Cognac is the most popular variety of brandy and it can also be one of the most expensive. In fact, one bottle of particularly rare cognac -- the Henry IV Dudognon Heritage -- sold for a staggering £1.3 million at auction. While most people spend a more modest sum on their favourite cognac, it's still important to know how to serve and enjoy this aromatic brandy properly.
Familiarise yourself with the grades of cognac: VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old). XO cognacs have been aged for at least six years and usually are the most expensive. VSOP is at least four years old. VS is about two years old and considered the most affordable. There are other designations to consider as well, including the specific region where the cognac was distilled. Cognac is produced in the area surrounding Cognac, France. These may include Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires, according to a January 1938 decree by the French government that defined areas within the general area for cognac production. Cognac from each of the different regions has slightly different flavours, primarily attributable to the soil in which the grapes are grown.
Choose your glass carefully. Most people reach first for a brandy or cognac glass when serving the spirit, but connoisseurs often dismiss that idea. They suggest using a standard wine glass or tulip-shaped glassware, saying that the balloon shape of the cognac glass can cause the liquor’s aroma to escape too quickly. Brandy snifter glasses also are acceptable because the narrow top of the snifter will help trap the aroma of cognac inside the glass so you can enjoy each sip. Professional tasters often use blue-coloured glasses to avoid being influenced by the haze or colour of the cognac.
Don’t be heavy-handed when pouring. Just fill the glass about a quarter full. Cognac has a higher alcohol content than wine. When holding the glass, cup the base instead of holding the stem. One of the keys to drinking cognac is to let it warm in your hand for six to 10 minutes, and cupping the base will help. In other words, don’t guzzle the cognac or the aroma will evaporate. Tilt the glass slightly and look at the liquid’s transparency, colour and viscosity. This can help you determine the age of the cognac.
Explore the cognac's aromas after it has warmed slightly. Lift the glass to your nose and smell the cognac’s aroma. Don’t snort it. Instead, lift it to about 2.5 cm (1 inch) from your nose, then smell it a little more before finally inhaling the smells. You might detect floral or fruity smells, including rose, plum and grapefruit.
Taste the cognac. Again, don’t guzzle. Just take a small sip, hold it in the front of your mouth for a moment and then let it pass slowly over your palate. Younger cognacs will have a stronger taste while the finest cognacs will be smooth, with a minimum suggestion of alcohol.