In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
What’s the difference between brandy and cognac? It’s the difference between a category, and a smaller, more specific sub-category.
Brandy refers to a spirit which is distilled from wine—or from another type of fermented fruit juice, as that’s what wine is, after all. In the latter instance, there’s a full variety of fruit brandies from across the globe. Technically speaking, brandy can also be made from pomace, which is the leftovers from wine production, and is the case with a type of brandy such as grappa.
Cognac is simply a specific type of brandy. It must be made within the region of Cognac in France, which is further separated into six sub-regions, or crus. These include Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bons Bois, and the very lightly used Bins Ordinaries. One of the major differentiating factors between different brands of Cognac is what regions they incorporate, and to what percentage. A Cognac consisting of at least half Grand Champagne can also be dubbed a Fine Champagne Cognac.
Cognac can be made from three varieties of white grapes, but one, Ugni Blanc, accounts for 98% of all Cognac production. Cognac must also be aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and remains known as an eau-de-vie while in the barrel, only officially receiving the designation as a Cognac after it has been blended.
Of course, there are a variety of other specifications. For instance, there’s a specific season of distillation, from October 1st through March 31st. Further, the spirit must be distilled twice via copper pot stills.
Anyone who has dabbled with Cognac will also recognize its classifications. A V.S. Cognac only meets the above two year minimum aging; a V.S.O.P. is aged a minimum of four years; and an X.O. is a minimum of six years. Starting next year though, Napoleon will be introduced as an official designation with a minimum age of six years, and X.O. is bumped to a 10 year minimum.
Since Cognac is just one variety of brandy, what are some others?
Calvados is an example of an apple brandy from France, and Armagnac is another French brandy, a cousin to Cognac in many ways but separated by a few key attributes. In South America, there’s pisco, an unaged grape brandy from Peru, and there’s Singani, a grape brandy from Bolivia. There’s also Brandy de Jerez from Spain, the variously named fruit brandies from central and eastern Europe, and others as well. America makes brandy too, including most traditionally, applejack, but also from grapes and other fruits as well.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.