What Is The Difference Between Cognac And Brandy?

Cognac, much like Champagne, was once a niche but respected category of French alcoholic beverages tied to a unique geographic location, and dependent on generations of local expertise and distinctive terroir. But its global popularity was blown out of proportion in the 1990s and early 2000s thanks to American rappers who made it an ultimate status symbol by name-dropping big Cognac houses like Remy Martin and Hennessy into their songs.

These days, just about everyone knows Cognac. But few people know exactly what it is, where it comes from, or how it is made. The spirit, which is made exclusively in the Cognac region of southwestern France, is actually a type of brandy. But brandy itself is a vast category with different implications depending on where it's made. Brandy is, essentially, a spirit distilled from fruit, usually (but not always) wine. But Cognac is always distilled from very specific grapes in very specific wine.

What is brandy?

Brandy is made by distilling fermented fruit juice into a liquor with an ABV of approximately 50%. Any kind of fruit can be used, but typically grapes are the most popular — it was originally known as Brandywine, after all. In the case of grape-based brandies, this means that they are technically made by distilling wine. Brandies made from other fruits (like various stone fruits, apples, or pears) are often referred to as eaux-de-vie ("water of life" in French) and are usually not aged, so they come out clear.

Popular types of brandy include Cognac, Armagnac (which is similar to Cognac, but from a different region in France), Calvados (French apple brandy from Normandy), Applejack (American apple brandy), Grappa (Italian grape-based brandy), and Pisco (South American brandy). Tastes can vary widely depending on the base fruit, with non-grape based brandies and eaux-de-vie usually having a more clear fruit flavor, and Cognac and other aged grape brandies having a smoother, more complex flavor with sweet and spicy notes.

What is Cognac?

Cognac is a type of brandy made in the Cognac region in southwestern France. It is made from one of six white wine varietals, typically from the Ugni Blanc grape, which is twice distilled in copper pot stills called alembic charentais. Other grape varietals, like the Folle Blanche, were more popularly used before the phylloxera outbreak of the 19th century, which destroyed many native grape varietals.

After the second distillation, Cognac is aged, usually over the course of the winter — after the autumn grape harvest — and then blended according to the specifications of each Cognac house. Cognac is commonly classified according to three of four major categories: V.S. (aged a minimum of two years), V.S.O.P. (aged a minimum of four years), and X.O. (aged a minimum of six years).

Though Cognac is generally drunk on its own, it's also popular in a variety of cocktails. You might be familiar with Cognac cocktails like the Sidecar or Sazerac, or even a French 75 with Cognac, which is actually the more traditional version of the bubbly gin cocktail.