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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, “there is a cognac for every palate."
We consulted with our experts and have curated the best cognacs to get right now. Thanks to its balanced flavors and intense aromatics, Frapin's Château Fontpinot XO is our top pick.
Read on for our complete list to find your next favorite cognac.
Best Overall: Frapin Château Fontpinot XO
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 41% | Tasting Notes: Dark chocolate, Dried fruit, Caramel, Herbs
“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 is 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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"Frapin Fontpinot XO is so special. It is the kind of cognac that will have you fall in love with the category. Fruit forward and complex with rich toffee notes, this XO has a finish that lingers for days!"
— Prairie Rose, Editor
Best VS: Bache-Gabrielsen Tre Kors
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Apple, Plum, Flowers, Cinnamon
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 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: Bisquit & Dubouché VSOP
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Apple pie, Fig, Caramel, Spiced tea
What could be more exciting than a 200-year-old cognac brand that is just now making its way across The Pond? Claiming a unique distilling process, the producers of Bisquit & Dubouché continuously taste the distillate as it comes off the still, cutting the heart portion much later than other houses do. This results in a “harmony of aromas and flavors: seductive vanilla and caramel, smooth notes of honey, fig, and dark fruits,” says David Anderson, lead bartender at Death & Co. Denver.
Though Anderson finds this VSOP “delicious on the rocks or neat,” he prefers “to get creative” with it in autumnal cocktails especially, where it develops notes of “apple pie, roasted peach, and spiced tea.”
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Best Innovation: Camus Ile de Ré Fine Island
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Brine, Earth, Smoke
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.
Related: The Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies
Best Double Cask: Pierre Ferrand Réserve
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 42.3% | Tasting Notes: Figs, Dates, Oak, Wine
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 10 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: H by Hine
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Apricots, White pepper, Flowers
Designed by bartenders for bartenders, this “less expensive” V.S.O.P. is blended from eaux-de-vie from the Grande and Petite Champagne regions that are aged for a minimum of four years. It’s one of Thorn’s go-to’s for its “slightly rounder edges.”
With its fruity backbone, vanilla finish, and notes of white flowers and spicy white pepper, it brings enough versatility to play well with other ingredients, adding “great” dimension to “a range of cocktails, from highballs all the way to more spirit-forward drinks.”
Best for a Sidecar: Bache-Gabrielsen American Oak Aged Cognac
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Vanilla, Butterscotch, Coconut, Pears, Apricot
Made from eau-de-vie from the Fin Bois appellation that’s aged two years in French Limousin oak, it spends another six months in barrels from Tennessee. That American oak finish leaves it with plenty of “vanilla and butterscotch” to “convert bourbon drinkers,” says Desoblin. To really see it shine, however, try it in the classic cognac cocktail that “everyone is revisiting now,” the Sidecar, where the citrus melds with its snappier fruit notes and balances out its sweetness.
Best for Sipping: Camus XO Borderies
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Flowers, Figs, Walnuts, Citrus Zest
The only globally available cognac sourced exclusively from the premium Borderies cru, this unique bottle is “a solid one” for sipping, says Desoblin. “It’s very round, very mellow, very velvety,” he says, and what else would you want in a fine sipping cognac besides “excellent texture?” How about a “very fruity” profile? A zippy, flowery nose resolves to dried-fruit flavors with a touch of nuttiness, making this surprisingly affordable bottle “a benchmark for the appellation.”
Best for Beginners: Hine Rare VSOP
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Almonds, Orange, Chocolate, Dried flowers
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: Jean-Luc Pasquet L’Organic 10
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Fig, Cedar, Cinnamon
Certified organic since 1998, Jean-Luc Pasquet offers this flavorful brandy blended from eau-de-vies aged 10 and 12 years, including more than a third in new Limousin oak casks. The result is a rich sip, offering a fruitcake’s worth of intensity. Think: figs, raisins, dates, and cake spices, but with a prominent wood profile to add structure to the sweet depth. If all of that seems ponderous, note the light, floral, lingering bouquet in this bottle.
Best Under $100: Guillon-Painturaud VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Tropical fruit, Honey, Vanilla, Jasmine
It is not common to see cognac producers run by women, but Guillon-Painturaud is one such house. This bottle is estate-bottled from 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
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Dark chocolate, Dried fruits, Prunes
“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 hip hop stars Jay-Z —who liked it so much, he invested in the brand—and Lil Wayne, who 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
Region: Cognac, France | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Cedar, Dried fruit
From the house that sells more cognac in the States than any other brand, 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.
What to Look For
A bottle of cognac should declare that it is “Made in France,” and the specific cru or crus from which the grapes in the bottle are sourced. You may find that you love the rounder expression of the Borderies appellation or the brininess of Bois Ordinaires, so the labels help you can concentrate your cognac exploration in the sub-region of your choice.
Are you looking for something young and racy for your cocktail shaker before dinner, or do you want a rich, luscious sip to enjoy during or after dessert? Depending on your answer, you should look for the age expression on the bottle. V.S. cognacs are aged just two years, whereas X.O.s are at least ten years old. V.S.O.P. cognacs are right down the middle, aged for at least four years. Age brings mellowness and depth of flavor, and older cognacs are quite a bit more expensive than younger ones. So for sipping, choose an X.O. For mixology, go for a V.S. or V.S.O.P.
No matter their age, even cognacs made for blending into cocktails should be sippable on their own, with no harshness or ethanol flavors or aromas. Aging in Limousin casks in the humid atmosphere of the Cognac region’s cellars brings a characteristic mellowness to this category.
What's the difference between cognac and other brandies?
Brandy is a very broad category comprised of all distillates made from fermented fruit juice, be it from grapes or another fruit, including apples, pears, berries, and more. Cognac is a specific category of brandy. It is made from grapes—usually ugni blanc, colombard, or folle blanche—within the Cognac region of France.
What's the best way to drink cognac?
It depends on the age of the cognac. Younger V.S. cognacs are made for blending with other ingredients in a cocktail, including shaken drinks. The next oldest category, V.S.O.P., is a bit more robust and thus great for stirred cocktails. Older cognacs, the ones labeled X.O., have been long-aged for mellow, slow sipping on their own.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. She’s excited by the creativity coming out of the Cognac region nowadays, and there’s nothing she likes more than a snifter of cognac late at night after she’s filed another story.