by George Pandi 

©Photo by Lois Siegel

George Pandi
Ottawa-based travel and food writer
Tries to teach the world where to go and what to eat and drink
Proud honourary member of the Canadian Culinary Federation

It felt strange to see the "Cognac" sign at the railway station, but Cognac was much like other small French towns: the old quarter a cramped maze, a royal statue on the main square, loudspeakers in the pedestrian mall. But on some streets a spirit became visible: the fungus that fed on brandy fumes blackened the stone walls of centuries-old warehouses.


Fifteen years later I found the walls white. They cleaned up when the fungus died after most of the brandy casks were moved outside town. I followed them and found a visitors' centre with video presentations and trilingual staff in the boutique selling T-shirts and snifters. Not a place for serious tasting but probably good for business.


The little town, now 20,000 population, has been rich only for the past four centuries. It grew a fragrant but thin wine that didn't travel well. In the 15th century a Dutch captain tried to make transportation more efficient: he distilled the wine for shipping, to be reconstituted after delivery -instant wine: just add water and stir. The wine lost its taste in the process but the undiluted liquid
gained a following. The English called it brandy after the Dutch word brandewijn (burnt wine).

In the 1600s business slumped and the makers stored the surplus to wait for higher prices. To their pleasant surprise, they found that brandy gained a mellower flavour, richer aroma and colour from sitting around in oak casks. Cognac was in business with Cognac brandy.

Few Cognac firms make wine or distill brandy themselves. They mostly blend the raw material - raw eau-de-vie of 60% alcohol - bought from wine growers who distill it at home or at nearby commercial distilleries. Some distillers use big stills at the expense of taste, but others, like Rémy Martin, insist that suppliers use small pots (up to 25 hectoliter) and distill "on the lees," the skins and seeds left under the wine. This produces brandies with more perfume, deeper flavour and longer aftertaste. (This is not a plug. I've been in love with Rémy's stuff forever.)

The makers dilute the eau-de-vie to 40% alcohol and pump it into oak casks to mature. The most important activity in making brandy is leaving it alone. It spends years in wood, picking up flavours, turning amber, mellowing. Some of it evaporates. Some? Just from Rémy's stock, ten thousand bottles' worth rises to heaven each day as the poetically named "angels' share."

Cognac improves in wood for only about fifty years. Some of the best are sealed in glass carboys. They don't change in the glass (a five-year-old cognac bottled in 1900 is only five-years-old), so they can be used as benchmarks of taste, and for topping up the casks of younger brandies; the mellow spirits tame the harshness of the young.


In the last step, several brandies are blended to make a harmonious whole and bottled. Each bottle contains brandies not only of different ages but of varied origins. The hundreds of suppliers distill spirits as different as... well, as hundreds of individualistic French peasants can be. How can a brandy have the same flavour from year to year? The cellarmaster checks each purchase and monitors the stock. He tastes up to fifty samples a day and knows where each would fit in
the jigsaw puzzle of blending. The nose and tongue of the cellarmaster holds the pattern for the signature taste for decades. His successor may train for ten years.

Cognac is expensive, but you can amortize the cost if you invest some time to get to know it. Look at the colour. It should be light; dark tinge betrays added caramel or too much tannin. Swirl the glass to release perfumes. Do you find vanilla, roast chestnuts, walnuts, dried fruit? The aroma should be smooth and last as long as you inhale it. Before you taste, have a small sip to prime your taste buds,
then sip more and chew. You'll really enjoy your brandy more.

Cognac is as much inhaled as drunk, and demands a glass that captures the fragrance. Ostentation has ruined many a good cognac: the aroma gets lost in outsized balloons. The best is an 8-oz snifter in which you pour about two ounces. Cradle it in your hand to warm it and release the fragrance. Never use a candle: it burns off the aroma. You can drink cognac on the rocks or as a floater - cognac
poured on the top of soda water - the taste comes through remarkably well. I've heard of using cognac to flambé a dish because it lends a richer flavour. Perhaps. But I'll never have the heart to do it.

What's in a Name

All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac. Only brandies distilled from Cognac wine may be called cognac. The growing territory is subdivided. The regions are - in order of rising quality - the Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne. These Champagnes have nothing to do with where the bubbly is made, 400 miles north of here; the name derives from the Latin campania (field). The name Fine Champagne states that the wine came from the best areas, Grande and Petite Champagne.  However, only the description of origin is controlled. Any ordinary brandy may be called Napoleon. (Not Bonaparte, hated by Cognac makers because his war against England was bad for business. On the other hand, they loved Napoleon
III who brought back free trade.) Abbreviations indicate the years the brandies in the blend spent in wood. Roughly, in VS (Very Superior) the youngest brandy is 2-1/2 to 3 years old. In the VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), the youngest is 4-5 years, but older additions raise the average age to about 12. In the XO (Extra Old) Spécial, the average age rises to 25 years. These indicators and the stars are
left to the discretion of the maker, just like your preference is left to your taste.

Taste more!
An aid to better cooking, eating, drinking
An E-Book by
George Pandi

Eighty-seven chapters, 290 pages
 fully indexed by subject
 formatted for computer screen viewing

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