The cognac bluffer’s guide


As a general rule, the greater the number of eaux-de-vie in the blend, the higher the quality of the end result: Cognac XO, for example, is generally a blend of more than 150 distinct eaux-de-vie.

To this end, the proverbial alphabet soup of cognac classifications can be overwhelming. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the governing body of spirits, there are six official grades of cognac. The three you are most likely to encounter are: VS (Very Special) or Three Stars, which refers to a blend in which the youngest brandy is two years old; VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), or Reserve is a blend of at least four years; and XO (Extra Old), which requires eaux-de-vie to be a minimum of ten years old. Another you’ll see popping up is Napoleon, a more recent classification (it was added in 2018) that sits between VSOP and XO, and refers to a mix of at least six years old.

As with most dark spirits, a good rule of thumb is that the older the cognac, the less it needs to be made. A VS or VSOP can be great as blenders, as these younger blends tend to have fresher, more vibrant flavors that lend themselves to pairing. In fact, a number of classic cocktails, like the sidecar and the sazerac, have a cognac base. Anything older than a Napoleon can be enjoyed neat, at room temperature, as an aperitif or as a digestif.

When it comes to glassware, connoisseurs will tell you that, despite associations with roaring fireplaces and tuxedo jackets, the bulbous snifter may not be the best way to enjoy cognac, as these glasses do not release the aromas. Instead, a tulip, white wine glass, or even a goblet will do.