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Cognac starts life as a ´thin, almost undrinkable white wine´, made from certain grape varieties from vineyards in the Cognac Region. Although the wine is no good for drinking, it´s perfect for distillation - a process which must be done twice to produce a beautifully smooth spirit.
The distillation itself takes place in a traditional copper still called an alembic. Distilling the spirit is a labour of love, with the distiller usually spending days at a time tending to the process, sleeping next to the still.
The end result is a fiery spirit called eau-de-vie, ready for the next stage.
Once distilled, the spirit still cannot be called Cognac – first it must mature for at least two years in French oak barrels from the towns of Limousin or Troncais.
Ageing serves to allow the lighter, more volatile alcohols to evaporate away, leaving the denser, less volatile alcohols behind. These dense alcohols, often known as old alcohols due to their prevalence in well aged spirits, are smoother and more flavourful than the harsher, young alcohols which dominate the taste of unaged spirits. The alcohol that evaporates during the ageing process is known as the Angels´ Share.
The length of time that a Cognac will mature for is partially determined by the eaux-de-vie; spirits from the outlying regions will mature quickly whereas the best regions require a long time to age - but produce the very finest Cognacs.
Once the ageing process has finished, there is one final step before bottling; the blending. Cognacs may be seperated into three varieties based on blending - blended Cognacs, Single-estate Cognacs and single cask Cognacs.
Blended Cognacs are the most common; made from Cognacs from many different estates they vary in quality - from cheap VS quality made mostly from the outlying regions up to very high-quality XO Cognacs blended entirely from Grande Champagne or Fine Champagne eaux-de-vie. The ones listed here of course fall into the latter category!
Single Cask Cognacs and Single Vintage Cognacs are distilled, aged and bottled as a whole, with no blending at all. It is a high art to predict the finished flavour of a Cognac perhaps forty years before it is bottled, but the results can be truly magnificent when created by a true expert.
Single Estate Cognacs are the Cognac equivalent of Single Malt Whiskies - made from the produce of a single vineyard, they are blended together to ensure consistency and a deep, complex flavour. Single-estate Cognacs typically come from the finer regions and start at VSOP quality - but these VSOPs are aged for around ten years to make the most of the slow-maturing eaux-de-vie.