- Brandy is any distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice.
- Cognac is a specific type of barrel-aged brandy made in the Cognac region of France.
- Brandy is often sipped neat as an after-dinner drink, but is also used in many classic cocktails.
In the world of spirits and cocktails, brandy and cognac are sometimes lost in the mix. Despite being one of the oldest and most diverse spirits in the world, there's still a bit of confusion as to what brandy actually is and how to drink it.
"It's a very broad term, and there are many expressions of brandy," says veteran bartender and cocktail instructor Anders Erickson. Brandy has been distilled for centuries starting in Europe and has since spread all over the world, creating new distilling traditions and distinct stylistic variations.
With Erickson's help, we'll take you on a quick tour through the world of brandy and cognac and why these fruit-forward, aged spirits need to be marked on your map.
What is brandy?
To put it simply, brandy is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice. Brandy is mostly made from grapes, but there are brandies made from apples, pears, plums, and other types of fruit, all of which have their own distinct character and flavor.
"It's like taking wine to the next level by distilling it," Erickson says. The distillation process concentrates the wine, increasing the alcohol content and removing some or most of the water present in the fermented fruit.
"The historic home of the best brandy is France," Erickson says. "The regions of Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados in the North of France are the meccas of brandy."
Because it was first distilled from grapes, there are traditions of brandy distillation all over Europe's wine-producing regions, like Spain and Italy, and throughout the rest of the world as well. Regions rich with apple and pear orchards, like Northern France, are also natural homes for brandy distillation.
Brandy isn't always aged, but the most popular and recognizable styles are aged for years in wooden barrels. Aging adds an amber or brown color and added flavor notes of caramel and vanilla.
"For a brown, aged spirit, brandies tend to drink a bit sweeter and softer than whiskies in most cases," Erickson says. "You do get a hint of fruitiness and tartness from the fruit they're made of, too."
What is cognac?
Cognac is a specific type of brandy, just like bourbon is a style of whiskey. Named after the Cognac region of France, this style of aged brandy is among the most revered in the world.
Cognac is prized for its smooth and soft character and the high quality grapes it's distilled from. "It's an extension of wine, in that you can still taste the grape in it. Other types of brandy don't always offer a hint of the fruit they're made from," Erickson says. "In some ways, cognac is the gold standard of brandy."
France has enacted strict quality standards to preserve the integrity of cognac and its reputation as one of the finest styles of brandy available. French law dictates that it can only be produced in the state of Charente in the Cognac region. Cognac must also be distilled from white grapes only. It's required to be distilled twice and aged for a minimum of two years in French oak barrels.
"There are different tiers, or grades, based on how long each Cognac has been aged," Erickson says. Since the aging process has such a profound effect on color, flavor and price, it's helpful to understand what each grade means when shopping for cognac.
|Cognac age grade||Meaning|
|V.S.||Aged two to four years|
|V.S.O.P.||Aged four to six years.|
|Napoléon||Aged six to ten years|
|X.O||Aged at least ten years|
Hennessy is a brand of cognac
Hennessy is the most familiar brand of cognac in the world. The brand's labels account for over 40% of the global cognac market. "They're a very old brand, they've been producing cognac continuously since the 1700s," Erickson says.
Hennessy, along with Rémy Martin and Courvoisier, are the three most accessible and popular brands of cognac available globally. "A lot of people think of cognac as those three brands," Erickson says. "But there are lots of smaller distilleries making affordable and high quality cognacs too."
Other types of brandy
Brandy is a very diverse family of spirits that goes beyond cognac. "There are a number of styles and ways to make brandy," Erickson says. "Every producing region has their own traditions."
There are as many different styles of brandy as there are places it's made. Brandy de Jerez from Spain, Raki or Rakia in the Balkans and Mediterranean, and the grape-based Italian grappa are all standouts. There are also many brandies produced in California's wine country by large and craft distillers alike. Here is a quick rundown of some of the most well known styles of brandy.
Eau de vie: French for "water of life," eau de vie is a term that describes unaged brandy. Eau de vie is a clear spirit made to showcase the ripeness and freshness of the fruits used to produce it. This term is sometimes used to describe the fruit-based distillate before it is barrel aged.
Armagnac: Armagnac is a popular style of French brandy distilled in the Armagnac region Gascony, Southwestern France. It's similar to cognac, but since it is produced in a different region with different traditions, has a different protected name. Compared to cognac production, armagnac brandies are produced by much smaller distilleries in smaller amounts more for local consumption.
Calvados: Made in the Calvados region of Normandy, Calvados is a French apple brandy distilled from hard apple cider. Along with Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is a legally protected style of brandy.
Pisco: Pisco is a South American grape brandy made in Peru and Chile. Peru has more strict laws dictating the production of pisco, which leads to a more consistent and high quality product. Looser regulations in Chile allow for more variation and experimentation.
Applejack: Similar to calvados, Applejack is an American apple brandy that was first distilled in the late 1600s. Laird's was the first distillery to make American Applejack and is the premiere brand to this day.
Common ways to drink brandy and cognac
Because of its inherent sweetness, brandy and cognac are often served as a digestif – an after dinner drink. "The iconic way to drink brandy is neat in a big snifter glass," Erickson says. "But it's also great served on the rocks and mixes incredibly well in cocktails."
"In a lot of senses, I think brandy is undervalued in the mixing world," Erickson says. "It's great at rounding out and softening other spirits in drinks or even swapping them out entirely." The most well-known cognac-based cocktail is the Sidecar, which mixes cognac with dry Curacao and lemon juice.
"Brandy and cognac were often used in classic cocktails from New Orleans," Erickson says. Golden age drinks like the Sazerac were originally made with cognac before shortages led to the base spirit being switched to rye whiskey.
Brandy is a wide-ranging and diverse category of spirits distilled from fermented fruit. The most recognizable style of brandy is cognac, a barrel-aged grape brandy produced in France under strict legal conditions. Although grape brandies from France get most of the attention, brandy is produced all over the world and has many unique expressions, like South American Pisco and American Applejack.
Dylan is a freelance writer who specializes in cocktails, spirits, and coffee. He is a long-time coffee and hospitality professional who has hands-on experience as a barista, tending bar, opening cafes, and working in specialty coffee distribution in Los Angeles. He is also a lifelong musician who has written music reviews, feature stories, and album descriptions for artists and record labels. When not writing or enjoying a cocktail, Dylan spends his free time reading obsessively and cooking for himself and his partner.
What is the difference between brandy and brandy? ›
Linguistically, both a warranty and a guarantee are promises to the customer. The difference is their legal standing. Guarantees are more or less verbal promises whereas most warranties are written contractual agreements that are more legally binding to protect both parties.What is the difference in taste between cognac and brandy? ›
Although it would be easy to say that cognac is a type of brandy and thus tastes like brandy, this isn't quite so. Cognac has indeed exclusive flavour sensations that are unique: sweet, spicy, fruity and bitter, depending on the cognac.Is cognac a type of brandy? ›
Victor Hugo called cognac the "liquor of the gods." It's become known as a symbol of French luxury, the best brandy money can buy—because, yes, cognac is a brandy. But just as not all wine is champagne, there are plenty of details that set cognac apart from other types of brandy.What are the three types of cognac? ›
- V.S.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of two years. Also known as Very Special or Three Stars.
- V.S.O.P.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of four years. Also known as Very Special Old Pale or Reserve.
- X.O.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of six years.
Brandy is Strong AF
This means that anywhere from 35% to 60% of the drink is alcohol. Compared to a basic beer or wine, brandy is very strong. Vodka is normally around 90-100 proof meaning 45%-50% is alcohol, so brandy can be about the same or even stronger.
- Cognac: This brandy is made from grapes in the Cognac region of Southwest France. ...
- Armagnac: Armagnac is made from grapes in the Armagnac region of Southwest France. ...
- Applejack: This American fruit brandy is made from apples and was created in New Jersey in 1968.
XO (Extra Old) or Napoléon currently designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years.What does XO mean in cognac? ›
XO stands for “Extra Old”: XO cognacs are made only from eaux-de-vie at least six years old. Cognacs such as “Napoleon” or “Old Reserve” are equivalent to XO cognac.What kind of glass is cognac served in? ›
Glasses for drinking cognac neat
The tulip cognac glass, named for how it looks, is the specialist's choice. A cognac expert, and particularly a cellar master, will tend to use tulip glasses, as these best capture the essence of the cognac. The shape of this cognac glass is narrower at the top than the bottom.
The name comes from the Dutch brandewijn (“burnt wine”), referring to the application of heat in distillation. Commercial distillation of brandy from wine originated in the 16th century.
What are the 4 grades of cognac? ›
The designations you see on Cognac labels—VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old)—are a guarantee of how long a Cognac has been aged. VS indicates that the Cognac has been aged at least two years, VSOP at least four years and XO (Extra Old) at least six years.Why is Hennessy called brandy? ›
Contrary to popular confusion, Hennessy is not a whiskey but is instead a type of brandy. The term brandy refers to a spirit distilled from a fermented fruit juice, be it grape or other fruits such as apple (used to make apple brandies like Calvados).What does VSOP stand for? ›
You're probably wondering what does VSOP mean. Well the official term stands for for “Very Superior Old Pale”, although it is often referred to as “Very Special Old Pale”.What is the highest grade of cognac? ›
Hors d'Age is widely considered the highest quality Cognac. This will have been aged, usually for more than 30 years but in many instances, it is difficult to tell the exact age of Cognacs in this classification as they have been around for so long.What is the oldest brandy in the world? ›
Armagnac is the oldest brandy (and liquor) recorded to be still distilled in the world. In 1310, Prior Vital du Four, a cardinal, wrote of its 40 virtues.Do people drink brandy straight? ›
Most high-quality aged brandies are recommended to be enjoyed straight. When drinking brandy neat, there is a process you and your customers can follow to get the most out of the experience, similar to how you would taste whiskey. Warm the glass in your palm.What does VSOP mean on brandy? ›
→ VS stands for Very Special, and it means Cognac was aged at least two years. → VSOP stands for Very Special Old Pale - aged at least four years. → XO or Napoleon means Extra Old - aged at least six years.What is the proper way to drink brandy? ›
In general, brandy is best when served at room temperature. If you prefer cocktails to drinking spirits neat, brandy is a key ingredient in several delicious mixed drinks. The drinks below will bring out the best in less aged brandies but can be made with whichever type you prefer.What is the highest grade of brandy? ›
Grades of Armagnac:
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): The youngest brandy must have aged at least four years, although in practice, most brandies at this class are usually much older. Napoléon, XO (Extra Old): More than six years on oak. Hors d'age: More than 10 years.
The Torres 20 has consistently been named Best Brandy in the World, winning this award in 1997, 2006, and 2019. The Torres 30 is one of its more popular blends featuring Parellada grapes – used in the famous Torres 10. The oak notes mellow the fruity flavor, and the sweetness is reminiscent of dessert brandy.
What does VSOP mean in Hennessy? ›
Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) refers to cognacs that have been aged for at least four years. "Old" and "Reserve" are examples of VSOP classifications. Extra Old (XO) cognacs are manufactured from Eaux-de-vie that have been aged for at least six years.How long does cognac last after opened? ›
However, once the Cognac comes into contact with the air, it will gradually begin to deteriorate and evaporate. The more air in the bottle, the faster this will happen. Realistically, you can think that it's okay to store an open bottle of Cognac for around six months before this deterioration becomes noticeable.Is Costco cognac good? ›
A Costco Cognac may not seem like the most glamorous choice for a connoisseur, but the Kirkland Signature XO Fine Cognac is a unique and pleasant XO that has surprised drinkers around the world with its delicate yet standout flavor profile and pleasing price tag when compared to others of its age.What cheese goes with Cognac? ›
Pair young cognacs with the rich and creamy Brillat-Savarin, milder Edams or Roquefort. You can also pair VS cognac with double or triple crème cheeses like Boursault, Explorateur, mascarpone and cheesecake. Young Goudas, mild cheddars, and lighter blues, like Gorgonzola or Brie, also pair great with these versions.What does XO mean on Remy Martin? ›
Rémy Martin XO is an aromatic and complex blend of up to 400 different eaux-de-vie. The XO designation means Extra Old, and tells us that the blend's youngest brandy is stored for at least six years in oak casks.Which is better XO or VSOP brandy? ›
But generally XO Brandy will be of higher quality than the VSOP. When referring to Cognac or Armagnac these terms refer to minimum legal aging requirements in oak barrel. For example, a Cognac labelled VS must have a minimum two years aging, while VSOP is four years and XO is six.Do you drink cognac warm or cold? ›
Traditionally cognac is served at room temperature and warmed in the hand. However there are now some cognacs that have been specifically created for drinking chilled, such as ABK6 Ice or De Luze's A Blend.Do you drink cognac neat or on the rocks? ›
As an aperitif, cognac is usually consumed neat. Adding a drop of water will reveal more fruity, floral and spicy aromas, making the tasting experience smoother.Why is cognac an after dinner drink? ›
A digestif such as Cognac is so named because after a meal (and in most cases, this would be a hearty meal), the digestive system–or stomach–is full of the food you've just eaten. The theory behind drinking a digestif is that it stimulates various organs to increase their production of secretions that aid digestion.Is Grand Marnier a brandy? ›
The brand's best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, an orange-flavored liqueur created in 1880 by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. It is made from a blend of Cognac brandy, distilled essence of bitter orange, and sugar, containing 40% alcohol (70 proof in the UK, 80 proof in the US).
What is the smoothest brandy? ›
Which is the smoothest brandy? The smoothest brandy is Martell XO. It's a very sophisticated cognac with a smooth silky texture and a long finish. Enjoy it for a wonderful drinking experience, with notes of rancio, citrus, blossom, and walnut when tasting and an aroma of black pepper, fig, almond, and sandalwood.What is the main reason of naming cognac and not brandy? ›
cognac, a brandy produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime départements of France and named for the town of Cognac in the locality.How do you pick a good cognac? ›
The age of a Cognac is the first key to determining a good drop, and it only can be aged in French oak barrels which helps to add its diversity of flavours. Think colours and aromas of caramel, toffee, leather and a warm spice blend which are produced from these special oak vessels.What is the best way to drink cognac? ›
As an aperitif, cognac is usually consumed neat. Adding a drop of water will reveal more fruity, floral, and spicy aromas, making the tasting experience smoother.What is the oldest cognac brand? ›
Cognac Gautier 1762 has been officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest cognac sold at a public auction. A bottle of this unique beverage was purchased by Wealth Solutions and was used in the manufacture of the Cognac Watch – the first Swiss watch with a drop of alcohol.Why do rappers drink Hennessy? ›
In the late 1990s as hip hop began to truly go global via MTV, cognac and Hennessy in particular started to be referenced by rappers. It was dropped into tracks as a reference point for old-world luxury, enjoying the finer things in life and sharing a good time.What type of people drink Hennessy? ›
Though men are typically seen drinking cognac in black culture, both men and women indulge in the beverage. And although cognac comes in a variety of options, such as Martell and Remy Martin, Hennessy beats them all out as the most consumed cognac in the American black community.Why do people drink Coke with Hennessy? ›
The sweetness of the cola alog with the oak, vanilla and caramel notes of the Hennessy make for an enjoyable drink. This classic combination has been around for decades, making it one of the most popular cocktails. It's easy to make too – simply pour equal parts Hennessy and Coke into a glass filled with ice.Is Hennessy a brandy or cognac? ›
Is Hennessy Cognac a Brandy? Hennessy Cognac is a type of brandy. As a liquor made from fermented fruit juice, "brandy" is referred to as a spirit distilled from a variety of fruits, including grapes. To be classified as cognac, however, the grapes used must originate from the Cognac area in western France.Is brandy a cognac or whiskey? ›
Brandies are made from grape or fruit wine. Whiskey is made from grain. Cognac is a type of brandy. All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac.
Is E&J brandy or cognac? ›
Product description. E&J Brandy is America's most awarded brandy. Layers of apple and toasted oak with hints of vanilla and spice round out the flavor and linger in the aftertaste. E&J VS brandy is smooth enough to drink straight or in a variety of mixed drinks.Which brandy is better VS or VSOP? ›
Again, it all comes down to personal preference. If a cognac has been aged for longer, it does not necessarily mean it is better. Younger cognacs, such as a VS, tend to have a fresher, livelier aromas of fruit, where as older eaux-de-vie such as VSOPs tend to be smoother, with clear notes of oak and spices.Is Grand Marnier A cognac? ›
Grand Marnier is a sophisticated blend of cognac and exotic bitter orange.Is Crown Royal a cognac? ›
Description. Crown Royal XO is a skillfully blended Crown Royal Whisky finished in cognac casks, resulting in both an extraordinarily complex and smooth expression. This is an elegant whisky that is deliciously balanced with hints of vanilla, spice and rich dry fruit.What type of person drinks cognac? ›
While Cognac has long been well-established in the US among black drinkers, who largely drink the spirit casually at home, white drinkers in the country are increasing their Cognac consumption – often through the on-premise channel and as an after-dinner digestif.What is the meaning of VSOP? ›
VSOP stands for “Very Superior Old Pale”: VSOP cognacs are created from eaux-de-vie aged for at least four years.Is Korbel a good brandy? ›
Korbel is a good budget-friendly brandy that is excellent for cocktails and mixed drinks, and the brand's older expressions are great sipping brandies.Is Remy Martin or Hennessy better? ›
Remy Martin Vs Hennessy – What to Choose? The answer depends on what you're looking for in your Cognac. If you want a smooth and mellow drink that's great on its own or with food, then Remy is probably your best bet (though it's worth mentioning that both brands make excellent VSOP Cognacs as well).