Cognac is a spirit which is becoming more and more popular around the world as the general consumer now has greater access to information about the products they are consuming and are generally more interested in discovering products they had not previously experimented with. The new age of the home cocktail connoisseur has really taken things to new heights and has allowed the trend of experimentation to really flourish. The VS and VSOP designations are the perfect cognacs for most cocktails but sometimes you may even catch a bartender adding a splash of XO into a more spirit-forward cocktail that needs a sturdy base to hold the rest of the drink together.
You can find yourself not knowing which cognac is right for your cocktail or even the other way around with a bottle of cognac in your hand and not sure entirely how to use it. The type of cognac you should use really depends on the cocktail you are wanting to make, and with the age designations in the cognac industry, it is sometimes easier to find the cognac that is right for your cocktail. With the aging process taking place in French Oak barrels, a lot of character can build in a very short time and the longer the eau de vie sits in the barrel the more rounded and rich the cognac becomes. Because of this, there are 3 statements you will find prominent in the industry, and using these statements as a base guide, you will be mixing the perfect cognac cocktail in no time.
The first of the age statements in the cognac world is the VS, or Very Special category, which is generally a lighter, more floral cognac with notes of fresh fruits and citrus. This cognac can be a great substitute in cocktails where you want a fresh base like a Daiquiri or Gimlet. Although VS is the youngest cognac age statement, it is still required to be aged for no less than 2 years. VS is also commonly referred to as 3 stars cognac.
A step up from the VS, in age and price, and you are looking at a Very Superior Old Pale, more commonly referred to as VSOP cognac. With a little more age comes a little more character, and VSOP is usually aged anywhere from 4 to 12 years before it’s bottled. These are the cognacs you will find used in most classic cocktail recipes, such as a Sidecar and Brandy Crusta, with a profile dominated by floral notes and dried fruits. Also regularly referred to, as reserve cognac.
Napoléon used to be an alternative to the XO category designation, but in April 2018 the BNIC separated these two and gave Napoléon the six-year minimum age designation all to itself. Napoleon is a great cognac to be used in a Sazerac because it works excellently with absinthe.
Finishing up we have the most exquisite of the major designations, the XO cognac, which now must be aged for a minimum of 10 years. This was a big step up from the preceding 6-year minimum, but an essential decision by the BNIC, with the revitalized cocktail culture pushing bartenders and consumers to explore deeper into cognacs. The characteristics found in a classic XO are now even bolder than ever, and usually hold some great notes of chocolate, toffee, cardamom, and dried fruit. I have recently been experimenting with some XO cocktails, and have certainly sipped my fair share. If it is something that piques your interest, I would recommend a cocktail such as an old-fashioned, where you are essentially just amplifying and working with the flavors already present in the spirit. And as a side note, XO is also commonly referred to as Hors d’âge cognac.
There are of course numerous other categories that have been used in marketing, but these are the 4 primary designations you will find are legally necessary.