The Making of Cognac

To continue on from my post of last week distillers will usually buy the grapes in from local farmers to press and ferment them into what is a pretty harsh wine. They say the worst wine makes the best cognac but it is important that the wine is free of any blemishes that would make for an inferior final product.

The harsh unaged wine is then put into what is called locally an alembic Charentais/Cognacais or what we refer to as a pot still. Pot stills are also used to make the finest single malt whiskey. Designed by the Dutch during the 17th Century the still consists of a huge copper kettle pot or boiler encased in a brick framework with an open air furnace underneath. A pipe shaped like a swan’s neck juts out from the hood on top of the boiler. This will carry the vapours from the kettle pot past a pre heater to a condenser coil which is immersed in cold running water. The change in temperature causes the vapour to turn to liquid.

An interesting note is the material used in the still is pure copper. The reason being is pure copper is strong enough to withstand the high acids of the wine as compared to other metals which would dissolve. Eventually as the stills get older the copper will build up a resistance to the acids but a new still can leave traces of copper in the wine which will disappear after about a year of cask ageing. This is known as the gout de cuivre.

The two important decisions that have to be made by the distiller is what size of pot to use and whether to use a pre-heater. A small pot will make more distinctive brandies while a larger one will make a smooth brandy with less character. Some believe using a pre heater will speed up the distilling process saving on time and fuel while others believe not using one will give the final product much more originality and character.

Two separate distillations are used in the making of Cognac.

The first one called the premier chauffe is when the wine from the fermentation with or without lees is put into the boiler. Lees are the impurities left over from the fermentation that can include skin and pips but mainly the dead yeast cells. Some say including the lees give fuller character to the cognac. The heater raises the alcohol to 78C when at which time it begins to vaporize.

Once the vapour passes through the pre-heater then is condensed back into liquid the first liquid to come out is called the heads which is unpleasant containing ethers and almost toxic. This is removed and added to the new wine about to be distilled. The second part is called the heart and this is the best part of the alcohol and is put aside. This has an alcoholic strength of between 25 and 30%. The last part called the tails is full of impurities and joins the head to be put into the next wine to be distilled.

The still is carefully cleaned after this when once again the new wine is added and the process is repeated twice more. It takes 3 hearts or bouillis to make up a second distillation. The middle part that is.

The first distillation takes about 10 hours and the second about 14. Every time there will be heads , hearts , and tails.

Finally the new brandy will have an alcoholic strength of 70 to 72% alcohol by volume and will be harsh , have a definite bouquet with some copper overtones. It’s color will be white and locally referred to as “la vigne en fleur” translated the vine in flower. Then it is put in cask for ageing where it will lose the copper presence and take it’s colour.

Just a note on the Limousin oak that is used from the local forest. Before it is made into cask it is aged 4 years outdoors and 3 years indoors all the time being exposed to air which dries the wood and allows some soluble extracts to evaporate. The conditions of storage are perfect as most warehouses are located near rivers where dampness and dryness provide a good mix. Too much dryness and the cognac loses it’s bulk and too much dampness and it loses it’s alcoholic strength.

When ageing in cask the new brandy is aged in younger cask for 6 months when it takes in some tannin from the wood. Too much though would be unpleasant so after this time it is then transferred into older cask where oxidation takes place over time causing it to lose it’s harshness and develop it’s bouquet and character. Some tannin is absorbed as well as colour and flavour during this time but little if any character has been added due to the older cask being neutral in it’s old state.

Two to three per cent of alcohol is lost annually to the air around which is called the “angels share. A black soot is found everywhere on buildings locally and I dare say the local inhabitants must have a feeling of contant happiness cause of alcohol found in the air. Each cask must be topped up annually due to this loss and distillers estimate they lose the equivalent of 2 million bottles a year! No wonder Cognac is so expensive!

The final process is the blending part when the distiller matches much like they do in Champagne the alcohol of different casks and put them together to make a consistent product of which that house is noted for. All Cognacs have to be diluted to a safe % of alcohol for consumption which is normally 40% by adding some distilled water over time with some weak brandy. A little caramel to get the colour right then some sugar syrup to soften the blend then it is filtered once more. Then bottled no further ageing occurs.

Some terminology for Cognacs are as follows,

Three Star or VS (very special) indicate 3 to 5 years maturation in cask.
VSOP , VO , or Reserve have been matured in cask from 7 to 17 years. A higher quality.
Grande Fine Champagne – made from grapes only from that region and is a cognac of the highest quality and is unrivalled amongst all other cognacs.

This completes my two posts on Cognac. It is something to review all this information and I owe a great deal to a book called ” Teach Yourself Spirits and Liqueurs.” It is full of great stuff.

I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did and next week I will do something a bit different and talk about some drink recipes again featuring some different liqueurs.

I promise it will not be as dry as this might have been for some who were reading it.

What if any comments on this post you would like to share feel free good or bad to send them along.


  1. Hi Steve, Happy New Year. Thanks for this good post. I’m now become ur supporter d.

  2. Elvan…thank you and Happy New Year as well. I liked your post on the forecast for this year yesterday as well. Wine post is on Thursdays too. Feel free to add a link on your blog.

  3. dude! I had a guy ask me for a brandy and cranberry juice tonight……!!!

  4. Manuel…unbelieveable! You know I think cranberry juice has totally taken over people’s minds. Anything and cranberry. It could be poison and cranberry but that’s okay. Crazy.

  5. Wow. Everything I wanted to know about Cognac!

  6. How to…I learned a lot as well. I think I have the distillation down pat now. Heads , Hearts , Tails.

  7. I will email you information…and thanks for asking…my job is always complete when I can help someone out!

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