What is the strongest Cognac, someone asked me on Quora the other day. Cognac happens to be a subject I know lots about: As a young reporter for auto motor und sport I was tasked with writing a major piece for our travel section about Cognac, and I spent almost a week being touted around the region by the authorities and visiting a dozen or so producers large and small. SInce then I have spent 40 years sampling some of the finest Cognacs I could lay hands on, so I guess I know what I’m talking about.
For instance, I know that the French take their Cognac very seriously indeed, so almost every aspect of it’s production is strictly governed by law. Only Cognacs from the Cognacais and the surrounding Charente and Charente-Maritime regions are allowed to bear the name. In this area, the Ugni Blanc grape, also known as Trebbiano, predominates, but produces a thin, acidic wine that is literally undrinkable. The alcohol content of the vin viné (fortified wine) used to make Cognac is roughly 8 percent by volume, or 16 proof.
During the winter months, the wine is twice distilled in traditional pot stills known as alambic charentais, which may not contain more than 30 hectoliters, or about 800 gallons. During the second distilling process, only the bonne chauffe, or „heart“ is kept; the rest is turned over to be made into industrial alcohol. The resulting fine distillate usually contains 60 to 72 percent alcohol (144 proof). That, in fact, is the big difference between Cognac and most other brandies, which in Europe can legally contain up to 50 percent much stronger raw wine spirit.
The fine destillate is then stored in casks (Barrique) made from Limousin oak, each containing around 225 liters (about 60 gallons). Lesser Cognacs from the Bois Communs, Bons Bois, and Fins Bois regions are considered drinkable after a storage life of 4 years; Cognacs from superior vineyards will be aged considerably longer. I once had the privilege of visiting Hennessy’s famous „Paradis“ cellar, where we has some that had been „in the wood“ for 40 years. Officially, a Cognac that has been aged for at least two years is classified as „VS“, after 4 years as „VSOP“ (Very Superior Old Pale) and after 6 years minimum as „Napoleon„, „XO„, „Hors d’âge”, „Très Vieux” or some other fanciful designation.
Ageing produces a more rounded taste, but it comes at a cost: Year for year, about 1.5 percent of the alcohol in the cask evaporates and is deposited on the walls and roofs of the chais (sheds) as black mold, the “part d’ange”, or “share of the angels”.
Finally, the cellarmaster (also known as „the Nose“) assembles the Cognac from various charges of older and younger Cognacs. This ensures a uniform taste and color in big brand-name Cognacs over many years. Vintage Cognacs, on the other hand, can only be made from Cognacs of a certain year.
The cellarmaster then reduces the alcohol content to 40 percent (80 proof) by adding water. By law, he is also allowed to add up to 3 percent sugar or artificial coloring, but this is only done for cheap bargain-basement varieties. This means that, to finally answer your question, there is no such thing as a “strongest Cognac”; they all pack the same punch.
As I said, the French take their Cognac extremely seriously. When I last visited, I was entertained by the head of the Bureau National de Cognac, a very important gentlemen who had a seat in the Parliament in Paris. He has absolute authority over everyone, and everything involved in producing the “King of Spirits” and making sure that no interlopers try to usurp the name. So, beware of Australian cognacs and other imitations, be they ever so strong…