Cognac first came about to meet a practical need.
In the 12th century, to prevent wine from spoiling during long journeys, English and Dutch merchants had the idea of distilling it once on arrival and once more before departure.
In the 17th century in Cognac, the practise of double distillation began to be used to produce concentrated alcohol that would not spoil, making it easier to transport and keep. This was called 'eau de vie'.
Originally, this concentrate was to be diluted on arrival at the port of destination, but it was soon realised that over time, the 'eau de vie' improved inside its oak barrels and could be enjoyed on its own.
The name given to this concentrate was Cognac.
The same double distillation method is still used today, as it allows for the concentration of the most delicate flavours and aromas of the wine.
The procedure for making Cognac begins as soon as the alcoholic fermentation of the grape juice has come to an end. At this point, the white wine is distilled twice in a red copper still.
The kind of still used for this process in Charente is an Arabic design that has not changed for three centuries (it was most probably introduced to France during the crusades). It stands out because of its distinctive shape, which consists of a boiler, swan necks, and a coil.
Of the two distillations, only the product of the second is kept. It is referred to as the 'bonne chauffe', and contains the soul of the 'eau de vie'.
The long maturing process of the future Cognac then begins in an oak barrel. This phase of the ageing process, the longest in the production of Cognac, is very important because it is during this time that the Cognac acquires its beautiful amber colour by dissolving the tannins from the wood.
Also, for the duration of this stage, the porous nature of the oak means the Cognac has contact with the air, which allows it to gradually lose some of its alcoholic strength and volume.
A good Cognac results from the combination of 'eau de vie' made using different wines of various ages. Up to a hundred various wines may be used, selected by the 'Maître de Chais' (head of the spirit house), who blends and combines them using knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation.
Cognac can be sold as soon as the youngest 'eau de vie' it contains reaches an age of at least two and a half years (counting from the 1st of October of the year the grape crop was harvested). However, the longer it remains in the barrel, the more it improves in terms of complexity, fragrance, aroma, and flavour.
The 'Very Special' designation, which may also be represented by 3 stars, is given to Cognac when the youngest 'eau de vie' it contains reaches an age of four and a half years.
In 'Very Superior Old Pale', 'Very Old', and 'Réserve' Cognacs, the youngest 'eau de vie' must be between four and a half and six and a half years old.
'Napoléon', 'Extra Old', and 'Hors d'Âge' Cognac cannot contain 'eau de vie' younger than six and a half years old.
However, to attain perfection, a great deal of patience is required, as you will be waiting 50 years...