The Tippling Point: Where Cognac Is Worth Its Price

Photograph by Franck Bichon Close

Photograph by Franck Bichon

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Photograph by Franck Bichon

Even in the notoriously expensive cognac market, a bottle from 1788 that sold for $37,000 was ridiculous. And that $30 bottle you're considering? Well, most "sipping cognacs," those you'd serve outside of a cocktail, start at easily twice that much.

But if those are the two extremes, logic demands a middle point, where price and age converge and the cost of a cognac is commensurate with its taste.

"There's certainly a sweet spot," says Bloomberg's wine critic, Elin McCoy, "but it's a pretty big one."

Cognac is a type of brandy aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Each grade of cognac denotes a minimum amount of time it has been bottled. Starting from the bottom, there's V.S., then V.S.O.P., then X.O. and then Vieille Reserve, with a few subgroups in between.

Cognac is created by mixing vintages, so even though the X.O. has been aged a minimum of six years, it is generally made up of a combination of ages, some of them 20 years and up. Think of it as a contest in which companies try to outdo each other by surpassing the minimum guarantee. "The best producers are always overperforming," says McCoy.

So, bang for your buck comes from two things: the cognac's age and the quality of the producer.

"Age confers complexity," McCoy says. "The older a bottle is, the more sumptuous the flavor. With the youngest cognacs, you don't get any of that."

If you're looking for that perfect alignment of taste and price, then, kiss V.S. and V.S.O.P. goodbye. And gird yourself.

"You can buy a $100 to $125 bottle of X.O. cognac that's lovely," McCoy says. She recommends the Delamain Pale & Dry X. O., which is "light and floral, with lots of fruit," despite a name like a notation on a hospital chart. In the same range, she recommends Jean Fillioux X.O., at around $120. You can go higher.

But with either of those two, McCoy says, gazing into her crystal snifter, "you'll sit in front of a fire when there's snow outside and you'll like it and it will be worth the money."

Little less Zen surrounding that bottle from 1788. Ended up smashed on the floor and, having been opened, no longer insured. O.U.C.H.

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