Cognac vs Bourbon: What’s the Difference?

Many people have argued about the difference between cognac and bourbon in an attempt to determine which of them is the best. Before delving into the depths of this matter, you should know up front that, for us, cognac takes the cake any day, any time.

But let’s take a closer look at the difference between cognac and bourbon along with all the details that you should know about these strong drinks before diving into their rabbit hole.

Cognac

Cognac – which is made from select grapes or distilled from wine – is a French product. The peculiar grapes are cultivated in a specific region in Cognac situated in the southwest of France from which it earns its name. It is usually distilled in pot stills and must be at the least 40% proof and is expected to conform to some legit requirements in production methods which are known and governed by “Appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC).

Cognac was invented by foreigners, and you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that lots of Cognac are exported to other countries compared to the amount that is enjoyed or consumed in its home country.

The Accidental Discovery of Cognac

Whenever visiting Dutch merchandisers wanted to take some French wines back with them to the Netherlands, they devised a means that will prevent the wine from spoiling. These Dutch merchants will double-distill the French wine into burnt wine or what is known as “brandewijn,” and then transport the drink in oak barrels to the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

During the long journey to the Netherlands, the French wine undergoes a maturation process which ends up transforming the burnt wine into brandy which is infused with caramel, vanilla as well as rancio flavors obtained from the oak. These extraordinary tastes can only be described as earthy, funky, and nutty. Cognac is now produced in the Departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime.

Cognac is also one of the most expensive French liqueurs in the market today, and its steep price has nothing to do with enticing status symbol seekers. It is justified because Cognac is produced in severely limited quantities as it makes up nothing less than one percent of the entire world’s spirits by volume.

Production of Cognac

To be a Cognac, the brandy must be made from a specific type of grapes known as Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard. Any of these grape varieties must make up to 90% of the liqueur’s content. The Ugni Blanc grapes give the drink its acidic taste while the remaining 10% is made up of either Jurançon blanc, Sélect, Meslier Sf. Francois, Sémillon, Foligno, or Monfils grapes.

The production process starts with the use of the grapes mentioned earlier, Ugni Blanc is the grape variety that is generally used. These grapes are pressed carefully after harvesting in pneumatic presses or traditional horizontal plate. This is to ensure that the grapes do not get damaged unnecessarily as this could result in undue acidity.

The fermentation period can last from two to three weeks without adding any antioxidant or sulfur as these could contaminate the finished product.

After that, the brandy is distilled twice for a minimum of 12 hours in the pot – or copper Alembic – stills. The resulting distillate or beverage – which is called “Eaux de vie” or waters of life – is as clear as crystal with 70% alcohol concentration.

The alcoholic beverage is left to age – in charred, French oak barrels made from the trees close by in Tronçais or Limousin forests – for at least 2 years. This is where Cognac gets its notable brownish color. But as the water and alcohol evaporate with time, the concentration of alcohol plummets to 40 percent.

It is also crucial for you to know that the grapes that are cultivated in the Cognac region in France are grown in any of the following growing regions or terroirs:

  • Bons Bois
  • Borderies
  • Bois Ordinaires
  • Grande Champagne
  • Fins Bois
  • Petite Champagne

The growing region known as Grande Champagne is highly sought after, and the major reason why any Cognac that bears the “Fine Champagne” label must be composed of at least 50 percent Grande Champagne while the remainder is Petite Champagne.

Cognacs are blended, and this action alone gives the strong drink their flavors. These blended flavors usually vary significantly, and this depends on both the aging as well as the type of barrels that were used for the aging process. Before blending, all cognac is still known as Eaux de vie, but after blending, they are referred to as cognacs.

Cognacs are also regularized by the same age designations that are used for brandy, though cognacs are usually much older.

The Aged Cognac

The aged cognac can be pretty confusing; however, there is a system that is in place to help you have a full understanding of the age of the eau-de-vie in the blend. They are as follows:

•  VS (Very Special): This is a blend of Eaux de vie with age that ranges from two to eight years. They are young Cognacs which come with flavors of fresh fruit, citrus, and flowers. They are usually used when mixing cocktails and are known to pair excellently well with several light mixers such as soda water, lemonade, citrus-flavored sodas, etc.

VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): This blend of Eaux de vie is aged 4-12 years and are excellent for sipping on their own. All the same, these Cognacs are an excellent choice for classic brandy cocktails. The flavor profile of Cognacs in this category is mostly dominated by flowers and dried fruits.

XO (Extra Old): This – in most cases – is a blend of Eaux de vie that is aged twenty to thirty-five years. XO is the standard or criterion which all Cognac houses are evaluated. It is also the best place for you to start looking for good Cognacs.

Flavors may vary to a great extent, though it depends primarily on the preference of the market. Nevertheless, Cognacs in this category are incredibly rich with the taste of warm spices and dried fruit, chocolate, cigars, nuts, and toffee.

Napoleon: Napoleon is typically a blend of Eaux de vie that is aged 10-20 years, and from this category onwards, Cognacs are meant to be sipped only. They usually begin with detectable influences right from the barrel and taste of spices – such as vanilla and cinnamon – as well as dried fruits. This Napoleon grade – which is more affordable than an XO-grade Cognac – was introduced by Courvoisier.

• Extra: this is a blend of Eaux de vie with age that ranges from 30 to 50 years. Extra Cognacs are ranked slightly higher than XOs and are usually made from special reserves.

Extra Cognacs are released in limited batches every year, and more often than not, they come in hand-crafted decanters decorated with precious metals. They are known for their unique flavors that is only experienced after approximately 40 years of aging, and this is known as “rancio.”

The tastes of this grade of Cognac include notes of iris, cigar box, jasmine, passion fruit, earthy black truffle, and vanilla.

• Hors d’Age (Without Age): This is the top brand in any Cognac house. The Hors d’Age is a blend of eau de vie that is aged 50-100 years, and even older, in most cases.

This class of Cognac is usually made from private family reserves in severely limited numbers. More often than not, once the Hors d’Age is gone, it is gone permanently.

They also come in hand-crafted crystal decanters which are incredibly valuable themselves, up to hundreds of dollars. Describing the taste of this Cognac is virtually impossible as one cannot do justice to it.

In any case, the Hors d’Age Cognac is complex such that even connoisseurs agree that no two sips are precisely the same. However, you should know that you are getting a lot of value for your money because everything that is embedded in the top marque of Cognac houses is worth it.

Brands

Cognac is known worldwide, thanks to brands like Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier, and Martell, all of which have been made famous and endorsed by actors, musicians, athletes, etc.

Over the past decade, you must have been inundated with commercials run by these brands. “The big four,” as some connoisseurs prefer to call them, account for more than 80 percent of sales in the United States only. In fact, Hennessy alone accounts for over 50 percent of sales in America.

Nevertheless, although these are excellent choices, there are several smaller houses that are known amongst bartenders and connoisseurs. Some of these smaller houses produce exceptional and highly respected Cognac, and the majority of them have been in existence for decades. They include the following:

Cognac Bisquit

Bisquit’s specialty has a signature flavor that is common with long distillation processes. By adding a minimum of one hour or so to the total distillation period, Bisquit can extract denser molecules from the distillate, thus producing a heavier spirit with more body.

Bisquit’s VSOP is one of the most flavorful and richest grape brandy with white flowers on the nose as well as a well-integrated wood on the palate.

Cognac Frapin

Cognac Frapin has up to thirteen thousand hectares situated in Grande Champagne. One of the best – and much loved – alcoholic beverage on earth is the Chateau Fontpinot XO, a Cognac that is aged nowhere else but in dry cellars. In such an environment, as more water evaporates, the spirit becomes more concentrated, refined, and tasteful over the years.

Frapin’s breathtaking Cigar Blend XO, which is produced from eaux-de-vie that is aged nowhere else but in damp cellars – where the spirit becomes luscious, rounder, and more supple – can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its counterpart, the Chateau Fontpinot XO.

Cognac Bouju

François Bouju is the seventh generation of a vintner’s – or winemaker’s – a family which dates as far back as 1805 and the incumbent proprietor of Cognac Boujou. The winemaker family controls 30 hectares of 100% Ugni Blanc situated in Grande Champagne as well as the style that has been upheld by his predecessors with rustic or countryfied eau-de-vies. They are known to pick up additional complexity as a result of extensive aging practices.

The truth of the matter is that François Bouju keeps his Cognac in new oak barrels for much more extended periods than many of the distilleries out there. The result is a complex, deeply-colored spirit such as the spicy and intensely woody Très Vieux Cognac.

Cognac Philbert

The Philbert brothers are Cognac natives and are descendants of a lineage of vintners that have produced alcoholic beverages solely for the big houses several decades ago. But now, Xavier distills in Etriac (Petit Champagne) while Pierre Olivier distills in Touzac (Grande Champagne), both operating under the family name.

Now the Philberts are known to be trailblazers and usually play with small vintage batches while experimenting with different types of barrels, all with one goal in mind: to produce the best Cognac in the world.

And they are on the road to resounding success, thanks to the notable Rare Cask Petite Champagne from Xavier which is aged in Sauternes casks and the Rare Cask Grande Champagne from Olivier which is aged in Sherry Oloroso barrels.

Cognac Ferrand

Alexander Gabriel is a passionate master blender and owner of Ferrand who also has a vested interest in upholding and respecting Cognac’s history and heritage. He is exceptionally innovative, and this is apparent in the line of products that come from his small Cognac house such as the Renegade series. This includes eaux-de-vie aged in either chestnut wood barrels or Sauternes, and they are no longer permitted legally as stipulated by the regulations of the AOC.

But then, even beginners cannot go wrong with the 1840 Original Formula – which is perfect for cocktails such as punches, crustas or juleps, etc. – from Ferrand.

On a final note, the colder a Cognac is served, the more barrel flavors and spice dominate. But when Cognac warms in your hand, you will discover that there is much less of a taste of alcohol, thereby bringing forward the flavors of the fruits.

Health Benefits of Cognac

If you have been around spirits for a while, you must have picked up on the fact that cognac is nicknamed “the live water” or “the healing drink.” Cognac earned that appellation, all thanks to the health benefits it provides.

Cognac is loaded with antioxidants – since it is created from grapes – which prevent free radicals from damaging human cells. When cells become damaged, they could clog arteries, and such an occurrence results in heart disease, blindness, and cancer. This is why health experts recommend taking a nightcap of cognac with one cube of ice to minimize the action of free radicals.

Cognac also significantly lowers the risk of blood clots as well as the strain on your heart, which in turns minimizes the risk of developing heart disease. XO cognac is the most beneficial alcoholic beverage since it is aged in oak barrels for a substantial amount of time.

Cognac helps in reducing the risk of gallstones, type-2 diabetes, etc. The catch here is to ensure that they are consumed in moderate amounts. This means that men can take up to two drinks per day while women should take one drink per day.

Cognac is used as a remedy for flu and colds during winter, and it is also known as an instant reliever of severe headaches. This is because Cognac widens the blood vessels, thereby permitting the smooth flow of blood around the body.

Bourbon

Bourbon is America’s whiskey, and it is said that bourbon that is distilled anywhere else other than the United States, is not bourbon. Bourbon is one of the most loved spirits in America. This fact alone makes Bourbon highly qualified to take up a spot or two in your home bar.

Bourbon – or bourbon whiskey – is a type of barrel-aged distilled spirit that is made principally from corn. The name “Bourbon” was allegedly derived from the French Bourbon Dynasty, though no one really knows what inspired the creators of this remarkable American whiskey. There are other contenders – such as Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Bourbon County in Kentucky – who claim that Bourbon originated from their neighborhood.

Now, Bourbon has been distilled since the 18th century while the term “bourbon” for the liquor has been traced to the 19th century or more precisely, the 1820s. However, consistent use of this alcoholic beverage began in Kentucky in the 1870s.

Brief History of Bourbon

It is believed that the process of distillation was brought to Kentucky by the Scots and Scots-Irish settlers sometime in the 18th century. They began to farm the area earnestly alongside English, German, French, and Welsh settlers.

Now the origin of bourbon is not adequately documented, and this is probably because of the conflicting claims and legends that are rife in the community.

Nevertheless, one thing is sure; Bourbon has come to stay, and it is not going anywhere any time soon.

Production

What makes Bourbon so special, besides advanced distillation, corn cultivation as well as some legal regulations? All that is needed is corn, some charred oak barrels, and a significant amount of time, and this type of American whiskey is birthed.

Being produced in Kentucky is optional, which is somewhat contrary to popular belief. Bourbon requires at least 51% corn in the mash, with barley and rye filling out the remainder. Then it is distilled to at least 160 proof. More flavoring congeners must be allowed to remain in the distillate, so there is an allowance for that.

After that, it is barreled at 125 proof and bottled at a minimum 40 percent ABV. Since it is predominantly composed of corn, the spirit gives an impression of sweetness. The flavor profile, however, has several influences as other factors such as the influence of charred oak, the rest of the grain bill, and the climate of the special storage facility where barrels of Bourbon is piled high – known as “rickhouse” or “rackhouse” – and rotated as they age, resulting in the final product that you see in that wine shop.

Bourbon Terminology

Just like Cognac and Scotch, Bourbon also has a few terminologies to navigate; however, do not let it scare you in any way. Technically, Bourbon does not have aging borderlines, and you may be surprised to learn that Bourbon that touched new, charred oak for barely 50 minutes could be sold legitimately.

Thankfully, the majority of the Bourbon out there is aged a great deal longer than that. Here are some of the terminologies that are used to navigate Bourbon easily:

Straight Bourbon: Straight Bourbon is a bourbon that is legally compliant and aged for at least two years. If the Bourbon is not aged up to 2 years, there must be an age statement printed on the bottle. So, if you come across a straight bourbon without any age statement on it, then it is safe to assume it is at least four years old.

Straight bourbon must not have any additives, flavoring, coloring, or other spirits.

Bottled-in-Bond: Bourbon that is labeled “Bottled in Bond” which is a sub-category of straight bourbon and aged at least 4 years – though only a few of these are available – abide by the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act. This is the United States’ government’s way of vouching for the purity of the spirit during the period in which the majority of practices out there were relatively scrupulous. Thus, it is required that the bourbon must be the product of a distillery and one distilling season which is aged in warehouses that are supervised by the United States government for a minimum of four years.

The following terminology makes references to how many barrels are used when blending Bourbon. They are as follows:

  • Small Batch: Small Batch is not a legal term, but was introduced by Jim Beam, the Bourbon Big Boy. But generally speaking, “Small Batch” refers to Bourbon that was blended from a unique or “special” selection of barrels and was intentionally blended for consistency and control.
  • Single Barrel: Single Barrel bourbons originate from one barrel, expressing distinctive attributes of that particular bourbon’s aging cycle as against the skill of the blender and distiller. Even though you do not see many single barrel Scotches out there, it does not imply that they are non-existent.
  • Blended Bourbon: Blended bourbon contains several additives such as flavoring, coloring as well as other spirits. These spirits can be composed of un-aged neutral grains, but it is highly crucial to ensure that the product must have a minimum of 51 percent straight bourbon.

Bourbon that comes with a specific age printed on its label must be tagged with the age of the youngest whiskey that is in the bottle, and not counting the age of any additives or neutral grain spirits in a bourbon that is labeled “blended.” This is because neutral-grain spirit is not regarded as whiskey under regulations, and so are not required to be aged.

Without any doubt, barreling, aging, and blending all have a significant impact on the overall flavor profile of Bourbon. But then, bourbons, more often than not, share a smooth and sweet undertone with varying notes of caramel, spice, vanilla, and corn sweetness to a certain degree. Other flavors – from toffee, tobacco, tannin to leather, fruit, etc. – may also show up.

  • High Rye: Bourbons with this designation come with pronounced and highly discernible spice.
  • High Corn: “High Corn” Bourbons contains 60 to 70 percent corn in the mash bill, making it considerably sweeter than other varieties of the spirit.
  • Wheaters: “Wheaters” refers to bourbon in which wheat takes the place of rye in the regular corn-rye-barley bourbon mash bill. Bourbons in this category are soft and very sweet.
  • Cask Strength: Cask Strength bourbons are not slashed down to 40 percent ABV, thus making them more flavorful and alcoholic. It is not, in any case, a great starter bourbon, but one that you can aspire to.
  • Sour Mash: “Sour Mash” is a term that is also used on Tennessee Whiskey and refers to bourbon that has had some of the mash from a previous batch included or added to the new mash. This is somewhat akin to the way some bakers add part of a sourdough – from an earlier formulation – into a fresh dough for consistency of flavor and yeast, except that with bourbon, it is only the mash that is sour, not the resulting spirit.
  • Sweet Mash makes use of new yeast, thus resulting in numerous flavors.

Now as you get more acquainted with Bourbon, you will find that it is fussed over to a certain degree. For instance, some distilleries specify the use of water that is filtered by the limestone shelf in Bourbon County. But if you are a new bourbon drinker, there is no reason for you to be hyper-specific. Since bourbon is generally fussed over, buying affordable Bourbon may be safe, and you may even find some great things in the bottle.

Legal Requirements

The legal definition of Bourbon varies from one country to another, though many trade agreements make it necessary that the name “Bourbon” be set aside for products that are made in the U.S.

The United States’ official rules for labeling and advertising Bourbon apply only to merchandise that is produced for local consumption, i.e., within the United States, and don’t apply to distilled spirits produced for exportation.

Canadian law requires that products that are labeled “Bourbon” must be produced in the United States and must also meet the requirements that are enforced within the United States.

However, in other countries – besides the United States and Canada – products that bear the “Bourbon” label are not mandated to conform to all the regulations that are stipulated within the United States. For instance, in the European Union, products that are labeled as bourbon are not required by law to adhere to the same standards upheld in Canada or the United States. But the catch is that Bourbon must still be made in the United States to bear the Bourbon label legitimately.

Take note also, that Bourbon that is aged less than three years cannot be referred to legally as whiskey in the European Union.

According to the stipulations of the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, a bourbon that is made for consumption in the United States must adhere to the following conditions:

1. It must be produced in the United States

2. It must be aged in new but charred oak barrels

3. It must be distilled to at least 160 (United States) proof with alcohol content up to 80 percent by volume

4. It must be produced from grain mixtures with at least 51 percent corn

5. It must be bottled, like other whiskeys, at 40 percent alcohol by volume or 80 proof

6. It must be entered into the barrels for aging at not less than 125 proof, i.e., 62.5 percent alcohol by volume

Health Benefits of Drinking Bourbon

Bourbon contains no fat, no carbs, and has exceptionally low sugar content. It also comes with high amounts of antioxidants, which help to combat the effects of free radicals on the human body.

Fine Bourbon helps to calm frayed nerves, enhance the circulation of blood, and generally relax your mind. A study out of Harvard also shows that Bourbon can assist in the protection against type-2 diabetes.

Ellagic acid is a compound that is obtained when whiskey is aged in wooden barrels, and it helps to regulate the amount of glucose that your liver releases while regulating insulin levels at the same time.

When the production of glucose in the liver is inhibited, your blood sugar is kept in check, and this development significantly reduces your chances of developing diabetes by at least 30-40 percent.

Bourbon does not give belly fat, unlike regular beer. This also means that you have nothing to fear as regards gaining unwanted weight since it has zero to negligible carb and calorie counts.

Good cholesterol, which is called HDL or high-density lipoprotein, increases significantly when you drink bourbon. Moreover, high-density lipoprotein inhibits the build-up or unhealthy development of bad cholesterol in the human body as this could lead to Atherosclerosis, a health condition.

In other words, Bourbon helps to keep your cholesterol levels in check by balancing them out.

When you drink Bourbon at least once every week, your body receives a boost in antioxidants, which will help in absorbing toxic phenolic compounds from your body.

The ellagic acid in Bourbon also helps in preventing your DNA from getting in touch with compounds that cause cancer such as nitrosamines as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

According to another scientific study conducted and published by the National Institute of Health back in 2003, Bourbon contains antioxidants that boost up cognitive performance and also minimizes the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Quick Comparison Chart

Here is a table that highlights the difference between Cognac and Bourbon

Cognac

Bourbon

Its color is almost chocolate-brown and it is a beverage with 40% alcohol content

Its color is cherry-red and it is a beverage with an alcohol concentration of 40%

It is a type of brandy

It is a type of whiskey

It is made from specially-grown grapes

It is made primarily from corn and other cereals

It is a beverage that bears the name of the region where it is made i.e. the French town of cognac

It is a beverage that is made only in the United States of America

Taste variations come from aging for over ten years as well as changing barrels each year

Taste variations can only come from additives such as sugar, etc.

It is double distilled and aged for a minimum of three years

It is distilled once and can be aged for as little as three months

Cognac vs. Bourbon: What is the Difference?

So, is there any difference between cognac and bourbon? Both of these strong drinks are beverages that are known with protected names and also hail from France, which is why they bear French names. The aging of both beverages is done in oak barrels, though the casks used in the aging of bourbon are usually charred to give it that smoky flavor that it is known for.

However, Cognac is made in a region with the same name in the southwest of France while Bourbon is well, bourbon as long as it is produced in the United States. Cognac is also a variety of brandy while on the contrary, bourbon is a variety of whiskey.

Cognac is made from a variety of special grapes, but bourbon is made from cereals such as corn, malt, rye, etc.

Still, on the subject of aging, Cognac has a rigid limitation of periods as well as the quality and name classifications that generate from them. For a whiskey to be transformed to a Bourbon, all it requires is to be aged for at least three months. Moreover, Bourbon can have colors as well as additives added to the beverage, but this is not permitted with Cognac.

holtben6

Ben has years of experience with wine, whiskey, and scotch. After becoming a wine sommelier, he decided to focus his attention on the dark southern gold we call whiskey. Now a seasoned vet in the whiskey game, he regularly provides Whiskey Watch with the latest whiskey info and his personal opinion on the best whiskeys in the world.
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