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Understanding Cognac and Brandy

Cognac and brandy bottles

Cognac vs. Brandy: What’s the Difference?

Cognac was dubbed the “liquor of the gods” by Victor Hugo. It’s become renowned as the best brandy money can buy, an emblem of French luxury (yes, cognac is a brandy). Here’s a quick rundown of the various liquors.

What exactly are they?

A distilled alcohol derived from fermented fruit juice is known as brandy. Grapes or fruit can be used to make it. (Calvados, for example, is a French apple brandy made in the Normandy region.) Not all cognacs are brandies, and not all brandies are cognacs.

Cognac is an aged brandy made from grapes cultivated in the Cognac area of France, where brandy has a long history. Cognac, also, must be created from white grapes grown in one of six terroirs; the Ugni Blanc grape variety is the major ingredient, and grapes grown in the “Grande Champagne” terroir are the most prized. The liquid must be distilled twice, and the season for distillation is October 1 to March 31.

What are their origins?

Cognac must be produced in the Cognac region of southwest France, which is noted for its exceptional terroir (the soil, climate, and topography that contribute to grape-growing conditions).

Brandy can be found all around the world.

What about aging and blending?

The liquid is blended and matured after distillation, which is what truly distinguishes cognac. A tasting committee of seven individuals gathers at Hennessy from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to taste around 40 distinct samples of “Eaux de vie,” as the individual distilled spirits are named before being blended. According to Jordan Bushell, the brand’s ambassador, joining the committee requires ten years of training.

Before being labeled “V.S.,” cognac must be aged in French wood for at least two years. (Very Special).” Then there are these distinctions that break down the age and quality of a bottle:

  • V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): The blend’s youngest brandy must be matured in oak for at least four years.
  • X.O. (Extra Old): The blend’s youngest brandy must be matured in oak for at least six years.

What is the best way to consume them?

The classic image of cognac is a glass of V.S.O.P. or X.O. being sipped by the fire on a chilly winter night, yet this belies the liquor’s versatility and adaptability for mixed beverages. For example, the Sidecar is a classic drink made with cognac as the main ingredient.

Here’s how to make it:


1.5 oz cognac

.75 oz lemon juice

.75 oz Cointreau/triple sec


In a cocktail shaker, combine all of the components. Fill the container with ice. Shake thoroughly and pour into a cocktail glass with a sugar rim.

Brandy can, of course, be consumed neat or in cocktails (the Jack Rose is among the most popular).

If you drink cognac and brandy directly, you might get flavors of apricots, oranges, and lemons. Flowers and spices like nutmeg and cinnamon are common notes in aged cognacs.


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