There can be few spirits with such an illustrious pedigree and premium connotations as Cognac. This noble French spirit has conquered the world, with the best bottles selling for six-figure sums.
Cognac is viewed as the finest of all grape-based spirits, and rightly so, given its crowd-pleasing notes of fruit and spice, and more complex aromas of leather, roasted nuts and tobacco.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that the vast majority of Cognac is made from an underwhelming workhorse grape, Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy). But it’s no exaggeration to describe the distillation process as a form of alchemy, turning what are rather thin, acidic base wines into a spirit capable of ageing for decades.
It’s easy to concentrate on the top-end XO (‘eXtra Old’) styles, but entry-level Cognacs have much to offer. And these cheaper bottlings form the backbone of some of the most classic cocktails around: think the Alexander, Sidecar and Sazerac.
The industry itself has ploughed untold resources into getting younger drinkers to appreciate Cognac, and in some countries such as the US, it’s worked, where cheap VS (‘Very Special’) Cognacs are mixed with cola and various juices to create long drinks with more depth than your average G&T. A number of American rappers namechecking Cognac brands in their songs has helped spread the word, too.
Although Cognac is dominated by the ‘big four’ – Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier – who collectively make up more than 90% of the market, it’s well worth exploring some of the lesser-known names. One ideal place to start is Maison Prunier, whose Très Vieille Grande Champagne Cognac scooped a Spirit Gold Outstanding award.
Here are six of the best Cognacs from the recent IWSC tasting:
Tres Vieille Grande Champagne Cognac
Outstanding, with a beautifully smooth elegance and depth that is enriched with comforting and warming spice. Alluring bitter orange flavours give additional layered complexity to an exceedingly well-balanced, and silky, palate. 40% RRP £103 enquire at Winestyle
2008 Grande Champagne Cognac
Fresh and powerful with a wealth of flavours delivered through a very expressive and complex set of aromas on the palate. Luscious leather, ginger and rancio notes are boldly evident and intricately balanced with cherry stones and warming spice. 45% RRP £108 from Master of Malt
Jean Doussoux Single Cask N°89 Edition Limitée XO Cognac
Domaine du Chêne
Wonderful on the nose with a well-balanced palate that emanates sweet cinnamon, spice and leather, layered with honey and nuts. Delightfully enhanced by soft hints of tropical fruit and rancio notes. 43% RRP £133 from Cognac Expert
Chanteloup Perspective XXO Cognac
Dynamic notes of bitter coffee beans and luscious toffee are beautifully and skilfully balanced with vibrant and sweet blackcurrant. Smooth on the palate with an enticing complexity that enthuses. 40% RRP £365 enquire at Master of Malt
Roland Bru Extra Cognac
Distillerie des Moisans
Exceptionally complex and well balanced, offering a journey through a dynamic range of flavours on the palate. Combining crisp citrus with savoury spices and sweet brown sugar, then enchanting on the finish with fine toasted oak and rich mahogany. 40% RRP £222 from Cognac Expert
Rare VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac
Inviting and complex on the nose. Well balanced and nicely mellow on the palate with a smooth, silky texture and finely balanced spice and floral notes, intertwined with lovely elements of grape. 40% RRP £45 from Whisky Exchange