Wine 101: French Wine Regions: Cognac

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On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers brings in VinePair’s managing editor and host of the “Cocktail College” podcast Tim McKirdy to talk about everything Cognac. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I just found out that it’s impossible for most people to lick their own elbows. Did you just try it?

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. I think you guys know that by now, right? Okay, wine lovers. We’re going into this thing called brandy in a place called Cognac. I had to bring in somebody who knows a lot more than me about this stuff, Tim McKirdy, host of “Cocktail College.” This is going to be interesting. Okay, wine lovers, so today we’re talking about Cognac. The reason why I want to talk about Cognac is because it’s a very interesting space in the wine world in that it is a brandy, but — you can check out our brandy episode, but it is a brandy that involves what we always talk about here on “Wine 101,” grapes, vines, appellations, aging, oak, and all of that. The only thing that is different is this thing called distillation. Once we get to that point, I’m going to bring in the spirits expert at VinePair and the host of “Cocktail College,” Tim McKirdy. What’s up, Tim?

Tim McKirdy: Hey, how’s it going?

K: The big picture is, where is Cognac? I mentioned this in the South West episode, and that’s where it is. It is in the South West. As we talked about in that episode, the South West is a geographical region with a bunch of appellations in it. That region excludes Bordeaux, which used to be part of it. It was an extension of Bordeaux in a place called Cognac. The reason why Cognac is separated from everything is because of this distillation thing, but it exists in South West France along the river Charente.

T: Charente.

K: Charente. See, I’m so glad Tim’s here because I’m not pronouncing this stuff correctly. What’s interesting about this area is we talked about southwest France, we talked about all the different white wine varieties that are used and how they’re very high in acid and very quaffable, well, these varieties also exist in Cognac, or once existed in Cognac. This brandy-like thing happening in the middle of wine regions has a very interesting backstory. Just like in the Champagne episode and just like in the Muscadet episode, we talked about how climactic and other factors challenged people to make a product, but they used what they had to make something awesome out of it. In Muscadet, it’s using Melon de Bourgogne, but letting it rest on the leaves. For Champagne, it’s taking a very cool climate, white wine region, and making base wine that will then be something special that’ll age forever. When we talk about Cognac, it has that similarity to it but the distillation thing comes in. What happens here is in this part of France, the history of this place does not initially include the distillation into eau-de-vie, which we’ll talk about in brandy. The history of this place involves a bunch of these white wine grapes existing in wine being made. The change happens when the Dutch come through and begin to create their trade. Their massive, massive Dutch trade empire comes through this area and starts to enjoy the high-acid white wines of the region. They start taking these white wines and bringing them to Northern Europe. They find out pretty quickly that these wines will not last the voyage to where they want to go. The Dutch enjoy the wines while they’re in the Cognac area, but they just don’t want to survive. The Dutch begin outside of this region. They begin to take this wine, and they begin to distill it. I don’t know if double distilling happens at this point, but they begin to distill it. They realize, okay, this is strong. It’s like 70 percent alcohol. They dilute it with water, and they try to pretend like it’s the really awesome high-acid wines they’re drinking in the Cognac area. It didn’t work. Eventually, the Dutch come back to the area, they bring stills, and they show the people in this area how to double-distill their wine. This is the beginning of Cognac. Then happy accidents happen. They find out also that storing the eau-de-vie, which is the distilled product of the white wines, in oak over a period of time, adds character, complexity, and, oh, my gosh, we have a new product here. This product becomes hella popular, extremely popular. The British love it. The French love it. It’s going well, and it’s building, it’s building. There’s an industry building around it. Everything’s going great, and guess what, wine lovers? Phylloxera. Yes, the louse phylloxera. It comes in and it decimates the entire area. Before phylloxera came to Cognac, there were 280,000 acres of vines. That’s how big this thing had gotten. By the time phylloxera had its way with this region, it was down to 40,000 acres. Bad, bad, bad. Took them a decade to rebuild. Now, when we talk about all these white wine grapes, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Beurre Blanc, Folle Blanche, all these white wine grapes that are here, what happened was, during the replanting, of course, you listen to the phylloxera episode, and you’ll know, we took American rootstock and grafted it on to vitis vinifera, and we saved wine. The thing is, grafting is a messy business. It’s not just like, put the thing here and put it here, and it will grow. Yay. No, it doesn’t happen that way. It’s precarious because we’re dealing with a living thing. We’re dealing with something that you have a wound, the wound is open. You want to mend that wound, but before you do, there is an infection that could happen, and grafting wines is the same way. Some vines took very well to it. Some vines did not take well to it. In Cognac, when they were replanting everything, they realized very quickly that all the other varieties that they use didn’t take to grafting as well as Ugni Blanc. Ugni Blanc is also called Trebbiano in Italy. That’s the shortened, sweet version. The thing is, this is how I see it. What happened to Cognac and how they got out of that trouble from phylloxera was we figured it out, we fixed it, and we don’t ever want to have to do that again. We will not plant other va- well, I think there’s maybe less than 2 percent of the other varieties that are plant varieties that are planted in this area, but we will train ourselves primarily on Ugni Blanc, and because of the success of the oak we’re talking about previously, the thing about that is there are only two areas that the oak came from. There are two places that I can’t pronounce. I’m hoping Tim will help me pronounce that, but there are two areas in which the oak came from, and so even — this is really crazy. Even to this day, they still only get oak from those two areas. It is a very, don’t want to call it protectionist, not protectionist in an economic sense, but protectionist in a clout or legacy sense. What’s happened here is you have a place that was once doing wine, started to do this new product. This new product blew up in the history of drinking. Phylloxera destroyed it. It was built back, and they’re like, “We cannot mess this up again.” Here we are at a place that distills mostly a grape called Ugni blanc, a high-acid white wine. They distill it twice. We’ll talk about double distilling, and then they put it into oak. The oak has to come from only two places. From there, things get a little complicated. This is why I’m bringing in Tim McKirdy. Tim, this is where you come in. I don’t know a lot about or anything really about distillation. I don’t know about the distillation vessel process. I know the basics of it, but because Cognac not only has specific oak, all the specific specificity, they also have a specificity in their distillation thing, the unit they use, and how they do it. Can you explain the distillation process and what double distillation means and how this all comes to the point where we have eau-de-vie that eventually goes into the oak?

T: Sure thing. Before we dive into that, actually, one more point here that I came across when I was doing some background research for this too, is well familiarizing myself with certain aspects of Cognac, and that’s the must for Cognac, the base wine, is typically only fermented to 9 percent alcohol.

K: Oh. Typical base wine, right? Is that the same in Champagne, you think, is it? Maybe not.

T: Quite possibly. I have a feeling that Champagne is slightly higher.

K: That’s interesting.

T: I do wonder whether that is — as you’ve discussed, these grapes that are typically used for brandy, Ugni Blanc and such, don’t have a lot of character, especially when you’re fermenting or converting all the fermentable sugars into alcohol. I’d imagine that that probably retains some character. The reason that I think that’s what’s important beyond the fact that we’re all wine lovers here and alcohol geeks, I’m sure everyone listening — I think that’s just a fun fact. It leads into the question of why are we distilling. What’s the goal? What’s the outcome? The process is to essentially intensify every single characteristic of the base wine. Part of the distillation process is that– I’ve spoken with distillers before, and they certainly have said that the production, the process itself can introduce flavors, change flavors, but you need a quality base product. Therefore, having that low alcohol, high character, or high character for Ugni Blanc base wine is essential. Now, what’s the goal? Intensifying all of it, like I say, including the alcohol content, because it makes it a more stable product to ship overseas. Also, certain folks prefer drinking distilled spirits than wine or even beer that are lower in alcohol. I like to think of the distillation process as making your turkey gravy on Thanksgiving from a stock that you’ve created yourself. You have the carcass, maybe you’ve roasted your bones, you have it in there in this big pan. It’s like a soup. What’s going to happen after time? You’re going to strain that off, and that’s not really relevant to what we’re talking about here. I guess maybe that’s — let’s move this analogy on. When you put that stock on the stove and you put it over a high heat, you reduce it down, you intensify the character. The way that we’re intensifying that character is through evaporation. Distillation is very much like that process, in a nutshell. If you started with a stock, again, for your gravy, that’s very salty, the more you reduce it down, the saltier it’s going to become. If you have a very flavorful base wine, you reduce it down, the flavors are only going to become amplified.

K: Right. Little side note here, interestingly enough, the salt thing is, Cognac, before it was known for wine, was known for salt. A little side note.

T: Wow. That’s crazy.

K: That’s what brought the Dutch there.

T: Oh.

K: Pretty cool.

T: Nice. Then here’s where things get tricky within distillation in general. You are essentially evaporating your base alcoholic product. Alcohol is a solvent, so the alcohol is going to evaporate first before water does. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, therefore, that’s the first thing that becomes a vapor within the still. That alcoholic vapor travels up through the still and then through a condenser to then transform again back into a liquid.

K: Is the still just like a vessel that the wine sits in?

T: Yes, exactly. You may have seen it. We can get into the specific Cognac still because it’s very unique to the region. In general, folks might have seen those ones for Scotch whisky that look like a large round bottom with a swan’s neck.

K: Yes.

T: They’re often described as pot stills and they’re made from copper. Back in the day, these would’ve always been wood-fired. Some places still use wood-fired. Oftentimes we have more modern technology. You’re talking about a direct heat source on the bottom of the pot still. That liquid starts to heat and the alcohol evaporates first. Within that alcohol, we contain all of our wonderful flavor and aromatic compounds that are even more intensified than they were before because you’ve gotten rid of some of that water already, or you’ve left the water behind. Now, something that’s very important to the production of all spirits, but Cognac in particular, is what comes out of that condenser. We call them heads, hearts, and tails. Heads are the first part of that spirit that’s going to come off the still. They’re typically very high in alcohol and they contain some of the more volatile compounds. The heart is the core of the liquid that’s going to be coming off. The tail is the end part, the last thing that’s going to come off this still. Generally speaking, the heads and the tails are lower in quality than the hearts. The art of distillation is all about knowing where to make what they call cuts. At a certain point when the heads are coming off, you make what’s called a cut and you would disregard — you could potentially use it, but you disregard that part of the spirit. Then you collect your hearts. Then the next part you need to be thinking about as a distiller is where do we make the next cut so that we’re not including any of the tails in the final distillate.

K: Does the tail or the head have a more — is it bitter? Is it a different consistency?

T: The heads are definitely generally — so it’s going to be going down in alcohol, as you can imagine.

K: Go down — right.

T: Decreasing the alcohol content, but also, generally speaking, they’re harsher tasting and aromas as well. Cognac specifically requires a double distillation process. The first distillation is called the first chauffe. I hope that’s right. My French pronunciation —

K: I know.

T: — is terrible.

K: Believe me. I know. Mine is too.

T: That is of the initial wine as we just discussed there, and it results in what’s called the brouillis or the first distillate. The second chauffe is the second pass there, and that’s what ultimately produces the Cognac at the end of distillation. Heads or tails from the first or second distillation may be added to the wine or the brouillis and distilled a second time.

K: Oh.

T: It’s a sustainability thing here. We’re not wasting any products —

K: Interesting.

T: — because they are going to probably contain some aspects.

K: Sure.

T: Compounds that you want. Then the heads and tails that are pulled off of the second distillation are not going to be used. Again, the quality of your base distiller is basically going to revolve around many factors, one of which being where you make those second cuts for heads and tails for the second distillation.

K: Wow.

T: How large your heart is. Imagine this. Imagine you have, again, I’m going to use a food analogy here.

K: That works. Everyone knows food.

T: Right. Imagine you have this carrot that you’ve bought from the store, and it’s knobbly and whatnot, and maybe you’re not too keen on the skin, the peel, whatever. It’s all crooked-shaped. What you’re going to do, you’re going to start taking a peeler to it, and the more you peel it-

K: The cleaner it looks.

T: The cleaner it looks, you’re getting rid of those outer things. Eventually, you’re getting closer to what looks like a perfect cat carrot, right?

K: Right.

T: At the end of the day, your yield is going to be much lower than if you said, “Hey, I’m just going to peel off the outer layers,” and you’re going to leave the rest of the carrot there. Your yield is higher. Knowing where to make those cuts is both a financial decision but also one in terms of quality. As is always the case in businesses but in booze, it’s finding the balance between quality, and, well, quantity.

K: Right. Wow. That’s amazing. Real quick, because I have a question, but it requires talking about the vines again. The thing about Cognac is the way it’s classified, which is very unique and interesting. The words that you use are very — wine lovers, they’re words that you understand, but their applications are a little bit different. If I’m understanding this correctly, the entirety of Cognac is about six crus.

T: That’s correct.

K: Those six crus are in a bid. If you look it up on the map, it was a bull’s eye. Again, as we talked about in Bordeaux and southwest France, soil is a really, really big factor in these. We have a soil episode later this season. We won’t go into all the details of the soils. Really quick, let’s talk about the crus because the only thing I want to talk about in the soil is those crus are designated because of soil composition and those vines in the fruit that comes from those soil compositions. There’s a reason for it, and I’m wondering if that “terroir” affects the eau-de-vie. I don’t know how that even happens, because you’re distilling down, down, down down. How does the eau-de-vie reflect the cru? First of all, we’ll talk about the six crus, and then can you answer my question?

T: Sure thing. All right. I also think of a good way to think of Cognac as a region, even though Bordeaux lies to the south, and we’re just on the northern banks of the Garonne here. I actually think sometimes it’s better to look at this like Burgundy. You have this cru system that goes from largest to smallest, and that could reflect like a Burgundian appellation, where you’re talking about like the general region and then getting smaller and smaller and smaller, down to the parts. Regions are crus within crus. Generally speaking — again, my pronunciation here is going to be terrible.

K: No, you’re on “Wine 101.” It doesn’t matter. I’m terrible at this.

T: The largest of the crus here, or if you were to look at this bullseye, which is a great way of putting it, the outer ring there is going to be the Bois Ordinaires and then the bullseye itself, the smallest, the quote, unquote, finest region is going to be Grande Champagne. Yes, to your point. This is a system created in terms of quality, I would imagine, also history.

K: Yes, very historical.

T: Very historical, and we know things can change over time. You spoke about that in the Bordeaux episode and classifications, how they don’t always change. Another thing to think about here, too, is yes, we’re talking about wine, so these things generally relate to terroir. Not only are we distilling this wine, we’re also introducing oak —

K: After it’s been distilled.

T: — after it’s been distilled. My question is, I think it’s up to the drinker and up to the person to consider this as a concept and decide whether they believe or how much they believe you can interpret terroir after a base wine has gone through still two times, and then spend maybe a short amount of time in oak, or maybe a very significant time in a-

K: Up to 12-plus years.

T: Exactly. I’ve spoken with distillers that lie on both kind of sides of the fence, not first Cognac in general, but just spirits in general, some that believe, absolutely, we should be talking more about terroir and others that say, well, there’s many other factors at play that any terroir that does exist but gets muted out by things such as barrel aging.

K: There was a really great article recently in VinePair about Cognac. What’s the headline of it? I want people to go read it.

T: The author is called Susannah Skiver Barton. She’s a spirits expert, and also just as a side note, one of the finest tasters I’ve ever sat beside during a spirits tasting or wine tasting. Incredible palate. The article itself is called “Boutique Cognac Producers Are Betting on Transparency and Innovation to Shake Up the Status Quo.”

K: Okay, that’s a great article. You have to go read it. To understand Cognac today, it’s a great way to understand it. The reason why I brought it up, because in the toggling of terroir and how does eau-de-vie reflect that, I found that after reading that article, just like in wine, the smaller the producer, the more concentrated the product before distillation, maybe in smaller boutique or smaller production Cognacs, which we’ll get into how it’s aging later. Maybe there’s that. The larger a winery gets, the larger anything gets, it’s harder and harder to have that complexity in anything, even though it’s probably delicious.

T: Exactly. 100 percent. The smaller your production, generally speaking, like you said for wine, you’re going to be able to focus more on the factors that might be reflective of terroir. I think there’s another interesting analogy to draw here too to wine, which is I think that Cognac ia a category also in many ways resembles Champagne. I say that because there are four or five, I believe it’s four major producers that account for almost 95 percent of Cognac production —

K: Huge.

T:  — which is wild, which again, that’s fewer than Champagne. However, the rest of the producers that exist in Cognac, historically, a lot of them would have grown grapes, and possibly even made base wines for the larger, we call them Cognac houses, just like Champagne as well.

K: Interesting.

T: In more modern times, a lot of these producers have started to make stuff independently as well. They may still sell to bigger brands, they may also make independently for themselves and release, like the idea of grower Champagnes. You could say that we have grower houses, I’m not sure if people actually use that terminology, but you could talk about this idea of the major houses versus grower houses within Cognac. Again, it’s these smaller producers, these guys that account for maybe 5 percent total around that, maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less. Those are the ones that if you’re looking for terroir in the category, that might be a good place to start.

K: I found it interesting there are times in recent modern history, in this century where the major brands have had stock issues, and because of those stock issues, those smaller producers have been able to come on to the markets. What’s really cool about this is as we finish talking about all this stuff, you’re in a good place right now in 2023, that if you do want to go for the big stuff, it’s there. There’s also probably a good amount of the other stuff around, because from what I understand also is that France doesn’t drink Cognac as much as we do.

T: No, that’s another statistic that ‘s upwards of 90 percent. I think closer, even approaching most recently, the stats I saw, I think might have been 97 percent of the Cognac that’s consumed in the world is outside of France.

K: That’s just nuts. Let’s get to what happens after it comes out of the still. Once it comes out of the still we have what’s called eau de vie or water of life. Though this water of life, is it blended before it goes in the barrels, or it’s blended after-barrel?

T: That’s going to be coming off the still. Now, I would imagine that these distillation runs, the double distillation that is required by law, by the way.

K: Very controlled.

T: What comes off of there is produced in batches. I believe the whole process itself takes around 24 hours. When you complete a batch, that will be brought together for consistency stake, and then it will be put into barrel.

K: Now, real quick. The still itself is a special still that they refined over time. When the Dutch brought the still to Cognac over, I don’t know if it’s a century or some long amount of time, they designed this one kind of still called a —

T: Charente.

K: — Charente still, and that’s the still you have to use.

T: Exactly.

K: That’s crazy.

T: That’s what’s being used in Cognac. Again, I was just thinking about how I could describe this thing. It’s very hard. I guess it maybe looks a little bit like an old-school steam train from the side, sort of.

K: That’s right, steampunk it.

T: Yes. It’s hard, though. What I will say is this, it’s similar in design to what’s traditionally called an alembic still, which is like the original distillation equipment that dates back a long, long, long time. It’s based upon that principle. It doesn’t look exactly the same as those swan neck, large copper pot stills that are very common in Scotland, but the process is the same. There is another type of still out there called the continuous still or column still, that allows for multiple of these distillations to happen in what we call one run. It’s distilling, it’s happening multiple times within the one still. This we’re doing two runs through the still as required by the region. That’s like boiling your kettle, pouring the water out, and then re-boiling that same water again. Effectively, we’ve cut a load of steps there including condensing the liquid, but again, it’s the same thing. It goes back into the same vessel for a second production.

K: Now we’re coming to the culmination here, because in this protective environment of making this product, also in the similar to Champagne, Cognac — houses? I’m not sure what they’re called. Cognac —

T: Cognac houses, yes.

K:  — houses.

T: Maison.

K: Maison, also have a consistent product as non-vintage Champagne would have. The wild thing is it’s one of the places in France that the tiers of aging and the wording used for the tiers is English, not French. At the time, the British were drinking a ton of it so they made sure the BNIC, I think it’s called, it’s the Bureau of International-

T: It’s the local — yes.

K: The local consortium, if you will. They developed this based on that. It hasn’t changed since, and it’s a very — if you’re looking at a label of Cognac and you see VSOP, XO, XXO, Napoleon, Hors d’Age, you don’t know what you’re looking at, especially if you’re just trying to get into this stuff. How does this work?

T: This is another one of those areas where Cognac closer resembles wine than other distilled spirits.

K: Right. Now we’re getting back to the wine vibes.

T: Imagine a single malt Scotch, it’s going to say on the side of the bottle, 10 years, 12 years, 15 years, whatever. That’s always going to represent the youngest distillate in that bowl. It may contain more, but it’s the baseline. In Cognac, we have these very specific categories, much like you have in a reserva in Rioja, for example, or different areas of Italy, where you as a drinker and a consumer, you need to understand what they represent. The first one is very special, which means it must have aged for at least two years in French oak.

K: Also known as VS —

T: VS.

K:  — or three stars. Is that —

T: I would say VS as the term that most people use.

K: VS. Let’s stick with VS, wine lovers.

T: Stick with VS. Those little barrels that you mentioned earlier, by the way, those are Tronsay and Limousin.

K: Yes. Those are the two areas they have to come from.

T: Which I think is also the case for most French wine, but I might be making that up. It’s the French oak. It’s the — anyway.

K: I’m going to use French oak.

T: It’s definitely for Cognac, at least. Now, there’s no such thing as Cognac that’s younger than VS. Two years is the minimum for anything. Even though it’s called very special.

T: … In some people’s eyes may be the least special Cognac. We can maybe get into this, but we can’t always take things at face value. Next, we have VSOP, or very superior old pale, which has a four-year minimum aging period. Again, I could release a Cognac that contains 95 percent, 30-year-old distillate and 5 percent 4-year-old distillate. I could only label this maximum VSOP because that’s the age of the youngest distillate in the blend.

K: This is what was dizzying to me when I was researching this. This is great.

T: Next up, if we were to go in age, we’d have one thing, but next up in terms of the official and most recognized categories these days would be XO, which must be aged for at least 10 years as of 2018.

K: That’s called extra old.

T: Extra old. That’s correct, yes.

K: The XO is probably just for putting it on barrels.

T: Yes.

K: It’s just easier to see what’s in trade.

T: Previously, six years was the minimum age for an XO Cognac. Again, that changed as of 2018. Now we use the term Napoleon to reference those Cognacs aged between six and 10 years. Weirdly, it’s Cognac, the Napoleon category is recognized, is official, but for most of the major houses that you see out there, you will encounter their VS, their VSOP, their XO, or maybe even their extra, extra old, which is 14 years minimum.


T: XXO, but you might not come across Napoleon. It’s less common, but it is the sixth year, so it’s weird there. Then we have one final one that you mentioned earlier, Hors d’Age, which means-

K: Beyond age?

T: Exactly.

K: Similar.

T: A term to that effect. Now, that doesn’t have a specific year tied to it, but it’s used colloquially to indicate a Cognac of very high quality that is aged significantly beyond the XXO level. It’s wild.

K: It’s like you have a reserva, let’s say in some place in Italy, that is required to have four years of aging before it’s released into the public, but they decide to age it for 15, which is — that would never happen, but that’s what that means. This is because we’re putting a spirit …

T: 100 percent.

K: … into this. Now, wine lovers, there’s a firehose of info that just came at you in a very well-organized way, by the way. To wrap this up real quick, let’s talk about, so they’ve aged, did the flavor profiles change? Now, this is complicated because we’re talking about different distillers and different things. Are there any generalities around flavor in these categories?

T: Yes, 100 percent. Just like wine, because this is distilled wine, we’re going to start out the younger the product, we’re going to start out with a more fresh, fruitier core profile.

K: Okay, I can understand that.

T: I often get stone fruits, orchard fruits, things like that, really phenomenal. That’s going to be your VS, right? As they spend longer time, we’re going to transform into what we might call secondary characteristics than tertiary.

K: Why no one knows all these?

T: Exactly. Oxidative and that whole thing comes into it too. Generally speaking, the VS are going to be lighter in appearance. The longer it spends in the barrel, it’s going to be darker.

K: Right, which is very spirity.

T: Yes. Here’s where things can get slightly muddled, additives.

K: That doesn’t make sense to me.

T: In many spirits categories, Cognac is not alone here. Scotch is another one that I’ll just put out there straight away so that people don’t think we’re talking about yes, but we’re talking about other categories of spirits where you can use additives. No, we’re talking about tequila, Scotch permitted in many cases. Generally speaking, I believe there are three permitted additives in the category, which are caramel coloring, sugar, and oak chip infusion.

K: Okay, wow. Caramel doesn’t happen in wine, but oak chip infusion definitely happens in wine. This is just for volume or just for house consistency?

T: I would say it’s for consistency. Caramel is for color I think as spirits drinkers, we’ve been trained to believe that the darker something looks the better is because it might have spent more time. The reason I bring those things up — and oak chip, again, to maybe generate flavors …

K: More vanilla.

T: … that requires less time in barrel, more vanilla, more approachable flavor characteristics. The only reason I bring it up is not to cast any judgment on the practice, it’s to say that if you encounter a VS Cognac that looks darker than the VSOP or XO from another brand, that’s not to say there’s anything funny going on with the XO that looks light. If anything, that might say to you —

K: The VS.

T:  — the VS contained, permitted caramel coloring whereas that XO probably doesn’t.

K: That makes sense.

T: The reason I bring that up as well is for two reasons. Ultimately, what are we here for, we’re here to discuss and also maybe influence our buying habits as drinkers. What are we looking for out there in the market? What do we need to know? Cognac as a category contains some of the best value of any aged spirits out there. You can get 10-year-old products that are a fraction of the price of the same age of bourbon or dry whisky or whatever. There’s a generalization out there that when it comes down to how we should use these things, and this is probably fodder for a different episode, but we should only be using VS in cocktails and we should only be sipping XO. Price comes into that consideration but also profile. Now, if my XO is beautifully aged, contains no oak-chips, contains no sugar or coloring, what’s stopping me from putting that in a cocktail? I say go for it.

K: Go for it, especially if the price is right, you’re not worried about the cost …

T: If the price is right.

K: … and everything like that. You’re saying if the price is half, a quarter, a third or whatever of a bourbon yes, absolutely. Wine lovers, I know not all of you only like wine, I know a lot of you like cocktails. You must listen to the “Cocktail College” podcast. What’s really cool is that there are some cocktails and there will be in the future that this product is used in, and they will go into absolute depth every episode about that. I find that really awesome how you have this brandy product, it’s protected, and it has a certain still, has crus, and it comes from a certain barrel and it has all these layers. Can you burn a cocktail? It’s just wild. It actually is great in cocktails.

T: I appreciate the plug there of the podcast, but I think —

K: Always.

T: — if folks want to go there and listen, the place that they’re going to start is the Sidecar episode, because the Sidecar is not only, arguably, the most iconic Cognac cocktail in history. It also inspired drinks such as the Margarita, but again, that’s fodder for a different time.

K: Yes, listen to the “Cocktail College.”

T: Within that episode, I forget exactly how old it was, but my guest made me a Sidecar with a Cognac that’s over 50 years old.

K: Wow. Therefore, all I’m saying is if the pros are doing this, we should feel happy too. Man. Wow, Tim, thanks for coming on, man. This was a “Cognac 101” episode, man.

T: “Cognac 101.”

K: So cool, I find this so — wow. I love how wine and spirits came together to make this episode happen. Thanks a lot, man.

T: My pleasure. I’m not sure how we covered carrots, steam trains, kettles — it’s all distillation. It’s wonderful.

K: Yes, it’s great. I like the carrot. That carrot one is really good, it could knobbly or nobby, nobby. I like that one a lot. I’m going to use that.

T: Yield.

K: Yield. All right, man.

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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.