Cognac – perhaps the world’s most refined and sophisticated spirit – is the product of some decidedly less savory influences. Tariffs, poor preservation methods, war, disease, and even the devil may have played a role in cognac’s creation.
A simple and natural desire to avoid taxes led to the first step in transforming wine into brandy and “ordinary” brandy into cognac Dutch ships had been transporting cargoes of the thin local wine grown around the city of Cognac since about 1100. When authorities increased taxes on barrels of wine leaving Charente, the Dutch merchants built distilleries along the river to concentrate the weak vintage. Distillation boiled off much of the water in the wine while multiplying the alcohol content by a factor of eight, making it less susceptible to spoilage. The “dehydrated” eau de vie could be reconstituted with distilled water once it reached the Netherlands, England, or Ireland, so the same amount of finished product could be shipped in fewer barrels and a reduced tax burden.
The next phase in cognac’s development, according to legend, was born of hellish visions. One version of the story relates how Jacques de la Croix de Segonzac Maron, a knight returning to his vineyard from battle, caught his wife and her lover together and murdered them. Wracked with guilt, he suffered from vivid nightmares in which Satan’s minions boiled his flesh twice in an attempt to render his soul. Jacques interpreted the dream as a message from God that his wines should likewise be twice boiled. However it came about, double distillation is now a hallmark of all cognac.
Cognac’s other defining characteristic, the oak-barrel aging process, owes much to the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
During the 17th Century, distillers realized that, instead of cutting the double-distilled eau de vie with water, it could be savored in its concentrated state.
This discovery gained significance when shipping delays forced distilleries to keep their stocks stored in their casks for longer periods. The longer it stayed in encased in oak, the mellower and more complex its palate became. While economic realities dictated that the vast majority of the liquor be sold to the exporters for dilution and consumption, local farmers prized the reserve stock, both for its flavor and its higher retail value after sufficient aging.
When the war virtually shut down maritime trade and all legitimate exchange between France and Great Britain, distributors exported cognac from the growing area overland to the Netherlands. From there, smugglers often slipped barrels across the North Sea and into England. The land journey took much longer than transport by ship, and the extra time allowed the cognac to develop the subtle aromas and flavors that have become recognizable as cognac. In fact, it was only after the war that the distilled, oak-cask-aged wine was named “cognac.”
Oak-aging has become such an important aspect of cognac production, transferring to the liquor flavor-rich tannins, rich colors, and full-bodied aroma that only 40- to 100-year-old trees from the Limousin and Troncais regions are deemed worthy of the becoming cognac casks.
Pre-1900 cognacs are rare and expensive, but they present a taste of another era, one that can never be recaptured.
The final watershed in cognac’s evolution was due to the plague of the Phylloxera outbreak in the last quarter of the 18th century. The fungus caused by the beetle’s feeding on grapevine roots nearly wiped out production in Charente. While the region recovered, thanks to the importation of resistant strains, cognac has not been the same since. Pre-1900 cognacs are rare and expensive, but they present a taste of another era, one that can never be recaptured.