Thursday, January 15, 2009

Introducing Brandy Friday: Time for a Cognac Break

At Sku's Recent Eats, Wednesdays are definitively for whiskey, but occasionally, we get the hankering for some other spirit and take a whiskey-break. The last time we did that was during our Mezcal Miercoles series, in which we sampled Mexico's premier Mezcals. Now it's time for another spirit, so for the next month or so, in addition to our regular Whiskey Wednesdays, we will have Brandy Fridays with a focus on Cognac.

Unlike our Whiskey Wednesdays, Brandy Friday will be an occasional series, but we will start with a straight month, so I may add an additional food post on Thursdays to maintain the proper food/spirit balance.

Now, I hardly have the aptitude for brandy that I do for whiskey, but it's always fascinated me, and I've tried to learn at least the basics so I can have some idea of what I'm tasting. Hopefully, you will come along and learn with me. So, here we go.

What the heck is brandy?

Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine, juice or fruit. There are many different brandies, including Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and others made from many different things. We will be focusing on wine-based brandy.

What is eau de vie?

Eau de vie, as used with regard to aged brandies, is what we in the whiskey world call white dog, the unaged distilled spirit. Eau de vie is also the term used for fruit brandies that are bottled without aging. Eau de vie translates to "water of life" which, as you will recall, is also the root of the word whiskey.

What the heck is Cognac?

As noted above, Cognac is a type of brandy from the Cognac region in Western France, so Cognac is to brandy as, say, Scotch is to whiskey. Pursuant to the regulations of the The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), Cognac must be made from grapes, 90% of which must come from three varietals: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, but most are made from Ugni Blanc, also known as St. Emilion. The remaining 10% can only be made from specific grapes as well. None of these are popular wine grapes; they tend to be used only for brandy.

Cognac must be double distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in oak barrels. Within the region of Cognac, there are six sub-regions or crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Of these regions, Grande Champagne, which lies at the very center of the region, is thought to be the finest, though many Cognacs contain a blend of brandies from the different crus.

Most Cognac is a blend of different Cognacs made by the distillery (as opposed to a single barrel), and as with Scotch, the age designated on the bottle is the age of the youngest brandy in the bottle. In another similarity to Scotch, Cognac can contain caramel coloring. Unlike Scotch, Cognac can also contain sugar syrup as a sweetener and oak chips to enhance the wood flavor (known as boise).

Nearly all Cognacs, and nearly all aged brandies, seem to hover closely to the 40% alcohol levels. Cask strength is not something that has entered the industry as of yet in any wide-scale way the way that it has in whiskey.

What does Cognac taste like?

Cognac is distilled wine, but it really tastes more like whiskey than wine. I think of Cognac as tasting like a light, fruity whiskey. It has none of the heaviness and boldness of whiskey, and whiskey drinkers might miss that. Common flavors are dried fruit, pear and sweet white wines. At its best, it is a subtle and complex spirit that lifts you into the clouds.

VSOP? XO? Napoleon? What does it all mean?

These are age designations:

VS (Very Special): Aged at least two years.

VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or Reserve: Aged at least four years.

XO (Extra Old) or Napoleon: Aged at least six years, though many are much older.

While there are a few vintage Cognacs, it is very unusual to have precise age statements on Cognac bottles. In addition, some Cognacs don't use these terms at all and the meaning of the terms seems to vary for brandies outside the Cognac region. The long and short of it is that people who are used to the precise vintage on a bottle of wine or the age statement on a whiskey won't find such straightforward information in most of the world of brandy.

Who makes Cognac?

The biggest producers of Cognac are the four major houses: Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier, which represent 90% of all Cognac sales. However, on our Brandy Fridays, we will be experimenting with some of the smaller, artisan producers, though those producers seem to be struggling to survive. Toward the end of our series, we will journey away from Cognac and try some other brandies as well.

Where can you buy Cognac?

In Southern California, I've found that the liquor stores that have great whiskey selections also tend to have great Cognac selections. That means Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, Hi-Time Wine in Costa Mesa and K&L in Hollywood. There is also some good stuff on the shelf at Silverlake Wine.

Where can you learn more about Cognac and Brandy?

Unfortunately, brandy has not developed the loyal following among connoisseurs that whiskey, Tequila and rum have recently acquired. There is no Brandy Magazine or Cognac Advocate to parallel the whiskey publications. While there is some information out there on the internet and in books, much of it is contradictory and some is just wrong. I had to do some real digging to find out the facts, including talking to some producers and industry people, and I still may not have everything straight. There is still a lot of mystery in the brandy universe.

Next Friday: Let the tastings begin


Anonymous said...

SKU- Nice blog. I am a food, spirits and cocktail writer; and distiller. You may know me from over the past years. (JMF fka The Rogue) I have just been contracted to write about American Artisanal brandy, and other fruit based spirits like grappa and eau de vie for the American Distilling Institute ADI, for their upcoming 2009 conference which has a focus this year on North American Artisanal brandy. Expect to see a bit of info on this topic over the next year as we disseminate our research and articles. Also I will be writing in-depth about the fruit brandies I am in the process of creating, distilling, aging, etc.

Jonathan Forester

sku said...

Thanks for posting Jonathan. I look forward to reading your work. It's been interesting for me to get into brandy. Later on in the series, I'll be trying some artisanal California brandy.