Cognacs have the rather negative connotation of being a towkay (boss, in local speak) drink at kitschy KTV bars. It’s unfortunate really, as the classy spirit has so much to offer beyond just an accompaniment for business deals or debauchery.
For a start, Cognacs are a variety of brandy. For brandy to be called Cognac, they have to be produced the region around its namesake town in France. Renowned producers include Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Rémy Martin. Obviously, Five X.P. is not a Cognac.
Most of us would be familiar with how whiskies are made. The process behind Cognacs is similar, but instead of grain, grapes are used instead.
For instance, Remy Martin uses grapes from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, collectively called Fine Champagne. These crus are characterized by exceptionally chalky soil, which reflects light and ripens the grapes. The grape varieties used in Cognac are predominantly Ugni Blanc, with a touch of Colombard and Folle Blanche. It is also worth noting that Cognac Fine Champagne is governed by French Law, which ensures consistency in character and quality.
The emphasis on provenance is something that makes Cognacs a little different from whiskies. Except for a small number of distilleries like Bruichladdich and Springbank, whisky producers tend to source for its grains from the world over. It may be due to cost or that Scottish farmers simply cannot fulfil the massive quantities required.
Next comes the distillation. The wine from the grapes, and their lees, are twice distilled. Remy Martin uses small copper stills as they reckon the size ensures ‘harmoniously heating’. And similar to whiskies, the size of the stills also impart distinct flavours to the distillate, or in this case, eaux-de-vie. At Remy Martin, 12kg of grapes are required to produce a single litre of eau-de-vie, which has an ABV of around 70 per cent.
Blending and Maturation
Once the eaux-de-vie is produced, the samples will be sent to Remy Martin’s panel of tasters. The team, led by Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau (pictured below), have to put their noses into over 2,000 samples. He said that it is a very intense activity. “We have to create a very neutral environment. There’s no music, the room is plain and we don’t talk to each other. This is to ensure that we don’t get distracted or influenced during the testing process.”
With the samples shortlisted, Baptiste blends hundreds of eaux-de-vie with differing ages and origins. The resulting blends are then put into French Oak barrels. Specifically, Remy Martin uses Limousin type oak wood, where the tannins and porosity of this open-grained wood help to bring out the full aromatic profile of the eaux-de-vie. As you’d expect, Cellar Master Baptiste work closely with the cooperages to select good quality barrels.
By law, maturation for Cognac must be at least two years. Remy Martin has over 140,000 casks of Fine Champagne eaux-de-vie in their cellars and it is up to Baptiste to blend them into various products.
For instance, the Remy Martin XO is a blend of over 400 eaux-de-vie that have been, again by law, matured for at least six years (or 10 years as of 10 April 2016).
And this, very briefly, is how Cognacs are made.