How to Know the Difference Between Brandy and Cognac

What makes these spirits derived from distilled wine actually different—and also the same?

glass of cognac
Shutterstock/Marian Weyo
Shutterstock/Marian Weyo

Cognac and brandy are the kinds of spirits that your grandfather and/or Fetty Wap might sip by the fire on a chilly winter eve, or guzzle posted up in a bando settin’ goals and talkin’ matchin’ Lambos, respectively.

You’ve probably tasted both cognac and brandy, even if you don’t realize it. Hell, you might be holding a bottle of Hennessy in your hand at this very moment. But chances are you don’t actually know the real difference between brandy and cognac. If you did, you likely wouldn’t have clicked into this article that very clearly promises to detail the differences.

Cognac and brandy—two silky, smooth, pungent, and traditionally refined spirits made from distilling wine—are not the same thing. But, well, they kind of are.

We know it’s confusing. Please, pour yourself a glass, and let us explain.

First off, what is brandy?

In this instance, brandy is not a ’90s female pop singer arguing with Monica over to whom exactly the boy belongs. It’s a traditional spirit made from distilling any type of fermented fruit juice (which, if the fruit is grapes, is technically wine, and it often is) or fruit mash. For a sweet tasting liquor, it’s fairly strong, usually hovering between 90 and 100 proof, and was traditionally served as an after-dinner digestif. Usually dark brown in color, brandy is often mistaken for being a type of whiskey (it’s not).

To fully dive into the dense, lengthy history of brandy, we’d probably need more text-space than Moby Dick. As soon as distillation began being applied to beverages, around the mid-1500s, people all over the world began distilling wine and fruit juice, thus creating brandy. The word itself is a modification of the Dutch word, brandywine, which basically means “burned wine.”

A lot of modern brandy is subsequently aged in oak barrels after distillation. But, as you’ll see below, “brandy” refers to many, many different subsets, each with their own specifications. This is where it gets tricky.

Before we go on, just remember this one big thing: brandy = distilled fruit juice. That’s it.

Got it. But then what’s cognac, exactly?

All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.

Since brandy is such a broad term for fermenting fruit juices, there are naturally an invariable amount of subsets of liquor inside that general framework. Cognac is one of them—and likely the most well known.

Cognac is specifically created in the Cognac region, in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments, of Southwest France. If it doesn’t originate there, it isn’t real cognac. But, there are even more qualifications that the spirit must uphold to be considered true cognac.

First, the fruit juice base must originate from white grapes of one of six different terroirs, but primarily, the main grape used is called ugni blanc. Cognac then goes through two separate rounds of distillation: it begins sometime in October or early November and is legally required to end by March 31. If you finish your distilling process after midnight on March 31, you’ve got invalid cognac on your soiled hands.

Despite the apparent specificity, there are three separate qualifications of cognac, marked by symbols you'll often see on bottles and barrels, based around aging:

  • VS: “Very Special,” a cognac that’s aged for at least two years
  • VSOP: “Very Superior Old Pale,” a cognac that's aged for at least four years.
  • XO: “Extra Old,” a cognac that has aged six years, or more.

Bottom line: Cognac is a type of brandy made from distilled white wine, made in one, very specific, region of France.

So, is Hennessy brandy...and cognac?

It sure is! See, you’re getting it now.

Hennessy is overwhelmingly the most popular brand of cognac in the world, accounting for almost half of overall cognac sales and production in the world. It’s also an incredibly old brand, with origins reaching back all the way to 1765.

Other cognac brands of note include Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Martell. If you’ve listened to rap in the past quarter-century, you’ve probably heard these names dropped a lot—and they are all from the same diminutive region of France. (The story behind that complicated phenomenon is best explained here).

Are there other types of brandy with specific names?

Most definitely. Brandy is made all over the world, and just like cognac, brandy from different countries and regions have their own names and particularities. Here are some of the more well-known varieties you may come across, aside from cognac.

  • Calvados: an apple-based brandy from the Normandy region of France
  • Grappa: an Italian, grape-based brandy that is considered a “pomace brandy,” which just means they traditionally use wine left over from winemaking, after the grapes have been pressed.
  • Pisco: a clear, Peruvian brandy made by fermenting white grape juice.
  • Armagnac: this is basically cognac’s forgotten younger sibling. It’s incredibly close to cognac, in both taste, and location (this one coming from the nearby Armagnac region of France). The only real difference is, well, prestige. The Cognac region is traditionally viewed as producing better spirits. Though some modern drinkers disagree.

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Wil Fulton is a senior development producer for Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. Follow him @wilfulton.