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“Cognac is the spirit you should be reaching for and drinking now,” says Certified Cognac Educator Ms. Franky Marshall. That’s, in part, because of its diversity. Made from grapes—primarily high-acid, low-alcohol ugni blanc variety—that are fermented, twice-distilled, and then matured in oak barrels before blending and bottling, this brandy from France’s Cognac region is not just for sipping after dinner by the fire. In fact, it’s one of the widest-ranging spirits categories out there.
Much of the difference between bottles has to do with how long they are aged. Younger VS, or “very special,” cognac is blended from brandies at least two years old, while an XO cognac, or "extra-old" cognac, gets its rich depth because it must be aged at least six years. The VSOP, or “very superior old pale” Cognacs, blended from four-year and older brandies, are right in the middle, with characteristics of both youth and age.
But even in a single cognac, you’ll find a spectrum of flavors that come from the many steps in producing it. “There are fruit and flowers, great esters, oak notes, and developed flavors that are rich, round, and earthy, all in the bottle for you,” says Kellie Thorn, a Certified Cognac Educator and the Cocktail Director for chef Hugh Acheson’s restaurants. “So they’re so fun to mix with.”
“Think of the versatility,” says Marshall. “Don’t limit cognac to one time of year. Realize it works in so many different ways. That’s why we taste through different ages and expressions. Maybe use a VS for longer drinks like highballs, and VSOP in a Sidecar. Think about cognac with food [pungent cheeses, dark chocolate, berries, oysters, and other seafood]." Try storing it in your freezer, where “it gets more viscosity, and the perception of the alcohol is lowered,” suggests Marshall—a great technique for summer. Most of all, be assured, she says, that “there is a cognac for every palate.
Here, the best cognacs available.
Best Overall: Frapin Château Fontpinot XO
“I keep a bottle of this at home,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, Certified Cognac Educator and owner of San Francisco’s Elixir. “It is absolute perfection—what XO should be.” Major vineyard owners in the Grande Champagne cru of Cognac, the Frapin family has been growing grapes since 1270 and making cognac for more than 20 generations. They have experience on their side. Ehrmann calls this bottle “super well-rounded” with a “balanced complexity of dried fruit, dark chocolate, and caramel flavors, plus a slightly botanical note.” He loves its “rich, slightly oily mouthfeel,” but best of all are its endless aromatics. “If you have a really good XO like this one, you can hold onto the empty glass for half an hour after sipping, and just smelling it will bring flashbacks of its taste.”
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Best VS: Bache-Gabrielsen Tre Kors
Bache-Gabrielsen's VS cognac is produced from a blend of ugni blanc grapes from the Fins Bois, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne crus. “Delicious apple, cinnamon, and plum” is how Ms. Franky describes its flavor. “It’s youthful and a little coarse, but it won’t get lost in a cocktail.” In fact, it’s Kellie Thorn’s choice of cognac for her go-to “brunch drink”: cognac and apple juice. “Younger, vibrant, fruity cognacs like this have a little edge to them when neat, so they can seem sharp,” she says. “But when you mix this into a long cocktail like a highball, all the beautiful fruit and floral characteristics lengthen out, and the bubbles lift them up.” Try it with grapefruit soda, sparkling cider or wine, tonic, or soda water.
Best VSOP: Hardy VSOP
Englishman Anthony Hardy fell in love with the French Charente region in 1863, and today his fifth-generation descendant, Bénédicte Hardy, is one of the few women heading up a cognac house. This VSOP is categorized as a Fine Champagne, which means that at least 50 percent of its eau de vie comes from the Grande Champagne cru, with distillate from the Petite Champagne cru blended in. (The word “champagne” in this case has nothing to do with the bubbly wine; it is derived from the French word “champagne,” meaning the countryside.) The soils in these crus are quite chalky, making for fragrant cognacs with great aging potential. Ms. Franky finds it “very round and unctuous” for a VSOP, “with notes of ripe pineapple, orange, toffee, butterscotch, and baking spices.”
Best Innovation: Camus Ile de Ré Fine Island
Ehrmann calls this bottle “the Islay of cognac,” for its oceanic flavors akin to those in the whiskey of the Scottish island. The grapes are sourced from rediscovered vineyards located in a part of the Cognac cru of Bois Ordinaires that reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean off France’s western coast. There, on the isle called Ile de Ré, the fruit takes on a truly unique character. Iodine and salinity undergird its flavor, while aging in very damp cellars adds roundness and earthy notes. Smooth and creamy with a slight oakiness and a smoky, briny finish, it is an intriguing sip that will satisfy the scotch drinkers among your friends.
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Best for a Sidecar: Pierre Ferrand Ambré
"I’ve been making sidecars with this cognac for a decade-plus,” says Ehrmann. He’s stuck with it, even though Pierre Ferrand and other producers have released higher-proof cognacs made specifically for cocktails in recent years. “The Ambré is more expensive,” he says, “but it’s richer and fuller than those bottles.” It nevertheless retains balancing notes of the light, tangy fruit you’d expect from a VSOP. “That brightness is what you want to punch through and pair up with the lemon in the sidecar,” says Ehrmann. “It has nice apricot, peach, and other stone fruit flavors that contrast with the caramelly notes of the barrel.”
Best for Sipping: De Luze VSOP
Price-wise, VSOP cognac “isn’t too over the top,” says Ehrmann, so you can make cocktails with it, if you like, but he suggests drinking this bottle neat. “The sign of a top-notch VSOP is the ability to be a great sipper as well as a great cocktail spirit,” he says, “and this is one of my favorites.” A fan of its “well-rounded and balanced” character, Ehrmann describes it as “just dipping a toe into the lush mouthfeel and richness of age, as those bright fruits start turning into dried fruits.” His conclusion: It’s an “exceptional” spirit blended and bottled at just the right moment to capture “the magic that happens in the barrel.”
Best for Beginners: Hine Rare VSOP
A really youthful cognac can often taste hot and alcoholic, says Thorn, so though VS cognac is less expensive, it might turn off beginners. Instead, she suggests spending a bit more money to invest in a cognac with some age on it. “I love the Hine Rare VSOP,” she says. It’s great for both tall, light cocktails and more spirit-forward drinks. But to get the most out of it, novices should try it on its own. Almond skin, dried petals, and plenty of fruit meet a luscious mouthfeel and round, nutty flavors. “It’s a lovely sipping spirit with very well-balanced, beautiful characteristics,” says Thorn.
Best Organic: Hardy VSOP Organic
With less than three percent of the region given over to certified vineyards, there are very few organic cognacs on the market. Hardy made a commitment to the environment with this bottle that is certified both in Europe and by the USDA. It exhibits the nutty, milk-toffee richness and the silkiness that come from its four years of age, but it remains zesty and refreshing on the finish with a burst of spice in the nose. Its yin-yang nature makes it flexible for both sipping and mixing into cocktails.
Best Double Cask: Pierre Ferrand Réserve
Two centuries ago, it was common practice to source barrels made from a variety of different wood types, in order to add layers of woody flavors to the spirit. Pierre Ferrand revives the practice with this XO cognac aged seven to ten years in the region’s traditional Limousine oak casks and then finished in barriques that once held fortified Banyuls wine. That final length of maturation imparts an intriguing overripe, dark-fruit character that, in Cognac, they call “rancio”: stewed figs and dates with a hint of savoriness and bittersweetness that balances this spirit on just the right side of too much.
Best Under $50: Jean Fillioux Coq
The father-and-son team behind Jean Fillioux represent the fourth and fifth generations of the 140-year-old family-owned producer. The duo uses estate fruit from their 54 acres in the Grande Champagne cru. Kellie Thorn describes this VS as “youthful with light flowers and brilliant, bright apricot flavors.” A great cocktail spirit, it’s also an alluring introduction to a house whose spirits just keep getting better as they age. “If you go down the road with them,” says Thorn, “their XO is bursting with tropical flavors,” but it isn’t nearly as pricey as others in the long-aged category.
Best Under $100: Guillon-Painturaud VSOP Grande Champagne
It is not common to see cognac producers run by women, but Guillon Gainturaud is one such house. This bottle is estate-bottled start to finish without coloring, filtration, or the other manipulations that are common in production here. Though it is labeled VSOP, the average age of brandy in it is pushing 15 years, which lends it appealing depth. “It’s awesome,” says Thorn. She notes sprightly apricot and honey notes from the distillate with jasmine, toasty vanilla, and tropical fruit flavors that come from aging. “The oak character is reserved,” she says, “which really allows integration and lets the fruit and floral characteristics to burst out of the glass. It’s extremely aromatic but balanced.”
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Best Splurge: D’Ussé XO
“Prune, deep dark chocolate, and just enough tannic structure to make it bite.” That’s how Ehrmann describes this worthy splurge of an XO, a favorite of rap stars Jay Z. and L’il Wayne—who even penned a song called “D’Ussé”. Ehrmann suggests reveling in the “long, lingering complexity on the nose” to make it last: “It’s all about little sips that coat your palate and your mouth, and then you want to focus on it, let it linger and keep breathing through it. With any expensive, rich spirit, there’s the art of savoring it, and that’s where you can find value in it.”
Best Special Release: Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 3
From the house that sells more Cognac than any in the States, this silky expression is the latest in a limited-edition line of bottlings that reflect the genius of Hennessy’s master blenders. It is the first for eighth-generation blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, who chose each of the eaux-de-vie that went into it, none less than seven years old. It’s a pleasure to drink: A heady, cedarlike aroma yields to caramel, vanilla, and dried fruit flavors, with a smooth, lush texture and an alluringly bright finish that makes you want to come back for more.