to be dead—or for a nice gift, I'd recommend Martell's Cordon Bleu, a gorgeous XO with eau de vie that has been aged from 10 to 25 years. It has spicy, gingery notes and a very clean finish.

D'Usse comes in an extremely beautiful bottle and is very, very easy to drink. Your aspiring rapper sorta-boyfriend will appreciate getting a bottle for his birthday. It retails for $55 and it's a VSOP, so make sure that he, too, is "very special" ( the "old and pale" part is at your discretion, but if he's old and still trying to rap, don't buy him anything—just run.)

Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for Tweet her and let her know which spirit we should cover next: @jamilahlemieux