To get to the town of Cognac, France, you have to fly into the airport at Bordeaux, nearly two hours south. You spend a good hour on the freeway, which looks pretty much like any freeway in the world, until eventually you see an exit marked “Cognac”. You then make your way from the main artery, away from the large billboards, away from the big trucks, and slowly the usual trappings of a big, busy road are replaced with things like vineyards and the small houses that dot hills that were previously unnoticeable.
The road winds through little collections of buildings almost too small to be called villages, taking a hard left here and a ninety-degree right there, following the signs to Cognac. Soon you crest a hill, large-ish for the area, and sprawled out in the tiny valley below is the town itself. At night, from above, the lights help register this as a populated area, but during the day the stone buildings blend in almost imperceptibly with the color palate of the surrounding landscape.
My journey to Cognac began, oddly enough, with a visit to a gin distillery. Just a few minutes southwest of central Cognac is the G’Vine gin distillery in Merpins. And this was a perfect beginning to my journey into the flavor of Cognac, because G’Vine gin and Cognac brandy are made from the same grape.
Ugni Blanc is one of the more prolific white grapes in Europe, often blended with others in its family to make, well, usually pretty unremarkable wines. In Italy, the grape is known as Trebbiano and accounts for a large part of the blended white wine produced there, and a lot of it is fine stuff. But in France, the grape doesn’t take quite as well and is primarily used either for blending, or for the production of Cognac.
G’Vine uses Ugni Blanc as a spirit base (much like Ciroc vodka, which is made at the same distillery), but then they also take the plant’s flowers and soak them in the neutral spirit before adding the other usual gin botanicals to the mix. The effect of this floral soak in the finished product is a richer mouthfeel, a young floral fruit component, and a slightly peppery edge to the gin. But the spirit, when tasted after the flowers are added and before the gin botanicals are soaked, well that’s just a pure expression of the flavor of the grape. And I have to admit, it’s absolutely finish-your-sample-glass divine.
Armed with the raw flavors of the Ugni Blanc grape still dancing on my tongue, I made my way to the Pierre Ferrand estate in Segonzac, southeast of the town of Cognac, to further my education of Cognac and the pervasive Ugni Blanc grape. It was there in the main distilling room, buried under the weight of little sleep and the humidity and dull hum imparted by nearly a dozen Charentais stills, that I first tasted the brouillis, the first run-off of the still at around 30% ABV (alcohol by volume) that will – after a secondary distillation – become Cognac.
The brouillis is cloudy, rich, and full of that huge, fruity, floral Ugni Blanc flavor I’d discovered at G’Vine only hours prior. This is the white dog of Cognac, and I think it’s the best way to discover what a Cognac is destined to become. Ferrand runs their first distillation on the lees, which means that rather than filter the yeast out of the wine used to distill the brandy, they leave it in, which results in an added layer of richness, freshness, complexity and depth to the final product.
The second distillation at approximately 70% ABV is what ultimately lands into the barrels, either Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels, or both. The wider grain of the Limousin oak lends a softness and an oak expression that doesn’t come as easily from the tighter-grained Tronçais. But regardless of the oak used, one could say that aging is what puts the finesse into Cognac – or any other aged spirit.
The process is simple, and somewhat strange. Put simply: take a bunch of new spirit, straight from the second run of the still (where the “heart” of the distillate is captured) and let it sit until it’s done; two years for VS, four for VSOP, and six for XO or Napoleon. The strangeness is the little ecosystem that thrives in the aging cellars; you see, there is a loss due to evaporation that Cognac endures at the rate of about 3% per year, known lyrically as “the angel’s share”. This evaporation inside the cave feeds a black mold found only in Cognaçais cellars; it very literally exists because of the Cognac fumes. Tucked up into that mold are centuries worth of spiders’ nests, which are left to further scary-up the cellars because the spiders will in turn eat their favorite meal: a type of worm that feeds on oak barrels. Left unchecked, the worms would devour the barrels and expose the Cognac. However, thanks to the microsystem inside the cellar, the worms are harvested by the spiders and the Cognac is safe, resting comfortably for up to (but generally no longer than) 55-70 years in its gently-toasted French oak chamber.
Overseeing much of this process is the BNIC, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac – my hosts for the week. Born out the Ministry of Agriculture in 1946, the BNIC is the governing body that handles all things Cognac – from protecting the A.O.C., to regulating the labeling (VS, VSOP, XO, etc.) practices, to working with the growers, winemakers, distillers, blenders and bottlers from the first step of the process through the last.
The BNIC also orchestrates the event that the sixty of us bartenders and journalists traveled from all over the Western world to participate in, the International Cognac Summit. For four long days, we studied, tasted, toured and created cocktails using Cognac. I was truly privileged to be included in this lineup of some of the greatest minds in the industry, and am even happier to have a new-found appreciation for a spirit that, quite frankly, I always found to be enshrouded in mystery.
So as I boarded that bus for the last time and slowly made my way back to Bordeaux on the last day of the Summit, I peered out the window and watched the sun slowly make its way down below the vine-covered hills, my eyes scanning everything they could before we rediscovered the soulless highway that signaled the end of a rewarding and eye-opening trip.