Grapes from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard grapes are pressed, and the juices are fermented with natural yeasts to make a dry white wine with about 8-10% alcohol content. No additional sugar may be added to the fermentation mixture. The wine is first distilled in copper pot stills to make what is called brouillis. The brouillis is then distilled a second time to make eau de vie with an alcohol content of about 68-72%. The eau de vie is transferred to French oak barrels, where it is left to age for at least two years or until the desired flavor profile is achieved. Each manufacturer will then create a custom blend of a variety of different eaux de vie to achieve their specific final cognac. Dilution may occur to achieve bottling proof.
Unlike when making bourbon, for example, barrels can be reused as long as they have only been used to age a wine-based product.
Cognac has a rich flavor profile that depends on a variety of factors. These include the type and blend of grapes used, the char of the barrels, the humidity of the cellar, the climate and soil where the grapes were grown, and the specific blend used to make the final cognac.
Cognacs are labeled by age according to youngest eau de vie used in the blend. The following terms are used:
- V.S. or Three Stars: minimum age of 2-4 years
- V.S.O.P. or Reserve: minimum age of 4-6 years
- Napoléon: minimum age of 6-10 years
- X.O. or Extra Old: minimum age of 10 years
- Hors d'age: minimum age of 30 years
Cognac can be drunk straight or incorporated into a variety of cocktails. Notable cocktails using cognac include the Sidecar, Between the Sheets, French 75, Sazerac, and Vieux Carré. Older cognacs are typically served neat.
Cognac may also be used in cooking and baking to add flavor.