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And A Little Bit Of Cognac

October 16, 2022 8 comments

– I’m tired of drinking scotch. Next time, can we try something else? How about cognac, for example?

– Cognac? Why not? Next time, we will drink cognac.

This was a conversation with my high-school friend earlier this year. She visits a few times a year, and it is customary for us to taste 10-15 different whiskeys during one of the nights during her visit. This is easy to do, as, after the wine, whiskey (primarily scotch or equivalents, such as Japanese whiskey) is my next favorite type of alcohol. At any given moment I have probably 20+ bottles opened – unlike wine, once opened, whiskey can still last forever, so I have no issues opening a bottle, even for a tiny sip. Whiskey tasting on short notice? No problem, let’s do it. But cognac?

I like cognac as well. Totally different bouquet compared with whiskey, the pleasure of eloping the brandy sniffer and letting the aromatics charm you as the amber liquid gently heats up in your hand… Love cognac – however, I still prefer whiskey on an average day. As a result, if I can find 20+ open whiskey bottles on a given day, I would only have 1, 2, or maybe 3 cognac bottles on hand – that doesn’t make it an interesting tasting by any means.

Let’s take a few minutes to talk about cognac first. Same as scotch is a type of whiskey, cognac belongs to the broader spirits category called brandy. Brandy is defined as the hard liquor (35% – 60% alcohol by volume) produced from wine, which can be a grape wine or a fruit wine, by the process of distillation. Cognac is the most famous type of brandy, produced in France in the Cognac region – as you might expect, Cognac name is protected and Cognac can only come from the Cognac region in France.

There are a few classifications that are important for Cognac. The first one is geographic – not any different from any wine classifications. Cognac can be sub-divided into 6 growing areas, or crus – Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires (you can find all the detailed explanations and a map in this excellent blog post). These crus are always identified on the label if the appellation’s requirements are satisfied – but the majority of the cognacs are simply identified as “cognac”, meaning that the grapes can be coming from any vineyard within the Cognac region. There is one more classification that is not precisely geographically delimited – Fine Champagne, which allows mixing grapes from Grand Champagne (at least 50%) and Petite Champagne regions. Of course, there are single vineyard options, but those are rare.

Another classification that potentially has higher prominence for cognac lovers is the age of the liquid in the bottle. Upon distillation, future cognac is clear. All of the beautiful amber colors are acquired during aging in the oak barrels. The age classifications are typically depicted on the bottles in the form of the following abbreviations:
VS (Very Special) – aged at least 2 years in the barrel
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) – at least 4 years
XO (Extra Old) – at least 10 years
There are other age classification types – XXO, Napoleon, Extra, Réserve – but I would like to offer you another excellent article if you are interested in learning more. While the price of cognac will depend on age, it is not the only dependency – the producer’s name and geographic region need to be taken into account to understand the pricing. You can often find an XO cognac from an unknown producer to cost less than a simple VS from a well-known one, so the age statement alone doesn’t identify the price.

One more note before we get back to our tasting. Approximately 150 miles southeast of Cognac lies another famous french brandy region – Armagnac. Armagnac is also made out of grapes and has its own geographical and aging classifications we are not going to get into here. While there are aromatic and stylistic differences between Cognac and Armagnac, it is important to know that Armagnac is typically cheaper than cognac at the same level of quality. Also, lots of Armagnacs specify the year they were distilled, which makes them an amazing birthday present…

And then, of course, there are brandies, which sometimes can be amazing, and sometimes … just not. Unlike Cognac or Armagnac, brandies are typically not regulated, which means that you need to know what you are buying. Some of the brandies can be amazingly tasty – my favorite brandy when vacationing in Mexico is 10 years old Torres – easily beats all of the big names lifeless VS…

Now, let’s get back to our cognac tasting story. As you might imagine, I decided not to limit the selection to the Cognac alone, and include brandy and Armagnac as it would be possible – however, talking about the prep to the tasting, I would generally use the term “cognac” while talking about my quest.

As I promised the cognac tasting I had to actually find what we will be tasting. And it is much easier said than done. Go to your neighborhood liquor store and compare the size of the cognac and whiskey sections (if your store doesn’t have the cognac section at all, don’t get upset). A typical cognac selection at the store is very limited – and it gets very expensive very quickly,

Okay, so I will be very smart about it, I thought. I need to look for the miniature bottles (50 ml, sometimes 100ml), and tasting sets.

While working on this post, I decided to look at the “popularity” of cognac through the sales numbers. According to this article, cognac sales increased substantially, not only in value but also in volume, comparing 2021 sales with 2020 and even with 2019. As theoretical numbers, it is easy to accept, especially with the value – the average price for the XO cognac almost doubled over the past 5 years. In practical terms, the cognac shelves at most of the wine stores I visited are very short and sometimes even not existing. What’s even worse, finding the miniatures (50 ml) of cognac was mission impossible, with some stores having only one type, and many having none. Our local Total Wine in Norwalk offered a breakthrough – I was able to pick up 6 cognacs and brandies at once.

My friend Zak was able to find me a tasting set from cognac Tesseron, which included 4 different bottlings of XO-level cognac. The set contains 4 different cognacs – Lot No 90, Lot No 76, Lot No 53, and Lot No 29, where the number gives you an approximate year(s) when the cognac was distilled – in 1990 – 1991, 1976, 1050-1952, and 1930s. Lot 29 contains a third of the cognac from the 1906 vintage – it is not every day you get to drink alcohol at such an age. Lot 29 also received 100 points from Robert Parker (not that it matters, but still).

I found the second set on the Cognac-Expert website – Park Cognac Mizunara cognac, a set of 3 Park cognacs from Bordieres finished in Japanese oak called Mizunara. Note of advice – if you like cognac, cognac-expert might be a site for you.

With this, we were all set for tasting. Finally, my friend arrived at the end of September, and we were able to get to it.

Below are my notes from the tasting. The notes are similar to any wine notes I would put out in this blog. Does it make sense for the cognac? Maybe yes, maybe no, but this is the best I can do. As a bare minimum, you will get an idea. During the tasting, we also decided which cognacs/brandies would be worth re-tasting (round 2) and then we rated all the cognacs to decide on our top favorites. Without further ado, here are the results:

E&J V.S. Brandy
Sweet fruit on the nose
Caramel candy on the palate, just caramel.

E&J V.S.O.P. Grand Blue Brandy
Sweet fruit on the nose, dry fruit
Burnt sugar on the palate, pure milk chocolate candy with fruit preserve. Horrible.

Paul Mason Grande Amber Brandy
Dark red fruit, herbs
Touch of sweetness, good restrained, good balance

Hennessy Very Special Cognac
Dry fruit on the nose
Wooden notes, a touch of sweetness, lacks excitement

Courvoisier V.S. Cognac
Oak notes on the nose
Nice restraint, but mostly flat

A. De Fussigny Sélection Fine Cognac
Beautiful nose, sandalwood, nice perfume
Disjointed on the palate, needs more balance

Paulet VS Cognac
Nice complexity on the nose
Good fruity palate, perfectly integrated, excellent balance.
Very good, perfectly elegant, round 2 – final verdict #3

ABK6 Family Reserve XO Single Estate Cognac
Beautiful nose, you can smell the grapes
Perfect complexity, wild apricot, wild apricot pit, a hint of sweetness, but dry finish
Excellent, round 2 – final verdict #6

Park Cognac Borderies AOC Mizunara Japanese Oak Cask Finish
Wow. Cigar box, medicine box, great complexity
Amazing complexity, perfect balance, cigar box, apricot, one of the very best
Wow. Round 2 – final verdict – #1, best of the tasting

Park Cognac Borderies AOC Mizunara Japanese Oak Cask Finish Single Cru 10 years aged
Very complex nose
On the palate, effervescent, but not as impressive as the second one
Very good, round 2 – final verdict #11

Park Cognac Borderies AOC Mizunara Japanese Oak Cask Finish Unique Single Cask Edition Distilled 2004
Amazing nose, very complex
Very complex, spicy oak, delicious
Excellent, round 2 – final verdict #9

Tesseron Cognac Lot N 90 XO
Wow, spicy pepper nose, sweet fruit, amazing
Great complexity, fruity notes, excellent balance
Round 2 – final verdict – #5

Tesseron Cognac Lot N 76 XO Tradition
Dry fruit, wild flowers
Interesting complexity, but not harmonious
Round 2, final verdict – #10

Tesseron Cognac Lot N 53 XO Perfection
Very feminine on the nose, delicate, perfumy, plums, vanilla
Floral complexity, elegant, delicious
Excellent, round 2 – final verdict – #8

Tesseron Cognac Lot N 29 XO Exception
Beautiful nose, complex, round
Herbal notes, plums, spices, perfectly balanced.
Very good, round 2 – final verdict #7

Saint-Vivant Armagnac AOC
Lemon and herbs on the nose
Touch of oak, good acidity, a touch of herbs.

Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac Reserve Grand Champagne AOC
Fruity, elegant
Beautiful fruit on the palate, plums, a touch of chocolate, perfectly balanced
Excellent, round 2 – final verdict – #4

1966 Darroze Bas-Armagnac
Very complex, Forrest underbrush, spices, white pepper
Dark chocolate, dried fruit, perfectly restrained
Superb, round 2 – final verdict – #2

As you can tell, Cognac Park Mizunara Borderies AOC was our top choice, followed by the 1966 Darroze Bas-Armagnac and then Paulet VS cognac ($25 at Total Wine, winery direct program).

Here you go, my friends – an account of the cognac tasting. With the exception of E&J, which humans should not drink, this was a great tasting.

What do think of cognac? Do you like drinking it? Any favorites?

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