Glass of Cognac. If it's not from Cognac, France, it's simply brandy.

Glass of Cognac. If it's not from Cognac, France, it's simply brandy. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/igorr1

Cognac, the royalty of brandy, also can be very democratic. And it’s a spirited way to toast your valentine.

Not all Cognacs are named for kings or emperors. Not all are sold in exquisite, crystal decanters. A lot of Cognac is very good, even if it doesn’t come from the revered Grande Champagne vineyards near the city of Cognac.

The history of Cognac dates to the 16th century. In the years since, the great distillate has been refined and savored in numerous ways, from pristine in a tulip or balloon snifter, to an ingredient for a cocktail, in an old-fashioned glass. You can have it with ice cubes or some water. The versatile brandy can be savored before a meal, during one, or after. It may be in your dessert, too.

Cognac originated in southwest France, in the Charente wine region. If it’s not from Cognac, it’s simply brandy. To be deemed Cognac, the real thing must be made with white grape varieties that grow in the region, almost always ugni blanc, also know as trebbiano, with a bit of folle blanche or colombard permitted. The chalky soil and sunniness are essential.

The pressed grapes ferment for about a week. Cognac is distilled twice in copper-pot stills, and aged a minimum of two years in oak barrels. When the producers are done, the alcohol by volume is 40 percent. The art of blending is exactly that, as Cognacs from many ages and vineyards are combined to yield the flavor, scent and hue desired by the producer. The blends can be a century old.

Notable producers include Remy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier, Martell, Delamain, Hine, De Luze, Camus, Fussigny, Louis Royer and Frapin.

Labels carry designations such as VS (very special), VSOP (very superior old pale), and XO (extra old). They indicate how long the Cognac is aged, in these cases from two to six years. Napoleon is still older. Many Cognacs often are aged considerably longer. The flavors will range from fruity or floral to spices.

Among the cocktails to which Cognac contributes are the Stinger, paired with white crème de menthe; the Sidecar, where it marries with Cointreau and lemon juice; and the Sazerac, in which it may be used instead of rye.

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