Brandy and Cognac are two drinks that are often confused for one another, but there are some distinct differences between them.
Brandy is a broad term referring to a liquor made from fermented fruit juice that is distilled. Meanwhile, Cognac is a type of brandy made in Cognac, France. It is similar to how Champagne must only be made in the Champagne region with specific Champagne grapes.
In this post, we'll explore more of the similarities and differences between Cognac and brandy so you can decide which drink is right for you!
A Quick Glance
Place of Production
America, Spain, Germany, Peru, Greece, France, etc.
Grapes from the Cognac region
Grapes, Apples, Plums, Berries, Pears, etc.
More meticulous with strict guidelines
Depends on the place or producer
Caramel, Chocolate, Spices
Fruity, sweet, citrusy
At least 40% ABV
35% - 60% ABV
What is Cognac?
Cognac is a grape-based brandy that is strictly made with some specific grapes and needs to meet various and precise requirements or rules.
Examples of such regulations are that cognacs need to come from a particular region in Southwest France called Cognac and must be made with a fruit juice base of white grapes like Ugni Blanc grapes.
Furthermore, it is made from distilling wine twice to create eau-de-vie, aging it in French oak casks for a minimum of two years and then blending it with different Eaux-de-vie to create a specific flavor.
Just because it's made out of wine doesn't mean its taste will be enhanced the longer it ages in its bottle since it has no significant changes with time. But don't worry, as long as you know how to store cognac properly, it'll retain its flavors and characteristics.
For many connoisseurs, what makes a good Cognac is "rancio." Originated in Portugal, this word means rich and earthy with an underlying umami quality that improves over time as Cognacs are aged in oak casks.
What is Brandy?
Brandy is an umbrella term for many different types of alcohol. In the technical sense, brandy is a spirit that can be produced using fermented fruit juice that undergoes a distilling process.
Usually, grapes juice is used; however, some brandies use other sweet fruits such as apples in apple brandy. Brandy is also known as the cousin of wine since they're closely related. Aside from being made from grapes, they're also typically around 90-100 proof and have an intense flavor with sweetness to them.
Brandy is an excellent digestif too, and it is often enjoyed as a dinner drink or an after-meal drink because it helps with digestion.
The variety of brandy is broad, but some types stand out as being more popular than others, like Cognac and Armagnac. Other varieties include South American Pisco, Applejack, Calvados, Pomace, Grappa, Kirschwasser, etc.
The making of modern brandy is a complex and sophisticated process that varies depending on where it's made. But in general, it is produced from fermented fruit, which then turns into wine.
The wine goes through distillation to concentrate the alcohol content and unique flavors. The number of times the wine should be distilled depends on the type of brandy produced.
For example, Cognac is traditionally distilled twice, while Armagnac is distilled only once. After distillation, brandy enters into a process that ages it in oak barrels. This allows for different flavors and volumes to develop as well.
Brandy Vs. Cognac: The Showdown
Where It's Made - Winner: Cognac
Since brandy is a general liquor, it doesn't have many restrictions in terms of where it can be produced. In other terms, it can be made anywhere. Some of the longest-producing countries of this distilled spirit include France, Peru, Spain, Hungary, and Germany.
Different locations also make various kinds of brandy. For example, there is a significant production of brandy in some areas in Spain and Portugal where port and sherry are also made. On the other hand, Greece offers a brandy made with muscat wine and botanicals.
Prominent American brandies, mostly from California, tend to be more experimental and can be made from apples, plums, or pear. In France, other regions, like Alsace, offer fraise, which is a brandy made from strawberries.
As mentioned, Cognac has some restrictions as to its place of production. This drink is one of those alcohols named or called after the place it is made in. Specifically, it can only be produced in the Cognac region, particularly in France's Charente and Charente-Maritime départements.
There are specific areas like Grande Champagne within the Cognac region where cognac production occurs. The designated area can also indicate the level of quality a particular bottle of cognac has.
While cognac has some strict guidelines, one can see that they are worth it. The Cognac region is known to have an extraordinary terroir with great climatic conditions, making it a fantastic place to grow grapes and age cognac.
For instance, this region is particularly rich in pure chalky soil. This makes the area unique and ideal for vineyards to thrive and ultimately results in Cognac with finesse and the highest quality.
On the other hand, brandy varies depending on the country and its production rules, so there is less assurance whether a bottle is of high quality or not. Some may even source ingredients from other places, making the final product a mix of different components. So, for this round, Cognac has the lead.
Ingredients - Winner: Brandy
Generally speaking, any liquid that contains sugar can be distilled and made into brandy. However, brandies from France are specifically made from white grapes varieties, especially Colombard or Folle Blanche.
Various fruits are being made into brandy today, as long it's able to go through the fermentation and distillation process. Some common produce made into brandy are sugar cane, grapes, apples, blackberries, raspberries, plums, pears, etc.
Following its mandatory requirements, Cognac needs to be made with white grapes that contain high acidity and low sugar, such as Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche. However, some varieties can also be used, such as Montils, Sémillon, and Folignan.
The said grape varieties should only be sourced from the six crus in the Cognac region: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.
For this round, we're looking at the versatility in terms of ingredients. Since brandy can be made with various fruits, there are way more possibilities. So, it has a higher ground compared to Cognac's exclusive grapes.
Process - Winner: Cognac
Making brandy depends on various factors such as place, rules, and brand. But the general process is that the extracts or juice of the chosen ingredient is fermented, distilled, blended, and aged. Ingredients used, blending, several distilling times, and other processes vary.
In the case of fine brandies, producers only use ingredients of the highest quality. The fruit juices are fermented in small batches only, and they are to be distilled in pot stills which takes some time. Then, they are ready to undergo aging in oak casks. The youngest brandy is aged for a minimum of two years.
Some brandies reach up to 50 years of aging before bottling. Usually, fine brandies are blended with other vintages. On the other hand, mass-produced brandies are simply made with common grapes or fruit. They are distilled in column stills and follow the fractional distillation process.
Meanwhile, the procedures for making Cognac are harder and more intricate. After the white grapes are harvested, they're off to be fermented. Since the Ugni Blanc grape variety is the most planted in the Cognac region, it's considered the flagship grape of Cognac.
The fermentation process could take months, and after it, distillation occurs. Some producers even have a designated timeframe of distillation season, like from October 1 to March 31. Others can take less time to distill their wines.
After the distillation process, the wine can already be called eau de vie. The eau de vie is then sent to age in French oak barrels, specifically Limousin or Tronçais. The last step is to marry the eau de vie with other Eau-de-vies, which results in Cognac.
Cognac takes home the crown for this one as its production process boasts intricacy and uniqueness. No wonder the iconic Cognacs are oozing with luxury as they're made with much dedication, patience, hard work, and perseverance.
Flavor Profile - It's a Tie!
Brandy can be made from different fruits that contribute to its different tastes. Moreover, its production location and age can also affect how it tastes. But in general, brandies are a fruit-forward drink with a subtle sweetness.
And since they spend their aging process in wooden casks, you can sense hints of oak in their flavor profile. Plus, the mellowness and complexity characteristics of brandies are emphasized the longer it spends time in the casks. Brandies are officially called "mature" if they have been aged for more than two years.
The Cognac tasting experience is full of rich flavors and complex aromas. Experts have noted that you can expect almost any classic or premium brand, no matter the age, to contain the following: vine flowers, fresh fruits, sweet spices like cinnamon and vanilla, candied fruits, and dried fruits like apricots or peaches.
Furthermore, the longer a Cognac ages, the more flavors it develops. The taste profile of an aged Cognac will be added with leather, chocolate, exotic spices, toffee, and even Sherry or Port wine. These additions give rise not only to exotic but also delicious complexity.
Since both Cognac and brandy feature different characteristics and flavors, both deserve the win for this round. It all boils down to drinkers' preference.
Alcohol Content - It's a Tie!
Brandy is a popular spirit worldwide, with an average alcohol content of 35% to 60%. However, some brands can get higher or lower than the average. It all depends on a distillery's style and the ingredients they use.
Meanwhile, Cognac must have a minimum ABV of 40%. But it's not uncommon for master blenders to alter the ABV. Cognacs can be served at a higher proof, but their ABV can also be reduced using distilled water. Some master blenders filter them or even sweeten them.
The range difference of ABV between brandy and cognac is not that extensive. The alcohol contents of the two are also prone to changes, so both of them take the win.
Types - It's a Tie!
The world of brandy is a vast and diverse one, but two that stand out as being very popular and well-known would have to be Cognac and Armagnac (produced exclusively in the Armagnac region). Both are from France and are eponymous products of their regions.
Aside from French brandy, there's quite an extensive list of types of brandy, including American Brandy, Grappa, Brandy de Jerez, Calvados, Pomace Brandy, Applejack brandy, and Pisco.
Cognac has four main types or classifications, which are the V.S. (Very Special), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), X.O. (Extra Old), and the newest classification is XXO (Extra Extra Old). There are more categories under these four types: Premium, Extra, and Napoleon.
Other types include Vintage, which is basically cognac made from a single blend or batch, much like a Champagne Cuvee. There's also Réserve Familiale, Très Vieille Réserve, Hors d’Âge, and Heritage.
We've established that brandy is a general term that branches to different kinds, including cognac. But, cognac also happens to have many types, despite being a type of brandy itself, making it a contender. Given that brandy and Cognac are basically interrelated, both win this round.
Price - Winner: Brandy
Some brandies may not be on the list of the most expensive liquors in the world, but it definitely is on the list of the most versatile. Its adaptability and versatility are why brandies remain one of the most popular and relevant drinks.
The cost of a cognac can be striking, but some would say it's worth every penny when you enjoy its smooth taste. The cost to produce cognac is high because it relies on a limited harvest of grapes, exclusively grown in the assigned crus, and a laborious production.
While the price of Cognacs are usually justified, most people would choose to be practical and pick the more affordable and accessible brandy. This also makes them more flexible with their budget.
Food Pairing Ability - It's a Tie!
The complexity of brandy is determined by the type and flavor profile. It can handle dishes that offer both aromatic flavors as well as rich ones due to its versatile nature in taste sensations.
Brandy is a great drink to have with, dessert. It has the advantage of not being too acidic or strong so it can pair well with decadent desserts like chocolate mousse and ice cream. It also works beautifully when paired up with something more robust like cheese which helps bring out its floral flavors even further!
Cognac's versatility is often overlooked, but it can pair with both salty and sweet flavors to create a more magical drinking experience. It can be an ideal drink to bring forward if you have fatty and savory dishes as it cuts through them smoothly.
You should try your favorite cognac with cheese pairings or charcuterie. Cognac and sweet treats are also a match made in heaven!
For this category, both liquors exhibit an incredible versatility in food pairings.
Use in Cocktails - It's a Tie!
Brandy can be sipped neat, but it also proves to be excellent in mixed drinks. The range of brandy is on full display in some classic cocktails. Whether you're looking for a drink that's bright and fruity or want something more soothing, there are tons to choose from!
The world of cocktails and Cognac is a vast and intriguing one. You can make any cocktail dry, sour, complex, warm, fruit, or sweet with Cognac. Here are some common Cognac concoctions: Sidecar, Vieux Carré, French Connection, and Jack-O-Lantern.
Just like any spirit, there are endless potentials and possibilities for both brandy and Cognac when it comes to cocktails.
All Cognacs belong in the brandy family, but the same can't be said the other way around. Based on the categories above, the wins of each are equal. But this doesn't mean that they are exactly the same. Yes, they are related to each other, but they also have a handful of differences; that's why people can have preferences.
Choose Brandy if:
- You like a variety of fruit to choose from
- You're looking for affordable options
- You enjoy fruity and sweet tastes
Choose Cognac if:
- You're willing to invest in a high-quality liquor
- You like more complex flavors
- You enjoy rich tastes
We hope this helped clear some things about the difference between Cognac and brandy. If you want more alcohol comparisons like this, check out Champagne vs. Beer, Ale vs. Lager, Red wine vs. White wine, Champagne vs. Prosecco, Stout vs. Porter, and Scotch vs. Whiskey vs. Bourbon.
What’s your favorite type of brandy or cognac? Let us know down below!