Cognac & Other Fruit Brandies: History and Production

Cognac & Other Fruit Brandies: History and Production

Explore the history, crafting process, aging, and blending of brandy, and the differences between brandy, cognac, and fruit brandies. 

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes 


Delve into the fascinating history of brandy, the intricate crafting process that goes into each bottle, and the importance of aging and blending. Discover the difference between brandy and cognac, and learn about other fruit brandies and the unique characteristics that set them apart.

What is Brandy?

Brandy is an alcoholic spirit distilled from wine or fermented fruit mash, typically from grapes. Brandies from other fruits, such as Apple Brandy, are usually labeled with that specific fruit's name. Depending on local production regulations, brandies may be aged in wood casks for specified periods. 

The History of Brandy

The word 'brandy' is derived from the Dutch 'brandewijn', meaning burnt wine, presumably due to the heat used in the distillation process.  

The story of brandy dates to the time when wine was transported by ships between France and Holland. It's said that a Dutch shipmaster had the idea to distill the wine to save on freight costs, but upon arrival, he discovered that the spirit had aged into a delicious liquid in the oak casks, and thus, brandy was born. 

What is Cognac?

Cognac is recognized as a superior brandy and is produced in the Charente region of France using special distillation processes and a combination of ideal soil, climate, maturation, and blending.  

The six districts of Cogna, defined by law in 1938, are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. The term 'Champagne', not to be confused with the famous sparkling wine from the north, refers to the chalky soil found in two areas and provides perfect conditions to ripen the grapes. 

Cognac Production

French law limits the name Cognac to spirits made from specific grape varieties, fermentation, distillation, and maturation for a prescribed period in specified oak types. Every step in this production, including the growing of grapes, must occur within the permitted areas in the Charente region.

Cognac Ingredients

  • Ugni Blanc grapes are the main variety (98%), with minute amounts of Folle Blanche and Colombard.  
  • These white grapes are harvested earlier in mid-October to retain acids and lower sugar levels.  
  • The wines from these grapes will have high acidity and low alcohol content between 7 to 9% ABV, ideal for distillation.


  • The pot still used for double distillation is the traditional Alambic Charentaise copper (see image below) used since the birth of Cognac.  
  • Fueled by direct fire, the distillation produces a low wine (Brouillis, 28 to 32%ABV) refined in a second distillation known as 'la bonne chauffe'.  
  • Heads and tails are separated during this stage and reused in the next batch of wine or 'Brouills', and only the heart (60 to 72% ABV) of the distillation is kept.  
  • The unaged distillate is known as 'Eau de Vie'. It requires nine liters of wine to produce one liter of 'Eau de Vie'.  
  • All distillation must cease on the last day of March following the harvest. 


  • The 'Eau de Vie' is aged only in French oak (Limousin and Tronçais) and for a minimum of two years before becoming a Cognac.  
  • Exceptional examples may be aged for several decades to a hundred years or more.  
  • During this time, it develops its color, aromas, and flavors through the action of the wood and contact with oxygen.  
  • As the liquid develops slowly in the Chai, it loses around two to three percent of its volume through evaporation per year, about 37.9 million bottles.  
  • This evaporation is known as 'la part des anges', or the 'angel's share', and as the loss is more alcohol than water, the average strength of the spirit gradually drops.  
  • Extremely old Cognacs may be transferred to Demijohns after maturing in wood for more than 50 to 60 years to avoid further loss and to prevent over-extraction of oak tannin. 

Blending, Bottling & Labelling

Cognacs are diluted throughout their maturation to bring them to the desired alcohol level and balance by adding water and, very often, diluted Cognac.  

Once the aging is completed, it's time for blending (Coupage) and various Cognacs are 'married' in large oak vats for several months. 

The blend is brought down to bottling strength (minimum 40%ABV) during this time and the addition of caramel color and sugar is permitted.  

Once bottled, the Cognac is usually labeled according to its age statement (the minimum age of the youngest spirit in a blend). Spirits do not evolve after bottling. 

Minimum Age* 

Labelling Terms 

2 Years 

VS, Very Special, De Luxe, Sélection 

4 Years 

VSOP, Very Superior Old Pale, Réserve 

6 Years 


10 Years 

XO, Extra Old, Hors d’âge 

14 years 

XXO, Extra Extra Old 

*Aging starts from 1 April the year after the harvest. 

Drinking Cognac

Cognac is a versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in different ways. Aged Cognacs are best served neat in a brandy balloon glass or on ice, while younger Cognacs are great in cocktails like a Sidecar, Brandy Alexander, or Vieux Carré. It is often served as an aperitif or digestif in restaurants, and can also be used in French cuisine for sauces, flambe, and desserts.

Fun Fact:

The ideal glass for tasting cognac is tulip-shaped with a narrow mouth, which concentrates the aromas. This design helps to capture the intricate and layered scents of the spirit. 

Other Fruit Brandies


  • Second only to Cognac in reputation and quality, Armagnac brandy is produced predominately Southeast of Bordeaux in the Armagnac region.  
  • While there are some similarities in regulations (Ugni Blanc is the primary grape), there are significant differences in the production system between Armagnac and Cognac.  
  • Armagnac is mainly distilled in an 'Armagnacais Still', a continuous double copper column still.  
  • Additionally, the 'Eau de vie' may be aged in casks made of black oak from the Monlezum forest.  
  • The aging requirements are also slightly different. Generally, Armagnacs have a more robust, pungent bouquet (aroma), with a dry and smooth palate if well matured.  
  • The addition of caramel color and sugar is permitted.

Armagnac Labelling

Minimum Age* 

Labeling Terms 

3 Months# 

Blanche Armagnac 

1 Year 

VS, Very Special 

4 Years 

VSOP, Very Superior Old Pale 

10 Years 

XO, Extra Old, Hors d’âge 

Age Statement 

The age stated on the label is the youngest spirit in the blend. 


Made only from spirits produced from grapes harvested in one particular year. 

*Aging starts from 1 April the year after the harvest for wood-matured spirits only 

#Rested in the inert vessel 

Apple Brandy

  • The two principal sources of apple brandies are the United States (e.g. AppleJack) and France (e.g. Calvados).  
  • The production of Calvados begins with juices of ripe cider apples (as many as 40 varieties).  
  • The juice is fermented and distilled in copper pots or column stills, depending on the quality status of the final product.  
  • In some cases, small amounts of pear may be allowed.  
  • Post-distillation, the 'Eau de vie' is aged in Limousin oak (like Cognac) to pick up color, aroma, and flavor. 

Calvados Labeling

Minimum Age 

Labelling Terms 

2 Years

VS (Very Special), Three stars, Three apples

3 Years 

Réserve, Old

4 Years 

V.O. (Very Old), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), Vieille Réserve

6 Years 

XO (Extra Old), Hors d’âge, Très Vieille Réserve, Très Vieux, Extra, Napoleon

Age Statement 

The age stated on the label is the youngest spirit in the blend.


Made only from spirits produced from grapes harvested in one particular year. 


  • The most established type of apple brandy in the USA is Applejack which is made from eating apples (vs cider apples for Calvados) and distilled in either column or pot stills.  
  • Typically, Applejacks are blended brandy consisting of at least 20% apple distillate with a neutral grain spirit that must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak (usually ex-Bourbon barrels).  
  • Today, Applejack and Apple Brandy (which may be produced from 100% apples) are synonymous in the USA. 

Pomace Brandy

  • Brandies distilled from the grape pomace (solid residue of grape pulps, seeds, and skins) of winemaking are known as Pomace Brandies.  
  • The grape residue is distilled, either from pressed red grapes after the fermentation or from white grapes pressed before fermentation begins (hence requiring fermentation before distillation occurs). 
  • Batch or continuous still may be employed, and the spirits are rarely aged or colored.  
  • Famous examples include Grappa from Italy and Marc from France


  • Pisco is a grape brandy made in Chile and Peru.  
  • Although they share a name, Chilean and Peruvian Piscos are very different spirits governed by various regulations.  
  • The one thing in common is that they are both produced from aromatic grape varieties (mainly some variation of the Muscat grape), resulting in a distinct, perfumed characteristic different from other grape brandies.  
  • Pot still distillation is the norm, and Peruvian Pisco is rested in glass or steel containers, while Chilean Pisco may be aged in a local wood cask.  
  • The Pisco Sour is the most well-known cocktail using this spirit.

Alcohol Blanc / Eau de Vie

  • Distilled spirits (usually clear or white) from fermented fruit juice. 
  • Examples include Kirschwasser (Black Cherry), Framboise (Raspberry), Fraise (Strawberry) and Poire Williams (Pear).  
  • These are fragrant and delicate spirits that are rarely aged. 

The world of cognac, brandy, and fruit brandies is a captivating blend of history and craftsmanship and the process of aging and blending creates a symphony of flavors, inviting us to explore its richness. By understanding the differences between brandy, cognac, and fruit brandies, we uncover their unique tastes to enjoy neat or in a signature cocktail.

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