Diving into any new spirit comes with a certain degree of intimidation. But Cognac is particularly difficult. Unlike whiskey, gin or tequila, there’s very few affordable entry points into the world of Cognac, and it comes with a bit of a stigma. Many see it as the spirit of an older generation (hi, grandpa!) or think it’s only served with cigars at fancy clubs. But Cognac is actually ridiculously delicious, often with notes of apricot and other stone fruits, as well as raisins and nuts. Plus, it’s a necessary ingredient for many classic cocktails like the Sidecar and the Vieux Carré.
The French brandy is known in its eponymous region as l’eau de vie (or, the water of life). Unlike other brandies, Cognac must be made with a base of Ugni Blanc grapes, distilled twice and aged at least two years to qualify as a VS (very special), four years for VSOP (very superior old pale) or six for an XO (extra-old).
But those are only age minimums. Many Cognacs spend 20-plus years in the barrel, which is why a good number of bottlings you’ll find carry price tags upwards of $150 to $220. Understandably, Cognac newbs are unlikely to drop that kind of dough—even if these expensive Cognacs taste like nectar from the gods. To make the beginner’s journey into the French spirit easier—and a little more wallet-friendly—here are five choice bottles for under $55.
This VSOP form Landy isn’t the most expensive Cognac, nor is it the most complex. But what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in a wave of flavor. Flecked with rich notes of vanilla and caramel, it’s a great way to get a Cognac collection started.
If you want a bit more bite in your glass, try this VSOP from Hine. It’s blended with 25 different spirits from the Grand and Petite Champagne regions of Cognac, the youngest of which is aged for six years. You’ll get plenty of nice leathery notes, as well as toffee and dried fruit sweetness, with a zing of alcohol. If you’re not sipping this in a room filled with plenty of leather-bound books, you’re doing it wrong.
More honey-golden than amber in hue, this bright Cognac leans on notes of raisins, vanilla, spices and orange peel. It’s aged 10 years, so you’ll get a bit of oakiness too. And while it’s a great Cognac to sip on its own, you’ll find that it works just as well in cocktails (swap it in for whiskey in an Old Fashioned and thank us later).
Though this bottle looks more like a craft bourbon than a Cognac, rest assured: Inside lies a nutty, dried fruit-forward spirit with just a hint of spice that’s incredibly easy to drink. Unlike Hennessy’s portfolio of famed VS and VSOP offerings, this spirit isn’t classified under any of the typical Cognac nomenclature. It began as a side project for the brand’s master blender and launched exclusively in the U.S. in October. Though it’s a bit expensive for just 375 ml, it’s a great way to get your feet wet with a familiar brand.
Those looking for a Cognac that’s impressively rich in flavor should try this expression from Camus. The grapes used to craft this were harvested from the small island Île de Ré, which supposedly have higher iodine content than grapes from the mainland. The eau de vie is then aged in toasted barrels in an “extremely damp” cellar, resulting in a spirit that’s rich in caramel, with hints of salinity and wood.