Cognac, a unique spirit

Cognac reveals its secrets through its history

During Gallo-Roman times, the wine region already extended from Saintonge to La Rochelle. In the 13th century, winemakers on the banks of the Charente made light wine that was very popular with the court of France.

Birth of cognac

Under the impetus of the king of England, the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, that wine was also exported to Northern Europe. But the cost of shipping was expensive and the maritime journey altered the quality of the wine. To offset those issues, the winegrowers came up with the idea of distilling their products. Stored in oak barrels, it improved with time although it was not yet cognac. It wasn’t until the late 16th century and the perfection of double distillation that cognac was born and became a real trademark.

Cognac crus

Cognac eau de vie comes from six authorized “crus” (growing areas):

  • Grande Champagne, with its clay and limestone soil, produces eau de vie with a very delicate, very long bouquet dominated by floral notes.
  • Petite Champagne surrounds Grande Champagne to the south of the Charente River. The land there has similar characteristics to those of Grande Champagne. Eau de vie from this cru is extremely delicate.
  • Borderies, northwest of the town of Cognac, is the smallest of the six crus. The subsoil is partly decalcified and yields eau de vie with a singular bouquet of violet.
  • Fins Bois is the largest crus in the cognac region. The subsoil is made of hard limestone. This is a land of clay and limestone.
  • Its eau de vie is robust without being heavy. The fruit remains very refined and, like in Borderies, the eau de vie ages quickly.
  • Bons Bois does not match the delicacy of the previous crus. This is because its subsoil is less rich in limestone. All the same, its eau de vie is remarkable.

Bois Ordinaires produces wine that is marked by a strong maritime influence.

Distillation, blending and barrelling

Cognac has a secret: double distillation and two alchemists, the distiller and the cellarmaster. Each year, from November to March, comes the period of distillation (heating). The stills hum and the eau de vie gives up its heart. It makes its way through the copper coils. The low wine obtained through the condensation of alcohol vapour then undergoes a second distillation: the “second heating”. This is what makes the distillation unique in the Charente wine region. It produces crystal clear, highly perfumed eau de vie with very high alcohol content. The distiller’s art lies in the ability to capture the heart of the eau de vie, the part that contains the best aromas.

After distillation, the eau de vie is barrelled. It leaches tannins from the wood and takes shape over time. Aromas of spices and smoked fungus float through the air in the cellars, which are recognizable for their black walls. The black comes from the noble torula fungus. It is the result of alcohol evaporation, known here as “the angels’ share”. Then comes the time for blending. Cognac is produced by mixing several eaux de vie of different origins and ages. The blend is created by the cellarmaster. This is what endows each cognac with its own identity. Once matured and stored in demijohns, the rarest eau de vie is sent to “paradise”.

L’âge des cognacs

  • V.S. (Very Special) et Trois étoiles : cognacs dont l’eau-de-vie la plus jeune a au moins deux ans.
  • V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) : cognacs dont l’eau-de-vie la plus jeune a au moins quatre ans.
  • X.O. (Extra Old) : cognacs dont l’eau-de-vie la plus jeune a au moins six ans.

En fait, les producteurs assemblent des eaux-de-vie plus âgées que le minimum requis. Pour les très grands cognacs, les eaux-de-vie peuvent avoir vieilli pendant des dizaines d’années.

Cognac age classifications

  • VS (Very Special) and three stars: cognac whose youngest eau de vie has been aged for at least two years.
  • VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): cognac whose youngest eau de vie has been aged for at least four years.
  • XO (Extra Old): cognac whose youngest eau de vie has been aged for at least six years.

In reality, producers blend eaux de vie that is older than the required minimum. The best cognacs’ eaux de vie may even have been aged for decades.


  • Heads: the first vapours released in the still during the second heating, at around 75% ABV.
  • Hearts: the most subtle eau de vie produced by distillation. They come after the heads and are very fragrant. Only the hearts go on to be aged.
  • Tails: the last vapours released in the still during the second heating, at around 2-3% ABV.
  • Second heating: the second distillation (because the eau de vie used in cognac is double distilled).
  • Angels’ share: the eau de vie that evaporates each year through the pores of the wooden barrels.
  • Paradise: the place where the oldest cognac eaux de vie are aged.
  • Still: a distilling device.