What does Cognac taste like?
What does cognac taste like and how to taste it?
When it comes to enjoying our favourite drink, it can be a little confusing for the novice drinker to know exactly how cognac should be tasted and what to expect. Of course, those who’ve been sipping for many years will have their own tried and tested methods, but for those new to cognac, the correct way to drink can seem somewhat intimidating.
Do you taste first or swirl? What does the color tell you about the cognac you’re drinking? And how long should you hold your cognac in the glass before taking that all important first sip?
Confusing, isn’t it? Well fear not, because here comes the Cognac Expert guide on how to drink cognac and enjoy your eaux-de-vie.
Settle in, pour yourself a drink and allow us to take you through the following:
Aromas are dependent on age. When it comes to cognac, it’s definitely a case of the older the better.
What flavor is cognac?
To truly understand what flavor cognac is, it’s necessary to distinguish what we actually mean by flavor. Because, contrary to popular belief, taste and flavor are actually two separate things. Taste is a chemical sensation perceived by cells within the taste buds in the mouth, and we will focus more on the taste of cognac later on. Flavor, on the other hand, fuses various different sensations within the brain. These include the tastes signaled from our taste buds, but also add into the mix that of aroma, temperature, tactile stimuli, and even—in the case of certain spices—pain.
All of these senses are received by the brain, sifted into order, and the end result is what we call flavor. One of the most integral elements of flavor, and particularly in the case of cognac, is aroma. Which brings us nicely onto ‘the nose’.
The ‘nose’ of a cognac is a key part of what makes the drink so enjoyable. But unless you’re an expert, it can be a challenge to know what you’re actually meant to be experiencing. Experts talk about various aromas, such as vanilla, citrus fruits, peach, caramel, vanilla, or tobacco. But for those of us whose senses aren’t quite as well tuned as those who inhale cognac for a living, a little more guidance would be handy. Et voila! Cognac Expert is happy to help.
What are the aromas of cognac?
Back in 2009, 50 sommeliers, cellar masters, and tasters met up at the International Cognac Summit to discover exactly that. They took 4 days (we can only imagine how ‘awful’ it must’ve been for those poor souls to spend so long breathing in the aromas of various cognacs). What they achieved was quite remarkable. A definitive (well, almost) guide that demystifies the glory of the cognac aroma. These expert ‘noses’ came up with a list of 5 major aromas that give our beloved cognac its unique character.
However, it doesn’t end there! For these might well be the most common aromas in the nose of a cognac, but there are another 63, albeit more subtle, aromas, that have been cleverly classified according to the cycle of the season.
The Cognac Aroma Wheel
This beautiful image perfectly explains how each aroma is signified by the season it represents.
The flowery and subtle aromas – such as iris, acacia, jasmine, orange blossom, and honeysuckle bring the joys of spring to mind.
Summer is represented by somewhat mellower tones; hay, apricot, fresh figs, and plums.
Autumn carries with it the sweetness of dried apricot, licorice, toffee and truffle.
And then winter is characterized by a more masculine cognac smell, such as; coffee, leather, walnut, tobacco, and orange zest.
Interestingly, in 2017 Courvoisier announced that it was going to target a marketing campaign based on the resurgence of the UK coffee drinking market. Coffee in the 21st century is very aroma-specific. Maxxium UK, in conjunction with Courvoisier, embarked on a huge marketing campaign targeting such a combination – the aromas of cognac and how they can complement coffee, such as in an espresso martini.
Check out Rebecca Asseline (ambassador of Courvoisier in the UK) as she explains the complexities of the brands XO, and how to taste the cognac – in particular, the intricacies of the nose.
Age is everything
Aromas are dependent on age. When it comes to cognac, it’s definitely a case of the older the better. Once a cognac is well-aged the aromas are noticeably more refined. Fruity tones change from fresh peach and plums to more distinguished aromas of concentrated prunes, figs, and dried apricots. Oak develops into more complex scents of sandalwood, cedar, and eucalyptus. And the light floral tones mature into those of jasmine, honeysuckle, and hyacinth.
In cognacs that have been aged for over 15 years, you can expect to find tones of licorice, port, chocolate, spices, toffee, tobacco, and nuts.
The science bit
Now according to various scientific studies, there are 230 key aromas (known as odorants). But for individual smells of various foodstuffs (such as the really obvious smells – bacon, wine, roasted meat, strawberries) the particular aromas are made up of between 3-40 key molecules. And while the smell of butter utilizes 3 key molecules, and strawberries 12, cognac is one of the most complex smelling of all foodstuffs – it’s made up of 36 different key odor molecules.
But what does this actually mean? Well, what happens is that the chemical codes of these odours are translated by the olfactory receptors in the nose, of which there are over 400. And whilst there are currently 230 known key odours, scientists have so far discovered that only 42 of the olfactory receptors respond to food odours.
What about rancio?
If you fancy yourself as a bit of a cognac connoisseur, then we have no doubt that you have come across the term ‘rancio’ and most likely engaged in the debate as to what exactly rancio is.
Rancio is a word which comes from Portugal, used to describe characteristics of port wine during the maturing process. The Rancio Charantais is used to describe cognac and appears after roughly 10 years of aging in oak casks. It’s the gouleyante note of cognac aging in oak barrels, influencing the aroma and becoming more intense over the years.
There are four stages of rancio:
The first stage, known as early rancio, can start to evolve from 10 years of age, although more typical of a 15 year old cognac. Rancio is dominated by flowery, nutty, dried fruit and spicy notes here.
The second stage occurs from 20 to 30 years of age and during this period rancio begins to develop into further earthy, mushroom and spicy tones such as curry, saffron and ginger. More intense dried and candied fruit elements are also present, with an undertone of soft, damp forest floor.
Stage three is when the magic really starts to happen. From 30, through to 40 or even 50 years old the complexity intensifies. Pungent, increasingly spicy notes emerge, along with smokey tones of a cigar box, tobacco, cedar, old tawny port and muscat wine.
Finally, we arrive at stage four, the hallowed state of rancio - personified. From 40 to 50 years onwards the evolution is miraculous. Prepare to be transported to tropical shores, where aromas of overripe tropical fruits, lychee, passion fruit, and sandalwood mingle with that of walking into a grandiose property of yesteryear, where the gentle aromas of library shelves filled with old books and the polished leather of aged horse tackle on display pervades the air.
The concept of rancio is a complicated one: even cognac producers struggle when it comes to explaining the term. It is nearly impossible to describe. Is it Nutty? Cheesy? It has been compared to the taste of musrooms, earth and hints of soy sauce. There are so many varying descriptions of rancio, that we feel the best answer is, it’s all up to your interpretation!
If you want to delve further into the mysterious topic of rancio, check out our article: All About Rancio.
Before we end, there’s a funny addition when it comes to talking about aromas. And it might well surprise you… It’s the aroma of soap. Yes, you read that correctly, soap. Let’s explain a little more. Such a phenomenon occurs when water is added to an eau-de-vie close to the end of its aging process. This is normal practice when the alcohol content needs to be brought down to a certain level (for instance, from 43% ABV down to 40% ABV). However, if the process is rushed, it can leave a soapy tang - one that’s noticeable both on the nose and the palate.
Obviously this is not something you want from your cognac. But it does happen on occasion. Making cognac is not an exact science, and it’s all down to the skill of the cellar master. As with all things cognac, even a step such as this can’t be rushed.
To conclude our guide on cognac aromas, check out our selection of cognacs with the best fruity aromas and the most unusual scents below:
Best cognacs for fruity aromas
Whilst there are a variety of fruit aromas and flavors in any cognac, some are particularly good examples. Certain producers are known for bringing us a wide range of exceedingly fruity examples, including the houses of Prunier Cognac and Leopold Gourmel Cognac.
You can discover more excellent fruit cognacs that the Cognac Expert team has had the pleasure of tasting in our article: Fruity Cognacs - It’s more than just grapes.
The exquisite taste of cognac also comes down to the skill of the cellar master in determining when an eau-de-vie has matured to its utmost. These are then enjoyed neat, as in a single vintage or a blend.
What does cognac taste like?
As previously mentioned, taste is literally a chemical sensation perceived by cells within the taste buds in the mouth. Most of us will probably remember from biology that there are five basic tastes. These tastes are communicated via the nervous system to the brain:
OK, there’s evidence that there might now be more, but that’s an evolving science and not something we need to worry ourselves with in this particular instance (Phew, thank goodness for that).
Although it would be easy to say that cognac is a brandy and therefore tastes like brandy, this isn’t quite so. Because one of the constants regarding cognac is that no other brandy grapes in the world are grown in this soil. Therefore no brandy will ever taste quite like cognac.
The exquisite taste of cognac also comes down to the skill of the cellar master in determining when an eau-de-vie has matured to its utmost. These are then enjoyed neat, as in a single vintage or a blend. Each cognac has its own aromas and flavors, and within a blend, they merge harmoniously with others to bring multiple sensory delights.
When tasting a cognac, it is impossible to separate the aroma from the taste buds, hence why we refer to a cognac’s flavor rather than its taste. The two are linked so closely that you can’t have one without the other. Whatever wonders you experience on the nose will continue on the palate.
And let's not forget temperature
You might’ve noticed that we’re advocates of enjoying cognac in many different ways. Such as over ice, direct from the freezer, at room temperature, or gently warmed in the hands in a brandy balloon for a few minutes before you sip. And we say this for good reason.
As previously mentioned, a cognac’s flavor comes from a combination of factors, such as taste, aroma and also temperature. Your brain uses the fact that cognac is warm, cool, or even freezing to determine some very distinct flavor changes. That’s why it’s a great idea to try a cognac in different states to experience the full range of flavors that it offers.
How to taste Cognac
So, we’ve given you the theory behind cognac’s aromas, tastes and flavors, but now it's time to put this into practice.
First of all, never let anyone tell you that there’s only one ‘correct’ way to taste cognac. Because that’s not what the drink is all about. The cognac industry has done the utmost over the past decade to shake off its previous ‘stuffy’ image, and we’re not about to undo all that good work.
However, we also know it can be a bit intimidating if you’re new to cognac and about to delve into a tasting surrounded by connoisseurs. So, we’ve compiled a step by step guide on how to taste cognac:
1. Select your glass
There are two basic Cognac glasses that the cognac purist will tell you are essential to properly taste cognac. These are the Tulip Glass and the Balloon Glass (or brandy snifter). The reasons for using these are to do with the shape, and the way the glass narrows towards the rim in order to intensify the bouquet (aroma) of the Cognac. However, if none of these are available to you, it’s perfectly okay to use a regular shaped spherical wine glass.
2. Pour cognac into glasss
Ah, the delightfully decadent ‘plink plink’ that cognac makes when poured from the bottle to the glass… You need about 25ml (0.85 oz.) in your glass for a tasting session.
3. Warm the cognac in your hand
A point of contention here, as some schools of thought believe this to be unnecessary. However, it is a centuries old tradition and these things don’t become such a way without good reason. It’s recommended that you cup your hand around the bowl of the glass for up to 10 minutes. This helps it to reach room temperature (approx. 700F or 21C). It’s at this approximate temperature that the aromas and subtle nuances of the cognac become easier to appreciate.
4. Look at the cognac
Swirl the glass and look at the beads of alcohol. The softness of the ‘legs’ indicates the complexity of the cognac. Look at the color of the cognac – is it a light golden color or a deeper hue? However, don’t be fooled by the fact that you might know that cognac darkens with age, because in many cases caramel is added to a cognac to produce a darker drink. Coloration alone does not give you an accurate indication of the age of a cognac.
5. Smell the cognac
Holding the glass at chin level, inhale the vapors and try to identify what it is that you can smell. Concentrate on noticing flowers and spicy notes. Flowers and fruits indicate a younger cognac, whereas jammier notes imply an aged cognac. Often one might find hints of vanilla, although this might be very subtle in some cases. Nutty notes can usually also be noticed. Of course, smell (such as taste) is subjective, and different people might be able to sense different aromas. Remember, there is no right or wrong when you taste cognac – it’s all a matter of individual perception.
6. Taste the cognac
Have a sip, but keep the liquid in your mouth. Remember, cognac is sipped and savored, not drunk. This is because you want to taste all the different nuances. Your tongue has different sensors in different areas, and you want to ensure that the cognac touches all of these. Taste at the tip for sweetness, the back for bitterness and at the sides for saltiness and sourness. Also, pay attention to the length of the flavor in your mouth, and to the balance of the different flavors.
Is cognac sweet?
As we mentioned earlier, some cognac producers add caramel to darken their product. This way, they appear older than they actually are. On the palate you can notice it quite easily: It initially gives the impression of a sweet cognac, with a very early vanilla note on the tip of the tongue which then quickly vanishes, and is not present elsewhere on the palate. Although there are often subtle and natural sweeter flavors found in many cognacs, this acute sweetness is a key indicator of added artificial caramel.
7. Enjoy the finish
The ‘finish’ is the experience you get after you’ve swallowed the cognac. It’s where you still enjoy the flavors within your mouth, and it tends to be that the older the cognac is, the longer a finish you’ll experience.
As we mentioned above, there are many different ways to enjoy the taste of cognac. Some people like to add ice, claiming that this releases different aromas to enjoy. Others drink theirs with a mixer (such as Coca Cola). And one of the most popular ways nowadays is to drink cognac in a cocktail.
But the most important thing about tasting cognac is that you enjoy the experience. Don’t worry that you might not be able to sense certain aromas that other people say are present. It’s all about enjoying what you do. And if someone else gets the taste of candied fruits, and all you can sense is liquorice, then that’s fine. Everyone has slightly different smell and taste senses, and it really isn’t a big deal. Just relax, have fun and enjoy the cognac experience. It’s made for your pleasure, after all. So enjoy…
There is a direct link between the barrels used in the aging process and the smoothness of the cognac. This is because older wood leads to a different intensity in the eau-de-vie.
Cognac ratings and reviews
So now you know the cognac tasting etiquette, you’re probably raring to get going! But where to start?
Well Cognac Expert has a number of resources to help you in selecting which cognac tickles your fancy. Our Cognac Reviews page on our blog has a number of articles with a range of cognac reviews ratings and detailed tasting notes. And if you don’t agree then we always encourage our readers to leave a comment and join the debate, because taste and experience are subjective and we like to hear about it.
You can also take advantage of our cognac recommendation assistant , which will provide you with three cognac recommendations based on factors such as your personal taste, age, price range and more.
Joe Binney, a prolific poster on our popular Cognac Lover’s Facebook group and self-confessed tech/Cognac nerd, blew us away with his in-depth analysis. Discover his whole Cognac ratings analysis on our blog.
The crème de la crème
We’ve even compiled our ultimate list of smooth cognacs, these are cognacs that we believe perfectly and harmoniously meld aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish to leave us with an exquisitely smooth experience.
The smooth-rating of an eau-de-vie is also dependent on its age and quality. So a younger, fresher cognac will have a different smoothness than an old Cognac, such as an Extra Cognac or Hors d’Age Cognac.
We believe the qualities of a smooth Cognac are as follows:
- Light to drink, both on the palate and throughout the finish
- Beautifully rounded, meaning that the flavors meld seamlessly, gradually evolving during the tasting process
- No sharpness in the mouth
- A mellow finish
- Easy to drink
- 40% ABV - anything above this will naturally present more punch
- Can be a young or old cognac
There is a direct link between the barrels used in the aging process and the smoothness of the cognac. This is because older wood leads to a different intensity in the eau-de-vie. The younger the wood, the more potent the effect on the liquid within - older barrels, by their very nature, lead to a smoother finished product.
The search for smooth Cognacs is ongoing and dynamic. Just when you think you’ve found the ultimate one, another comes along that challenges for the top spot in your personal leaderboard. However, there is no denying, that this constant road of discovery to the smoothest cognac is a fun, never-ending, pastime to have.
So, read our article to uncover our Nine Ultimate Smooth Cognacs. As already mentioned, this list is subject to constant change, taking into account new releases and those that are no longer available to purchase. We’re also open to recommendations, so let us know if you think there’s a cognac that deserves its place on the list!
Both and neither. Cognac has many different flavors, it can be dry, sweet, spicy, fruity and bitter, it all depends on which cognac you are enjoying at the time. Younger cognacs tend to be sweeter and older ones dryer and spicier.
Cognac tastes similar to brandy but with exclusive flavor sensations that are unique to cognac. These include sweet, spicy, fruity and bitter flavors, depending on the cognac.
Comparing the whiskey vs cognac taste is tricky. They both gain their flavors and colour from the wood they’re aged in, and develop their smoothness over time. However, cognac is often more complex and develops a wider spectrum of fruit and floral aromas.
No, the majority of bourbons share a recognisable sweetness due to being made of at least 51% corn which has a high glucose content. Some cognacs also have sweet elements to them but it is not so common.
It depends on the product. Brandy is such a broad term compared to cognac that there are bound to be both sweeter and less sweet versions. If you’re looking for the sweetest tasting cognac then we recommend a younger one.
Hine’s Rare VSOP is a great first cognac for beginners. It is very well-balanced and can be enjoyed neat to appreciate the array of fruity and nutty flavors, or blended beautifully in tall cocktails and spirit mixers.