Gin, vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum -- the average drinking man has a good understanding of the fundamental spirits. But brandy? Unlikely. And Cognac, brandy's sexiest sibling next to Ray J? Almost certainly not -- and that's a damn shame. To better educate you on this kingly spirit, we broke down a handy guide of essential facts. Read on and learn up (and we promise not make another Ray J reference).
1. Cognac is the Champagne of brandy
Cognac is a type of brandy, or distilled wine, made in a delineated region of about 200,000 acres surrounding the town of Cognac, on France's western coast. All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Like how all rhombuses are squares, but not all squares are rhombuses. Or how all grilled cheeses are sandwiches, but not all sandwiches are grilled cheeses. We can keep going but we'll stop because you probably got it the first time.
2. There are six distinct Cognac-making regions
Within this "delimited area," as it's called by French Cognac authorities, are six zones of production defined by their terroir. From highest-quality (chalky, limestone-rich soil that retains the most moisture and reflects the most sunlight to the grapes) to lowest (soil that is mostly clay or sand), they are: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Virtually all Cognacs are blended from several eaux-de-vie (distilled spirits of varying ages) from these six regions for the most well-rounded flavor.
3. There are some really strict laws about Cognac
Here are a few: Cognac must be made from one or a combination of just three types of grapes (Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard). It must be aged for at least two years. It must be double-distilled in copper pot stills of a particular shape and configuration (Chartenais, after the French district where the process originated). Its grapes must be harvested only in October, and it must be distilled only from November 1st to March 31st. And distillers have to sing La Marseillaise at no louder than a whisper to each individual barrel three times a day (okay we made that up but seriously it would be believable considering everything else).
4. No really, the laws are intense
Cognac has to be aged in barrels made from French oak from one of two specific forests. Lesser forests are for peasants.
5. That whole "VS" and "VSOP" thing is actually pretty simple
There are three main classifications for Cognac: VS, or Very Special, has been aged at least two years (Cognacs marked with three stars are also VS); VSOP, or Very Superior Old Pale, has been aged at least four years; XO, or Extra Old, has been aged at least six years (though as of next April, Cognac will need 10 years of aging to qualify as XO).
6. But there are some fun bonus classifications
Some less common terminology used to grade Cognac: Napoléon, technically aged as long as XO, though marketed as being somewhere between a VSOP and an XO; Vieux, which translates to "old" and is also a marketing term denoting a Cognac between VSOP and XO; Hors d'age, which means "beyond age," is at least as old as an XO (though could be 40 or even 50 years old), and mostly just means "ruhl fancy."
7. People used to drink Cognac from those big honking glasses to keep it warm
Back when smallpox was a daily topic of conversation at ye olde tavern, The Queen's No-Central-Heating, it was just cold all the time. Those big bulb glasses are designed to channel heat from the necessarily meaty grip of your hands to the drink, which is best enjoyed at about 70 degrees.
8. But you don't have to anymore
Rock glasses and a host of other alternative glassware are perfectly acceptable. Not acceptable? Drinking it in a velvet blazer by a roaring fire -- that's the past. Feel free to tipple this stuff wearing a nice cardigan or even, like, a bad cardigan. It's all good, man.
9. It doesn't keep aging
Unlike the wine it's made from, Cognac won't improve with time, though, as long as you keep it in a cool, dark place, it will stay just as delicious as the day it was bottled until the day you crack it open.
10. It's perfectly fine to drink it with Coke
Especially if it's a young (VS or VSOP) Cognac. Mixing it with Coke, ginger ale, or even Champagne or the fruity dessert wine Moscato over ice won't get you kicked out of the Cool Guy Cognac Club. Two classic cocktails that feature Cognac: the Sidecar (Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice, simple syrup) and the French Connection (equal parts Cognac and Amaretto liqueur). Or try subbing it in for rum in a Dark 'N Stormy.
11. You can treat it like Scotch
The easiest and most common ways to drink Cognac are neat or with a just drop of water as you might add to a fine Scotch to "open it up" (the introduction of water molecules to alcohol produces a chemical reaction that actually releases heat, and with it more of the spirit's aroma).
12. The darker the Cognac, the older it is
Younger Cognacs tend to be lighter and more honeyed in color; older Cognacs take on a rich amber hue thanks to the tannins of the oak (from extremely exclusive forests, remember) barrels in which they're aged.
13. Drink it neat if it's old
Save your pricey, older Cognacs for drinking neat. Dumping Shasta in an XO Cognac is like dressing George Clooney in a Men's Wearhouse suit.
14. Cognac has a couple of kissing cousins
In Armagnac, a brandy made in nearby, you guessed it, Armagnac, and Calvados, an apple brandy made in Normandy (probably didn't guess that).
15. The best Cognac is a little funky
The height of Cognac deliciousness is referred to among connoisseurs as "rancio," a Spanish-derived term that describes a kind of funky, earthy, umami quality that the finest aged Cognacs achieve.