Cognac, a well-known spirit has been produced since the 17th century in the French region that lends its name to this high-quality brandy.
At the time, the town of Cognac was linked to Dutch trade routes and they where the first to try exporting the wine from this region to other northern European countries. Unfortunately the wine would spoil during the journey and that's why they began distilling it. They called it "Brandewijn" or 'fire wine", and later it came to be known simply as brandy. It was the locals from Cognac however who discovered that a double distillation of the wine allowed it to travel without spoiling. By that time they also realized that the quality of the spirit improved when it came in contact with the oak cask in which they were kept. From that moment on this spirit came to be known as Cognac.
The French region of Charante has six demarcated areas where Cognac can be produced. But it is in Champagne where the best cognacs are made due to the quality of the soil. Excellent grapes also grow in the chalky land of the "Borderies" (another of the six areas where cognac is produced, the so called heart of cognac region), which makes an eau de vie with a fine, sweet flavour. In fact, the main reason for cognacs' success is the soil and microclimate.
Grapes are gathered in early October when they are perfectly ripe and sweet. Soon after the harvest the grapes are pressed and their pips removed or they could impart an undesirable acidity to the cognac and spoil the final result. The grapes are pressed in a traditional horizontal plate press or in a pneumatic press. The use of a continuous press, such as the Archimedes' screw press is forbidden by law. The fermentation starts soon after the grapes are pressed and after two or three weeks a sour white wine is obtained with about 8 to 10% alcohol. Sugar addition it's not allowed. The wine is now ready for distilation.
An Alembic Charentais (see Charentais Alembic Still) is needed for the distillation. This double distillation process has two stages and takes about 12 hours. The first distillation (first chauffe) takes about 10 hours and produces a liquid called "brouillis" with about 24 to 30% alcohol. In the second stage (second chauffe or bonne chauffe) heads and tails are removed, using precise cutting points and used in a new distillation. The bonne chauffe, the heart of the distillate, has about 68 to 72% and it's from this that cognac is produced. Cognac distillation must be done between the end of the harvest season and the 31 March of the following year.
The spirit is aged in limousin or troncais oak casks, where it is stored for at least two years to give the cognac its "bouquet". These oak casks are handcrafted and made using the old traditional methods. In order to obtain a higher quality product some cognac could be transferred to older oak casks where they acquire the colour and characteristics of the wood. These old cognacs are stored away in different cellars called "the Paradise", where this nectar of the goods rests for many decades in an airtight environment. During this aging period, cognac loses 3 to 4% of alcohol per year. This evaporation is known as "angel's share".