Cognac is a special drink, and one that many drinkers regard as “fancy.” It doesn’t have to be, though. There are several ways to enjoy your cognac, but the spirit can seem a bit intimidating to those who haven’t tried it before.

In this guide, we’ll give you a background on the specifics of what makes a brandy cognac, where it comes from, and how to best enjoy the drink. There are even some delicious cocktails you can enjoy if you want to ease into the world of cognac.

What is Cognac?

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Cognac is a specific type of brandy. Some people assume that all brandy is cognac, but this isn’t the case. It is a brandy made from white wine grapes that were grown in Cognac - a southwestern region of France.

All cognac originated in these areas, and there are some exclusive regulations for the designation of the spirit. Not every cognac is created equally, but many of them will have the same traits as one another. The biggest difference you’ll likely encounter is how long it’s been aged.

Some of the whiskey lovers who are reading this will take this news as a bit of relief. You don’t have to get too into the weeds. Look at it as a style of brandy rather than a whole new spirit you have to learn about.

You’ll probably love it if you like brandy, and don’t have to worry about where it’s from or how it was prepared.

Here are some of the boxes that the brandy has to check in order to be designated as cognac:

  • Come from the Cognac vineyards in France
  • White grapes like Folle Blanche and Colombard
  • 80 Proof or 40% ABV

There are three specifications you’ll see on a bottle of the drink as well. These are VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), and XO (Extra Old).

These names relate to how long it has been aged. VS  has been aged at least two years. VSOP is aged at least four years, and XO is six years of aging or more.

The Cognac Process

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All cognac begins as wine before becoming brandy. The winemakers ferment the grapes into an acidic, tart wine with a relatively low alcohol level. They will never add any sugar at this point to make sure that the base of the cognac remains pure throughout the process.

Once this stage is finished, the winemakers begin malolactic fermentation, changing the tart base wine into a creamier form, setting the final base for the end product.

Those who produce the drink will use the double-distillation process rather than the continuous distillation that most other spirits undergo. This process happens between November and March, and the aging starts on April 1st of the same year.

From there, the spirit will age for at least two years. The date you see on the bottle is almost always the day after the distillation was finished. Vintage Cognac is the only exception, which states the date of the harvest rather than the beginning of the aging process.

Aging Cognac

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In the beginning, it will be practically clear like vodka. The color comes from the barrel aging process. The longer the maker ages the cognac, the darker the color will become.

Some dye is allowed throughout this process, which is why you might see some dark-colored that isn’t as old as you might expect. The flavor and richness, though, only comes through the aging of the spirit.

Other Brands

There are several brands, but four of the major household names are Hennessy, Remey Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier. These brands dominate the market, leaving little room for competition to operate.

Although the big four brands are available in nearly all liquor stores in the country, there are some smaller companies that specialize in cognac as well.

These usually come with the exclusive XO designation and can be quite expensive - especially for those who want to try the spirit for the first time. Brands like Camus, A. De Fussigny, and Meukow make cognac that will cost you near $200 a bottle and are more difficult to find.

Beginners might want to try cognac that hasn’t been aged as long from a company like Hennessey or Remy Martin. These brands make expensive  as well, but they have cheaper bottles that you can find at your local liquor store.

Preparation and Drinking Stipulations


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Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. Ahead, we’ll take a look at how to prepare and serve or drink your cognac now that you know what to look for.

Most of the it you find at the store will be similar - depending on how long it’s been aged. This takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for new drinkers, but there are still some preparation and drinking stipulations you should be aware of.

You might as well get the most out of your experience if you’re drinking it for the first time. Take a look at these tips on preparation, style, and glass types when pouring your first drink.

The Glass

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Like most alcoholic beverages, it has a specific glass that helps capture the flavors and richness of the drink. Those who want to get the full cognac experience should choose the right glass before they pour.

Any bar that specializes in top-notch drinks will prepare a cognac for you in the proper glass, but it’s worth knowing if you’re a budding home bartender.

Several glasses will work with it, but the preferred option will always be the brandy snifter. Cognac is brandy, after all, and the narrow tops of these glasses will help trap the aroma of the cognac and add to the drinking experience.

Not everyone will have these glasses lying around, however, and they can be quite expensive. A taster glass or a tulip wine glass will work just fine if you want to get the sense of whether or not you like it before diving in.

Preparing the Drink

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There are several cocktails that you can find to dress up the drink a bit, but cognac is one of the beverages that doesn’t require too much flair.

Most people drink it neat, and that’s the way it was designed to be enjoyed. After all, you probably won’t want to spend a lot of money on a fancy bottle to muddy the flavors with sugar and fruit.

Although neat is the classic way to drink cognac, some prefer to add a splash of water to accentuate the floral and fruity aromas that the spirit has.

You can add ice if you’re used to drinking whiskey on the rocks, and this will have a similar effect.

Some will even throw their cognac in the freezer for a while and enjoy it chilled. It has a high ABV, so it won’t freeze. Drinking cold  is often best when combined with dinner.


Cognac makes a delicious appetizer or dessert drink. Pair it with some aged parmesan and experiment with cheese spreads you traditionally pair with wine.

For dessert, drink it with some dark chocolate, licorice, or dried fruit. Fruity snacks will pair perfectly with cognac and bring the aromas out of the glass as you drink. Figs make excellent companions, especially with some of the aged cognacs like the Remy Martin XO.


We alluded to this before, but there are several cognac cocktails that are picking up some steam in the cocktail bar scene. Those who are looking to mix their cognac at home would do well to try to cut it with some ginger ale if they don’t want to do anything crazy. This pairing will bring out some of the flavors of the cognac, and the sweet ginger compliments the spirit nicely.

The base flavors are fruity, floral, and spicy, which means there are several cocktail creations that work nicely with the drink. You can pick some ingredients that focus on a specific element of  flavor over the others, or ones that bring everything to the forefront.

You can use it as a base in many popular cocktails like an old fashion, Manhattan, or a mint julep. The variety of different scents and flavors in the drink.

Enjoying Your Cognac

Cognac isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth exploring if you’re a whiskey lover who wants to broaden your horizons. This spirit is one of the more expensive out there. You can find cheap whiskey at the store, but cheap cognac wills till cost you a pretty penny.

We recommend Remy Martin or Hennessey that hasn’t been aged too long since these options are relatively affordable and widely available. Once you open the door to cognac, though, you’ll be able to explore the rich flavors of the aged options.

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