The third of our posts in the French Waterways essential guide to French liqueurs series looks at perhaps the most famous tipples of all: brandy. Known for its warming and digestive properties, this amber tincture conjures up images of an after-dinner drink by the fire, although it’s also a common ingredient in cocktails and vital for a perfect flambé.

Cognac brandy with iceCognac – the king of French brandies

cognac brandy distillation


Cognac has been a household name for centuries and ranks as the world’s finest brandy. Its defining characteristic is found in its double-distillation, a process that gives the liqueur its distinctive taste and the edge over other types of brandy.

This unique French liqueur originates from the Cognac region to the north of Bordeaux. The liqueur’s distillation method was discovered by the Dutch in the 16th century when they were looking for a way of preserving wine for export. They discovered that by distilling wine into eau de vie and then repeating the process, the end result was a fine, rich liqueur.

The region centres around the two towns of Cognac and Jarnac, although the actual growing area stretches as far as La Rochelle in the north, the Atlantic islands of Ré and Oléron in the west, and the town of Angoulème in the east. The Charente river flows through the region, which is also crossed by the Canal de Garonne.

Almost 6,000 vineyards grow grapes for Cognac production in six sub-regions, known as crus:

  • Grande Champagne
  • Petite Champagne
  • Borderies
  • Fins Bois
  • Bons Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires

The term champagne in this context has everything to do with the limestone soil and nothing to do with the fizz produced in the Champagne region in northeast France.

Characteristics of cognac

To carry the brand cognac, the liqueur may only be produced in the designated crus. Although all cognac is produced mainly from just one grape – the Ugni Blanc – the brandy is renowned for its myriad of different flavours. These range from floral to fruit cake.

Characteristics of cognac from Grande Champagne include lightness and a floral bouquet. This cru produces the finest cognac that also takes the longest to mature. Cognac from the Petite Champagne is broadly similar, although not as subtle. Grapes grown in the Borderies also make fine cognac with a smooth, violet-scented taste.

Vineyards in the three Bois crus are planted on sandy soil near pine forests and in the case of the Bois Ordinaires, on the coast. Cognac from these regions matures relatively quickly and has a smooth, rounded taste. This comes with a touch of the sea if it’s produced in the Bois Ordinaires cru.

The double-distillation process involved in making cognac produces considerable evaporation. The equivalent of millions of bottles evaporates annually in the warehouses and is known as the ‘angels’ share’. This celestial feast also feeds a fungus that grows all over the warehouse walls and gives them their characteristic blackened look.

Types of cognac and how to drink it

All cognac must contain at least 40 per cent alcohol. The brandy comes in three categories:

VS – an acronym of ‘very special’. Cognacs in this category must be at least two years old. VS cognacs taste best with mixers (e.g. ginger ale or tonic water) and in cocktails.

VSOP – short for ‘very special old pale’. This type of cognac has been aged for a minimum of four years. VSOP Cognac combines well with mixers or you can drink it neat.

XO – meaning ‘extra old’. This top category for cognac may only include brandy aged for six or more years (ten years as from 2018). As the finest cognacs of all, XOs should be savoured on their own.

Where to try cognac

Numerous wineries produce cognac from world famous enterprises such as Remy Martin and Hennessy to smaller family concerns such as De Luze and Guy Pinard & Fils. You can visit some of the distilleries and taste their version of the world famous brandy en route to your boating vacation. Many have a special cellar known as paradis (paradise), home to the winery’s best vintage cognac – consider it a privilege if your visit includes a glimpse of this hallowed place.

Experience the world’s finest brandy for yourself while you gently cruise down the French rivers. Our luxury hotel barge holidays include onboard cognac tastings – because the distilleries are mostly too far from the water to make for an enjoyable excursion. Then there is the newly opened (late 2018) Hôtel Chais Monnet. Described by Sean Thomas of The Times as “one of the most exciting hotel openings in Europe this year” its super luxury 100 bedrooms have been created from a rather previously ruined cognac warehouse.

If you fancy exploring the Cognac region on your own, book one of our boating holidays.

Armagnac – the crown prince of French brandy

Armagnac brandy glass and box

The other quintessential brandy among French liqueurs is, of course, armagnac. Produced in the Gascony region, south of Bordeaux, this French brandy has an older history than cognac.

Armagnac dates back to the 14th century when wineries in the area first began to distill the local grapes into eau de vie.

The region is smaller than Cognac – some 15,000 hectares produce grapes to make armagnac. The size, coupled with slower development in the area, meant that brandy produced in Armagnac was less known than its bigger sister cognac. Today, both brandies enjoy a reputation for excellence and some connoisseurs believe that the best armagnacs sit on a par with the best cognacs.

Characteristics of armagnac

Armagnac is made from several grapes including the Ugni blanc (the principal ingredient in cognac), Baco 22A, Colombard and Folle blanche. Like cognac, the grapes grow on mainly sandy soils, but those in Armagnac produce richer and earthier flavours.

Three crus produce armagnac brandies. Those from Bas Armagnac boast the most delicate flavours and have a strong fruity note. The Ténarèze cru produces stronger brandy that also takes longer to reach maturity. And the third much smaller cru is the Haut Armagnac.

Although armagnac is distilled only once, the process takes considerably longer than in Cognac. This results in a stronger brandy with often a darker colour.

Types of armagnac and how to drink it

Armagnac comes in four categories, depending on how long it has been matured. All must contain at least 40 per cent alcohol.

VS – ‘very special’ armagnacs in this categories have spent at least two years in the barrel. These are best drunk with mixers such as tonic water or ginger ale, or as a cocktail base.

VSOP – the ‘very special old pale’ versions need a minimum of four years to mature before they are released. VSOP armagnacs combine well with mixer drinks, although you can also drink them neat.

XO – ‘extra old’ armagnac has a minimum age of six years. This brandy should only be enjoyed neat.

Hors d’Age – this extra mature brandy is bottled only after at least a decade in the barrel. The only way to truly appreciate the many textures of an Hors d’Age Armagnac is to enjoy it neat.

Where to try armagnac

You can try the very best French brandy liqueurs while you’re on a luxury hotel barge holiday. How better to savour one of the world’s best post-prandials than on the deck of a barge as you glide down one of the finest rivers in France?


Calvados brandy distillery

Calvados – truly fruity brandy

Not quite in the same class as cognac and armagnac but still considered a brandy in its own right is calvados. This is a unique spirit made mostly from apples plus a touch of pear. The acidity provided by the fruit creates a very different brandy experience.

Unlike the other French brandies calvados has a relatively short history. History books reference its use as an antiseptic during the Napoleonic wars, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that calvados production started in earnest. This makes finding vintage calvados difficult and wine connoisseurs generally consider any bottles dated before the 1960s as vintage.

Characteristics of calvados

Made in parts of Normandy and Brittany in northern France, calvados is produced from 200 types of cider apples and pears. The fruit is fermented and then distilled twice like cognac. Three crus produce the brandy:

  • Calvados Pays d’Auge – this brandy is the richest and smoothest of the three
  • Calvados – with a fresh taste and perhaps the fruitiest
  • Calvados Domfrontais – this brandy features a more floral note and may include up to 30 per cent pears

Types of calvados and how to drink it  

Calvados comes in four categories and contains around 40 per cent alcohol:

Trois Étoiles – three-star calvados. Also known as trois pommes (three apples), it is at least two years old. Drink as an aperitif with soda water on ice.

VO – ‘very special’ calvados has a minimum age of three years. Like the younger trois étoiles, this is best as a pre-prandial on ice.

VSOP – ‘very special old pale’ apple and pear brandies must mature for at least four years before bottling. These are best drunk neat and go well with the dessert or cheese course at dinner.

Hors d’Age – the finest calvados brandies are at least six years old. Drink these as you would an aged cognac or armagnac – neat and as an after-dinner digestive.

Dining on board one of our luxury hotel barge cruises give you the chance to experience the best of French liqueurs, both as aperitifs and digestives. Book your trip now.

Our step by step guide to French liqueurs: