Sip a glass of cognac and you’ll understand why the French say it’s made from l’eau de vie (the water of life). The velvety spirit is the most famous variety of brandy and is named for the area in France where it must be produced. The area around the town of Cognac, France, is divided into six grape-growing regions. The most expensive fruit comes from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies. Once picked, the grapes are fermented and then distilled twice in copper pot stills, which produce a colorless alcohol called eau-de-vie. The spirit is then aged in oak barrels. Most cognacs are a blend of different eaux-de-vie of varying ages and qualities.
Cognacs are classified into a few general categories: VS, or very special, must be aged at least two years; VSOP, or very superior old pale, must be aged at least four years; and XO, or extra-old, must be aged at least six years. For the past three centuries, Cognac has been almost universally recognized as the finest of all the spirits that are distilled from grapes. It has many incomparable qualities: fruitiness, subtlety of bouquet, intensity, warmth and, above all, the complexity of the many thousands of styles and flavors from a (predominantly) single grape variety.