A beginner's guide to cognac: think of it as brandy, but better

Cognac is having a moment with even Jay-Z getting in on the game, so now's the time to learn how best to enjoy it

02 June 2019 - 00:00
Did you know June 4 is World Cognac Day?
Did you know June 4 is World Cognac Day?
Image: 123RF/shalith

South Africans generally have a good grip on wine and whisky and can tell you exactly what varietals to use at gin o'clock, but what goes with a nice cognac and which are the good ones?

With the XO version of Jay-Z's premium cognac brand D'usse set to hit our shores, now is probably a good time to brush up on your cognac knowledge with this beginner's guide to cognac.


Cognac is essentially brandy that went to private school. Similar to the whole MCC and champagne situation, one can only call it cognac if it comes from specific parts of France. If one wanted to be fancy but still seem down to earth, one could sip a South African favourite, cognac and Coke.


If you've ever looked on the label of a cognac bottle you will have noticed a whole bunch of letters, like VSOP, XO, etcetera. They are not secret Masonic codes; rather, they refer to the age of the cognac.

For example "VS" means Very Special, denoting that the cognac has been aged for a minimum of two years. This is generally at the entry level. Its fancier brothers "VSOP" and "XO" (Very Superior Old Pale and Extra Old) have spent a minimum of four years ageing - though some cognacs have been known to hit 100 years old.


VSOP and VS cognacs are fine for mixing but unless you want the liquor gods to punish you with an eternity of Autumn Harvest, do not mix the good stuff.

A quick and easy alternative to drinking a neat cognac cocktail is to try it with ginger ale or some good tonic water.


It turns out room temperature is cognac's ideal living situation. The cold can suppress some of the flavour and aroma and no-one wants to drink hot liquor, so room temperature is the winner here. If it's your vibe, a couple of ice cubes are acceptable. Pop it into a wide-hipped glass for the best effect but a short tumbler will also get the job done, too.