Cognac is a famous type of brandy that comes from the Cognac region of France. It's made using certain types of grapes, cooked two times in copper pots, and aged in wooden barrels for many years. There are plenty of brandy benefits to know about, but more on that another time.
Making Cognac involves a lot of work and follows strict rules to ensure that it's of the highest quality. Knowing the finer details of how cognac is made can help you choose the right types of Cognac, thus boosting your restaurant’s profit margin.
How is Cognac Made: An 8-Step Process
The process of making Cognac is a blend of nature and human craft, unfolding over time.
Below, we dive into the eight pivotal steps involved in creating this illustrious spirit, showcasing how simple grapes are meticulously transformed into world-renowned Cognac.
Key takeaway: The creation of Cognac is a complex combination of nature and human skill, transforming grapes into a world-renowned spirit through careful cultivation, double distillation, aging, blending, and stringent quality control.
The creation of Cognac begins in the vineyards of the Cognac region in Western France. This region, with its specific climate and chalky soil, is divided into six crus or vineyard areas, each with its own distinct characteristics that influence the final product.
The most prevalent grape variety used is Ugni Blanc, known for its high acidity and resistance to disease. Other permitted varieties include Colombard and Folle Blanche, but these are less common.
Strict regulations govern the cultivation process to ensure the highest quality, from planting and pruning to pest management and grape density. The ultimate goal is to produce grapes that lend themselves well to distillation and aging, laying the foundation for the exquisite spirit that is Cognac.
The grape harvest in Cognac typically occurs in October, when the grapes are fully ripe. This timing is critical as it ensures the correct balance of sugar and acidity in the grapes, which influences the fermentation process and ultimately the character of the Cognac. The harvesting can be done manually, but the majority of it is now mechanized.
After harvesting, the grapes are quickly transported to the press to maintain their freshness and prevent premature fermentation. The goal is to extract the juice from the grapes while preserving the unique characteristics that each variety and vineyard area brings.
After pressing, the grape juice undergoes fermentation without the addition of sugars or yeast. The naturally occurring yeast on the grape skins initiates fermentation, converting the sugars in the juice into alcohol, resulting in a tart, low-alcohol wine. This process typically takes two to three weeks.
Unlike in some wine production, malolactic fermentation, which converts harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid, is encouraged in Cognac production. This results in a wine that is rather unpalatable to drink but is perfect for distillation, setting the stage for the transformation of the base into the end result.
The wine is then double-distilled in traditional copper pot stills known as "alembics." The first distillation, or "chauffe," produces a rough spirit called "brouillis" with an alcohol content of about 28-32%.
The second distillation, known as "la bonne chauffe," is where the heart or "la part des anges" (the angels' share) is extracted. This results in the "eau-de-vie," a colorless spirit with an alcohol content of about 70%. Only the heart of this second distillation will be aged to become Cognac. Each distillation step is crucial for shaping the character and quality of the final product, enhancing its aroma and flavor potential.
The eau-de-vie is then aged in French oak barrels. The aging process significantly contributes to the Cognac's final color and flavor, as the spirit slowly absorbs tannins from the wood. This imparts notes of vanilla, caramel, and various spices to the Cognac, and allows for the evaporation of harsher alcohols.
During this time, a portion of the Cognac evaporates, referred to as "the angels' share," adding to the mystique of Cognac production. Over time, the interaction between the Cognac, the wood, and the air in the cellar results in a spirit that is remarkably smooth and complex.
After aging, various eau-de-vie are blended together to create the final product. The "maître de chai" or cellar master, uses their expertise to mix eau-de-vie of different ages, crus, and flavor profiles to create a harmonious blend that reflects the house style. This is where the artistry of Cognac production truly shines.
Each house has its signature style, from the light and floral to the rich and robust, and it is the cellar master's responsibility to ensure the consistency of this style from year to year, despite the natural variations in each year's eau-de-vie.
The blended Cognac is then typically diluted with distilled water to bring down the high alcohol content to a more palatable level, usually around 40%. This process, called "réduction," is done gradually over a period of several months to a year to prevent shock to the Cognac and to allow the water and spirit to integrate fully.
Note: The amount of dilution can vary and can significantly impact the final flavor profile of the Cognac, adding yet another layer of complexity to the process.
Once the cellar master is satisfied with the blend and dilution, the Cognac is bottled. The liquor bottles are then labeled according to their age category: VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), or XO (Extra Old), among others.
These designations, regulated by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), give an indication of the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend. The bottling process is the final step in the journey of Cognac production, bringing to fruition a process that has been years, if not decades, in the making.
The result is a spirit that is more than just a beverage; it's a reflection of a place, a year, and the people who crafted it.
How is Cognac Made: Frequently Asked Questions
The Cognac production process is complete. Here are some common questions and answers to help you better understand it.
What kind of grapes are used to make Cognac?
Cognac is primarily made from Ugni Blanc grapes, known for their high acidity and resistance to disease. Other permitted varieties include Colombard and Folle Blanche, but they are less common.
What does "double distillation" mean in Cognac production?
Double distillation refers to the process where the wine is distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills, producing a colorless spirit called "eau-de-vie." The first distillation creates a rough spirit, while the second distillation extracts the “heart of the spirit.”
What is the significance of aging in Cognac production?
Aging is crucial as it contributes significantly to the final color and flavor of the Cognac. The spirit, stored in French oak barrels, absorbs tannins from the wood, imparting notes of vanilla, caramel, and spices.
Crafting Cognac is a meticulous process, steeped in centuries of tradition and tightly regulated to ensure the highest quality. The journey of Cognac, from vine to bottle, is a testament to the “just right” combination of nature and human skill, producing a spirit that is not merely a beverage, but an expression of an entire region.
Now that you know more about Cognac and how it’s made, it’s time to focus on how you can best manage your beverage list. That’s where BinWise and BlueCart can help. Both of these applications can help you with restaurant or bar management.
The BinWise Pro platform, when used in tandem with the BinScan mobile app, can bring efficiency and improved time management to your inventory program. Also, the BlueCart order management system helps you preemptively manage orders, determine your reorder point, and strategize for potential food supply chain disruptions.