1. Cognac is the Champagne of brandy
Cognac is a type of brandy, or distilled wine, made in a delineated region of about 200,000 acres surrounding the town of Cognac, on France’s western coast. All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Like how all rhombuses are squares, but not all squares are rhombuses. Or how all grilled cheeses are sandwiches, but not all sandwiches are grilled cheeses. We can keep going but we’ll stop because you probably got it the first time.
2. There are six distinct Cognac-making regions
Within this “delimited area,” as it’s called by French Cognac authorities, are six zones of production defined by their terroir. From highest-quality (chalky, limestone-rich soil that retains the most moisture and reflects the most sunlight to the grapes) to lowest (soil that is mostly clay or sand), they are: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Virtually all Cognacs are blended from several eaux-de-vie (distilled spirits of varying ages) from these six regions for the most well-rounded flavor.
3. There are some really strict laws about Cognac
Here are a few: Cognac must be made from one or a combination of just three types of grapes (Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard). It must be aged for at least two years. It must be double-distilled in copper pot stills of a particular shape and configuration (Chartenais, after the French district where the process originated). Its grapes must be harvested only in October, and it must be distilled only from November 1st to March 31st. And distillers have to sing La Marseillaise at no louder than a whisper to each individual barrel three times a day (okay we made that up but seriously it would be believable considering everything else).
4. That whole “VS” and “VSOP” thing is actually pretty simple
There are three main classifications for Cognac: VS, or Very Special, has been aged at least two years (Cognacs marked with three stars are also VS); VSOP, or Very Superior Old Pale, has been aged at least four years; XO, or Extra Old, has been aged at least six years (though as of next April, Cognac will need 10 years of aging to qualify as XO).
5. People used to drink Cognac from those big honking glasses to keep it warm
Back when smallpox was a daily topic of conversation at ye olde tavern, The Queen’s No-Central-Heating, it was just cold all the time. Those big bulb glasses are designed to channel heat from the necessarily meaty grip of your hands to the drink, which is best enjoyed at about 70 degrees.