What Goes into a Cognac?

by James Stevenson

No, I don’t mean the liquid, but instead, I want to talk about the diverse assemblage of individuals who have dedicated their lives to producing this delicious liquescent treasure.

The master blender and distiller always get all the credit, and they deserve their bit, however, everyone who plays a part in the creation of a good cognac is just as important as the other. Where to begin is a difficult question and I don’t know where the process truly begins as my understanding is not at an academic level, but I’m going to try.

If I were to work chronologically with time in mind I think the entire process begins with someone in the industry that isn’t really ever thought about by consumers and that is the barrel maker. Some cooperages date back to the early 1700s and just like many professions in the cognac industry it is frequently a trade that is passed from father to son through the generations. Cognac cooperages are particularly special because there are only 2 forests in the entire world that oak can be harvested from, for the production of cognac barrels; the Limousin and Tronçais forests. Once the trees are matured sufficiently the process usually takes 3 years until the wood is ready to become a barrel.

Without a good still, there would be no good eau de vie, and so the tradesmen of this craft have to be precise in their creation to the tiniest little detail. Depending on the distillery a good still can last generations and many distillers are using stills that existed before they did. Each of these stills has their own unique characteristics though that affect the eau de vie and if you were to use the same wine in each companies still you would come out with a slightly different eau de vie every time.

A lot of wine growers in the region of Cognac are descendants of the original inhabitants of the region who were making the wine that was so popular in Holland throughout the 15th and 16th centuries and contributed to the development of cognac. It is a hard job and requires attention 12 months of the year and incorporates getting the ground ready, trimming the vines, maintaining and protecting the grapes and so much more. Today, the winemakers have a few options of what to do with the wine. Some produce their own cognacs and have a small brand that is generally for domestic or even local consumption, depending on the size of the vineyard. Others will distill their wines into eau de vie for sale to houses but many of these viticulturists simply sell their wine to négociants, merchants who trade in all aspects of cognac from wines to eau de vie and even cognac they store and then sell on to cognac houses at a price they set.

Distillers in the region have a reputation and deserve every bit of it as many of them still craft their eau de vie manually, which is to taste and cut the first and second distillations with unbelievable precision. Many others have modernized their stills and installed computers that read the chemical makeup of the eau de vie and cut at precise times set by the distiller. Whichever method is used it takes a lot of training and many distillers today sometimes spent decades learning from their predecessor. One of the smaller houses we visited was still completely doing it manually and the master distiller had recently taken over the position after watching his father for more than 3 decades before he retired and trusted his son to take the reigns.

Cognac blending must be one of the most ridiculously difficult positions in any industry I have come across and when you see the price on a special bottle of cognac it is usually because of this final step. We visited a few larger houses and found that in their XO or premium bottles there can be anywhere from 100 to 300 different cognac barrels used in the blending process to get the perfect cognac according to the trained palate of the master blender. The paradis, which is where the rare and old cognacs are stored sometimes holds cognacs that are over 100 years old and these are used in some cases, in small quantities to give a cognac that little something it was missing.

I still know I haven’t covered everything but these are the professionals whose dedication has directly altered the profile of each cognac produced. There are still specialists who dedicate their lives to other aspects of the industry but to include everyone I would have to write a book so I will leave this here for now.

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