Beyond brandy

Widely regarded as the finest of all spirits distilled from grapes, cognac is produced exclusively in the wine-growing region located around Cognac, a town in south-western France that also happens to be the birthplace of François I. Strict methods and legal requirements govern the production of this centuries-old elixir whose origins lie deep in the 16th century, when Dutch traders began distilling French wine into what they called brandewijn, the ancestor of brandy.

Make it a double

Double distillation appeared in the region during the following century as a means of protecting wines during long sea voyages while lowering shipping costs. Seeking to perfect the process, French producers developed the Charentais method, which is still in use today. Shipping delays also led to the realization that extended contact between the eaux-de-vie and oak shipping casks led to improved flavour. This allows the spirit to be consumed pure, without the addition of water.

Good news and bad news

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed increasing organization of the market, with the creation of local offices throughout the region to collect eaux-de-vie and establish commercial relationships with buyers abroad. Technical advances during the 20th century, such as the rise of the glassmaking industry, cork making and label printing, further streamlined production. Alas, disaster struck in 1875 in the form of the phylloxera virus, which decimated the region’s vineyards and left a mere 15% standing in its wake.

Embracing modernity

The vineyards were slowly replanted using primarily phylloxera-resistant rootstock from America. In 1909, the French government officially defined the boundaries within which cognac could be produced. This was followed by cognac’s promotion to Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status in 1936 and the subsequent creation of regulatory bodies specifically designed to protect the product and its reputation. And so they have: today, cognac is sniffed, swirled and swallowed in some 160 countries around the world, a veritable ambassador of French culture and savoir-faire.