France- Aromas of orange blossom and candied orange zest with notes of toasted wood. Deliciously bitter-sweet orange enhanced by notes of candied orange and a touch of hazelnut, almonds and marzipan on the palate. Enjoy on its own.
Cognac, France, the world’s premier brandy region, is some 80 miles north of Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, the region was first a wine-producing area. In the mid-1500s, however, Cognac merchants began to distill some of their wines, making them more stable for transport to export markets in the Netherlands, Britain and Ireland. Demand and reputation quickly followed, and in the following decades the Cognac area mostly dispensed with winemaking, to specialize in spirits.
Cognac’s six appellations, or Crus, circle the city of Cognac. Their soils range from light chalk to clay, with the most desirable regions containing the most chalk, which provides superior drainage. The two most prestigious Crus are Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne. (Don’t confuse these with the famous French sparkling wine region located more than 200 miles northeast!) Cognacs made with a blend from these two areas – with at least 50 percent from Grand Champagne – may carry the label “Fine Champagne.”
Borderies, the smallest region, lies north of Grand Champagne. Surrounding these three regions is Fins Bois, whose soils vary between clay and chalk. Bon Bois, which surrounds Fins Bois, has mostly clay soil. The sixth production area, Bois Ordinaires, is a large region of light, sandy soils along the Atlantic coast.
The Champagne cognacs are typically elegant, with flowery aromas; cognacs from the outer appellations have more fruit-forward scents.
The chief grape used to make cognac is Ugni Blanc, an acidic white grape that produces a low-alcohol wine well-suited for distillation. Wines made from other grapes, such as Folle Blanche and Colombard, may also be distilled in the mix.
The wine is distilled twice in a Charentais pot still. Some producers will distill the wine with its lees, the dead yeast deposits remaining from fermentation. This process produces a full-bodied spirit that develops rich dried fruit and nut qualities during barrel maturation. Other producers may remove the lees to make a faster-maturing, lighter spirit. Although the final product may be as much as 72 percent alcohol by volume, producers usually distill it closer to 60 percent ABV.
The distillate comes out of the still as a clear, colorless eau-de-vie. It’s aged in small (350-400 liter) oak barrels for six months to a year, and begins to take on flavors and color from the oak. Producers then move the Cognac to older barrels to continue aging. During aging, evaporation reduces the alcohol level of the distillate, which will be further reduced to around 40 percent for bottling. How long the Cognac ages and the producer’s final blend of barrels determines the “house style” that’s consistent year after year.
Cordials offer a delicious burst of flavor and sweetness. Offering endless possibilities, cordials are spirits combined with botanicals or other flavoring agents, as well as a sweetener and sometimes coloring. They’re ideal for sipping after a meal, spiking a tasty dessert and mixing into fun, colorful cocktails.
The sweetening requirement is what makes cordials distinct from dry flavored spirits such as gin. In the United States, where “cordial” and “liqueur” are used interchangeably, regulations require that they contain at least 2.5 percent sugar by weight and be made from “fruits, flowers, plants, or pure juices therefrom, or other natural flavoring materials, or with extracts” of those materials. In Europe, cordials refer to non-alcoholic drinks. We use the terms based on U.S. regulations.
The spirit base for cordials is often neutral, but it certainly doesn't have to be. A robust spirit like whiskey, for example, can mix beautifully with other flavoring agents. Common flavors include fruits ranging from stone fruit to citrus and berries to nuts, as well as coffee and chocolate and even aromatic spices and seeds. Some liqueurs include a touch of cream to round out the other tasty elements.
Regulations allow cordial producers creative license with not only the spirit and flavoring agent, but also how they’re incorporated. Some add flavoring agents after distillation by one of several methods. Infusion involves steeping the flavor source; maceration entails more aggressive crushing of the flavor components before steeping; percolation pumps water or spirits over the ingredients to extract flavors. Finally, flavor can be added by compounding, simply adding the flavoring extract to the spirit. Heartier flavoring agents such as seeds and flowers may be distilled along with the distillate, often for the second distillation, similar to the gin-making process.
Cream liqueurs require homogenization and other different mixing processes.
After producers marry flavoring agents with alcohol, they reduce the proof by adding water, which is sweetened and often colored. Sweetening agents include sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and honey. In some cases, producers use rectified grape must, a sugary, unfermented concentrated grape juice.