As many varieties of cognac and brandy look and taste quite similar, it is not surprising that many people do not know the difference between the two. The short answer is that cognac is actually a type of brandy that is produced within a particular region of France. Yet there are more precise differences between cognac and brandy. Manufacture of cognac is governed by laws set by the French government, meaning that all cognacs are made from specified varieties of grapes and follow a prescribed production process. Brandy production, on the other hand, is not regulated by such strict laws, and therefore the ingredients, production process, and resulting quality of brandies can vary widely.
Many historians believe that brandy was created out of the need to conserve space when shipping wine overseas in the 16th century. Enterprising merchants concluded that distilling wine, or heating it until some of its water content evaporated, would reduce the amount of space it occupied, thus lowering shipping costs. These merchants originally planned to dilute this concentrated wine with water once it had reached its destination. After tasting the concentrated wine, however, the merchants found that the distillation and aging processes had transformed it into a unique beverage which could be enjoyed without the addition of water. Thus, brandy was born.
The difference between cognac and brandy begins with the fact that by French law, the name cognac can be given only to those brandies produced in the Cognac region of western France. This geographical requirement is largely due to the fact that the chalky soil in this region imbues the resulting brandy with a unique flavor. Further, cognac must be made primarily from three varieties of grapes: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanc.
During cognac fermentation, or the process in which grape juices become wine, no fermentation agents can be added to the juice. The cognac must also be distilled in a specific type of copper still, called an alembic. After distillation, the cognac must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, although some cognacs can be aged for 40 years or more.
While cognac and brandy are both technically brandy, the process for manufacturing non-cognac brandy is not regulated by the strict laws that govern cognac production. The word brandy implies a spirit consisting of distilled wine. Beyond this basic definition, however, the ingredients, production process, and quality of brandies can vary widely.
Most brandies are made from grapes, but some are made from the fermented, distilled juices of other fruits, such as peaches or blackberries. Further, many countries do not legally require brandy to be aged, although in some nations, such as the US, a product which has not been aged must bear the word “immature” on its label. Despite the lack of an aging requirement, however, many brandies are aged in wooden barrels for several months or more. In some cases, manufacturers add a coloring agent to brandy which has not been aged to give it the rich golden tone of a product which has been barrel-aged for a significant amount of time.