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Honey, caramel, fruit and deep spices. What do these words have in common? They’re all common ways to describe the rich flavor of cognac, a type of brandy that originates from its namesake, the Cognac region of France.
Made from white grapes and aged in oak barrels, cognac can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways, but most commonly is consumed as a digestif after a meal. And, while you can consume cognac in a variety of cocktails — think Sidecar, Stinger and Between the Sheets — the best cognac is often enjoyed neat, with just a drop of water to open up the flavor.
But, with so many cognac brands available, it’s often difficult to discover the best of the best. Below we’ve outlined the eight best cognac brands available right now and made a nifty list to help you understand some of the most common cognac terms you’ll hear.
What Are The Different Types of Cognac?
When you shop for cognac, you’ll often see each bottle labeled with its age. As a general rule of thumb, there are four age categories, and here’s what they mean.
Before we start, it’s important to note how cognac is made. As mentioned before, cognac is made from white grapes, which are then fermented and distilled twice. The resulting concoction is referred to as eau de vie (meaning “water of life”) which is then aged in oak barrels. Once aged, a master blender combines the different brandy vintages to create a bottle of cognac. As a rule, the age of the cognac is defined by the youngest vintage used in the blend — not the oldest.
V.S. (Very Special): VS cognac has been aged for at least two years and is the most common form of cognac available — it’s also the more affordable option of the four. If you’re looking for cognac best used in cocktails, this is it.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): V.S.O.P cognac is defined by cognac that’s been aged for at least four years.
XO (Extra Old): One of the best types of cognac you can buy as the youngest vintage blend used has been aged for at least 10 full years inside a barrel. As of 2018, the minimum requirement was raised from six to 10 years. Now, six-year-old cognac is referred to as Napoléon. XO cognac is often rich and velvety with a flavor palette that stays on your tongue long after your drink is over. That’s why it’s best to have this type of cognac neat.
Hors d’âge (Beyond Age): The most luxurious type of cognac you can buy as it falls outside the age scale. This kind of cognac is extremely rare and if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle, make sure to savor each sip.
1. Louis XIII
Louis XIII makes some of the most exclusive and flavor-rich cognac you can find. The luxury brand uses white grapes primarily from the Grande Champagne region of France and each bottle combines up to 1,200 individual eaux-de-vie. The final product is encased in a unique crystal decanter that deserves its own display in your liquor cabinet. (if you’re wondering why the unique bottle seems so familiar it was recently featured in The Weeknd’s Out of Time video).
Louis XIII cognac doesn’t run cheap, but that’s because of the rich depth of flavor this cognac carries. With notes of honey, wood, vanilla, dried fruit and nuts, a one-ounce glass of Louis XIII can be savored for as long as an hour — and even then you’ll be tasting it on your palette all night long. Each bottle carries about 40% alc/volume and should be enjoyed neat.
Hennessy is a cognac house that needs no introduction as it’s one of the most well-known cognac brands in the world — it’s also the top-selling brand in the United States. Hennessy has one of the largest collections of eaux-de-vie in the world, with over 350,000 barrels stored in 65 cellars.
We recommend grabbing the Hennessy X.O Cognac which packs sweet and spicy notes for a full-bodied effect. It’s smooth from the get-go and is best enjoyed neat or over the rocks. If you’re looking for something even more exclusive, the brand’s ultra-prestige option, Paradis is as luxurious as you can get. This copper-gold toned cognac is made using eaux-de-vie aged anywhere from 25 to 100 years — making this one of the rarest cognacs you can shop from the brand.
3. D’USSÉ Cognac
D’USSÉ Cognac was originally founded by Jay-Z and last year, an ultra-rare bottle from the brand sold for a whopping $52,500 at a Sotheby’s auction.
Don’t worry, not every bottle of D’USSÉ commands such a high price. We suggest grabbing the D’USSÉ VSOP, a smooth blend that combines heady floral flavors with sweet honey and dried fruit undertones. This cognac is best enjoyed in cocktails, so try the D’USSÉ sparkler the next time you have a group of friends over.
4. Rémy Martin
Founded way back in 1724, Rémy Martin is one of the big four cognac houses (along with Martell, Courvoisier, and Hennessey). The brand produces a wide assortment of cognacs at a bunch of different price points. Louis XIII is a sub-brand of Rémy Martin itself.
The brand recently unveiled Rémy Martin L’Étape, a cognac made with sustainability in mind. L’Étape is produced using 14 different eaux-de-vie , selected by the cellar master himself. The bottle and the blend itself are designed to represent 19 winegrowers, all committed to sustainable agriculture. The label even features a QR code, allowing you to learn more about the men and women behind this special blend of cognac. Unfortunately, this special blend is not currently available in the United States but we’ve listed a few more below that are just as smooth as L’Étape.
Rémy Martin’s most popular cognac is the Rémy Martin V.S.O.P., which combines sweet and bitter notes like vanilla, stonefruit and licorice. It’s well-balanced and can make a great base for your next cocktail.
If you’re looking for something that can be drunk neat, consider the Rémy Martin XO Excellence, the cellar’s signature cognac, made by blending up to 400 different eaux-de-vie.
One of the oldest cognac houses, Martell Cognac is some of the best you can buy — even served on board the Orient Express and ordered for the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. The cognac house uses barrels made of fine-grain oak which leads to a delicate woody finish on each blend.
The brand’s most sought-after cognac is the Martell Cordon Blue, a type of XO cognac that carries notes of fruits and spices. You’ll also be able to taste rich cocoa beans and gingerbread while sipping this cognac, according to the cellar master. It’s best enjoyed neat or with a splash of water.
6. Grand Marnier
Grand Marnier might be the most unique tasting liqueur you can buy. The idea came from Louis-Alexandre Marnie combining French cognac with bitter orange from the Caribbean. The finished product was an amber-toned liqueur that combined the taste of macerated orange with the sweetness of cognac we’ve come to expect.
While there is a variety of Grand Marnier you can buy — each combines different volumes of cognac and bitter orange liqueur — we recommend the original Cordon Rouge made from blending 51% cognac and 49% orange liqueur. It’s got notes of toffee, nuts and bitter orange. You can drink this on the rocks or make one of these decadent Grand Marnier cocktails for your at-home cocktail hour.
7. Pierre Ferrand
Ferrand Cognac uses grapevines planted in the Angeac terroir in Grande Champagne, a place most connoisseurs call the ‘golden triangle’ as it combines the best parcels of the region. This leads to the production of some of the finest cognac ever made.
During aging, each Ferrand Cognac will spend time in a variety of casks, to avoid extreme bitterness caused by exaggerated tannin and oak. The final blend is harmonious, creating a kind of cognac that leaves a lasting taste on your palette.
We recommend the 1840 Original Formula a young VS cognac that combines fruity flavors with honey accents. It’s designed to be mixed with cocktails and tastes best when served in a Mint Julep.
With a storied history of 250 years, Hine cognac is derived from two regions, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. This cognac house then uses French oak to age their eaux-de-vie and the most traditional flavors like nuts, freshly toasted bread and tobacco can be found in a final blend of Hine cognac.
While there’s a wide variety of aged Hine cognac you can buy, our top pick is the exclusive Hine Talent, which is made by blending fifty mature eaux-de-vie, some dating back to the 19th century. Each blend is served in a crystal carafe signed by Baccarat that most certainly should be saved long after your amber-toned liquor is over. The flavor is incredibly full-bodied with spicy and sweet notes, including musky cloves, dried figs and sweet currants.
Since its flavor profile is so unique, we recommend drinking it neat. If you’re looking for a Hine cognac that can be mixed in your favorite cocktails, go with the H by HINE instead, which combines notes of fresh apricot, acacia and white pepper.