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Cognac vs Whiskey: The Real Differences

whiskey in a crystal glass sitting on a rock in front of a fire.
Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

When it comes to the spirits you love to sip, the similarities and differences between them can be many. And, when you can’t quite sort them all out, things get a little fuzzy. Two very prominent spirits, Cognac and whiskey, have a lot in common. For starters, they both have tremendous histories in the canon of drinks culture and the rarest versions can fetch massive sums from collectors.

They’re prized and versatile, fun to drink on their own, or to mix up in a cocktail. Yet, the two have even more qualities that make them distinctive originals. So, without getting too technical, let’s break down the two major categories.

Base Ingredients and Production

Let’s start with the general makeup of the two spirits. Whiskey is made from grain, most often barley. Corn, rye, and other ingredients—and varying combinations thereof—can serve as the grain base as well. Think of whiskey as a cousin of beer: They both are the product of fermented grains. Cognac, on the other hand, uses wine as its base ingredient. So, in order to make Cognac, you must first grow, harvest, and ferment grapes into wine.

A glass of whiskey being pourn.

With whiskey, the production process starts with malting, which involves sprouting barley. Mashing comes next, which extracts the sugar. Then, the processes of fermentation and distillation, followed by aging. The end product is almost always aged in oak, where it can take on color, complexity, and intriguing flavors. Cognac begins at the winery, where one of three approved white grape varietals is fermented. It’s then distilled, aged, and often blended.

Regionality and Subcategories

One of the most unique traits belonging to Cognac is its stark regionality. Cognac refers to a region in France, in the Charente department set in the southwest of the country. Only here can the lauded brandy be made, in a specific manner that’s been practiced for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, whiskey can be made anywhere on earth, from Japan to Canada and beyond.

Within the sprawling universe of whiskey, there are many subcategories or types of whiskey that are made a certain way, often in a certain place. Rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, Japanese Whisky, and Scotch Whisky are a handful of the major sub-genres, although there are many more. Cognac; however, is a subcategory. It’s one of three major types of brandy, all set in Europe. It’s joined by Armagnac, also made in a specific enclave of France, and Lourinha of Portugal. You may encounter other wine-based spirits elsewhere in the world, such as the burgeoning scene in California, and these spirits will simply be called brandies (although, given some time, they may give the quality of Cognac a run for its money).

Flavor Variations

Ferrot XO Cognac FlaviarWhole websites could be devoted to the flavor variations between Cognac and whiskey but we’ll keep things 101. Think back to how Cognac is more like wine and whiskey is more like beer. It’s a fair comparison not only in terms of how they’re made, but how the two taste. Cognac can offer a lot in the way of fruitiness. Sure, there are added components from barrel aging, but you’ll almost always detect some stone fruit (think plum), floral qualities, and some citrus and spice. Because it’s essentially a concentrated version of wine, there are tannins at play, too, which can offer structure and a subtle, grippy sensation on the palate.

Whiskey can share some of these tastings notes, especially the lighter bourbons and ryes of the world. Citrus and spice elements are especially common, but largely, whiskey shows less fruit and more in the way of toffee, malt, and vanilla. Given the grain base, you’re like to get some cereal-like flavors, along with hints of herbs, honey, or nuts. Because there are so many kinds of whiskey, the flavor spectrum is much broader. For example, you’re unlikely to encounter much smokiness in a Cognac. But with a whisky like Scotch, it’s practically guaranteed, given the ingredients and production techniques.

In the glass, they can look similar, but whiskey will often be a bit more amber or brown in color while Cognac can take on more reddish or yellowish tones.

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