Everything about VS, VSOP, XO, Napoléon Cognac. Learn about the different quality rating and the blending

When you start discovering Cognac, one of the first things you notice is that each bottle has a different rating – and the most common of these are VS, VSOP and XO Cognac.  But what does this actually mean?  And what about blending – how does that work?

From VS to XO

Okay, so let’s start at the beginning, and discover exactly what these (sometimes confusing) terms actually mean:

VS Cognac: This stands for ‘Very Special’

or alternatively, ✯✯✯ (three stars) means exactly the same.  Cognacs of this quality are where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged at least two years in oak casks.

VSOP Cognac: Meaning ‘Very Special Old Pale’

or actually, officially according to the BNIC, Very Superior Old Pale.  However, in most quarters it’s referred to as Very Special Old Pale.  A VSOP Cognac is where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged for at least four years in barrels.  However, in general, the average age of Cognacs in a VSOP blend might well be much older than this.  But it’s the youngest brandy within that determines the actual quality of the Cognac.  So even if most of the Cognacs are much older, the addition of one brandy that’s younger than six years will mean that the blend will officially become a V.S.O.P.

The origins of the expression VSOP dates back to an order from the British Royal House in 1817.  They required what was then termed a ‘Cognac Pale.’  In other words, a Cognac that’s not sweetened or coloured by the addition of sugar and/or caramel.  At that time it was very common to take advantage of using such additives.  So, with this order from Britain was born the term VSOP.

Interestingly, when the Cognac culture first became popular, and before the terminology that we use today came to be, the drink was either referred to as simply, Cognac – or Cognac Eau de Vie.

XO Cognac: meaning ‘Extra Old’

In an XO Cognac,  the youngest of the brandies within is aged for a minimum of six years.  However, they might well be much older, with the average brandy in an XO Cognac being upwards of 20 years old.

And it’s important to note that this grading and aging is set to change as from April 10th, 2016, when the minimum age for any brandy within XO Cognacs will change to 10 years.

The expression, XO, was used for the first time in 1870.

Okay, so the above are the basic gradings of Cognac.  But there are other expressions used, so let’s take a look at what these are.

Other Cognac ratings

– Cognac Napoleon  Officially a Cognac that’s described as a Napoleon is equal to XO in terms of minimum age.  However, these are normally marketed as an in-between of a VSOP and XO Cognac.

Extra  This is a Cognac that’s at least 6 years aged in barrels.  This rating is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.

– Vieux  A Cognac marked as such represents a grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.

Vieille Réserve  This is more or less like an Hors d’Age; a grade beyond XO (see below).

Hors d’âge  Officially, the BNIC states this as being equal to an XO.  However, in reality it’s actually used to communicate a very high quality product; one that’s beyond the official age scale.  The literal translation of Hors d’age is ‘beyond age.’

These specifications are all overseen by the French agricultural ministry.

Because of the close relations between Cognac and the United Kingdom, lots of the words and expressions used have British origins.  However, although the above explains the official designation of the various terminology, this doesn’t necessarily make them easy to understand.

Blending in the cellar

The reason for this difficulty in understanding is that, for example, there are producers that offer relatively old VS Cognac, whilst there are others who’re more interested in having the cheapest VS.  So, for instance, there are VS Cognacs that could well be marketed as an XO – after all, being aged for six years is not long for a Cognac.  Add to this the fact that some Cognac houses don’t use the expressions of VS, VSOP and XO at all, choosing instead to use Napoléon or Hors d’Age, and you can begin to see why understanding the age of a Cognac can become pretty complicated.

in general, and to make it as simple as possible to understand, a VS is anywhere between 2-5 years of age, a VSOP between 5-10 years, a Napoléon is somewhere between a VSOP and an XO (so around 8-20 years), and an XO can be everything… (but older than the others, naturally).

The blending of different cognac ages

Blending different ages of Cognacs is what determines the grade and quality of the finished bottle of Cognac.  And it doesn’t matter in what proportions these Cognacs are blended, it’s the youngest one in the blend that determines the grade.

So, for example, you might find that large producers blend some drops of a very, very old and rounded Cognac with a small amount of middle aged Cognac, and then fill the bottle with a relatively young Cognac.  They can then market the bottle as an XO (of course, the youngest Cognac must still be older than the required 6 years to be specified an XO).  And naturally, the larger houses have an advantage when it comes to their choices of eaux-de-vie, simply due to their contracts with various winegrowers and extensive stocks within their cellars.

Blending Cognac in such a maner provide the producer with various advantages:

1. Money:  Using young Cognacs makes the production less cost driven
2. With a wide age range of different eaux-de-vie, the master blender can reproduce the required flavour profile again and again.

Of course, doing this will provide a quality of a Cognac that is mass-produced.  in some cases, the flavour  profile can be slightly flat, and the finish might be short, spicy or even unpleasant – worst case scenario being like cheap brandy.

But the single vineyard Cognacs (also known as single estate Cognacs) have a completely different approach.  For instance, a  master blender creating such a product might use  23 to 27 year old Cognacs for blending an XO.   And you really can tell the difference.

Using this method, reproducing the flavour profile again and again is difficult, and requires great skill.  But the resulting Cognac is worth it, with a rich, complex aroma and usually having a long, wonderfully pleasant finish.

Because of this, it makes it more or less impossible for a mass producer to create a truly great Cognac – simply for the fact that it would be too expensive, and that the quantities are limited so unsuitable for mass production.

Comments (29)

  1. lee wood December 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    i have a 1812 jules raucine, napoleon grande old cognac brandy and want to find out what its worth

  2. Jesper Veiby January 30, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    In several (older) (and danish) books or encyclopiae on the topic of cognac the following ratings are consistently mentioned:
    * (1 star) = 3 years
    ** = 4 years
    *** = 5 years
    VS = 10 years
    VSO = 15 years
    VSOP = 20 years
    This is somewhat different from what is mentioned above. Even if the years of maturing might refer to say an average in stead of a minimum.
    Can you explain this? Has the ratings changed? Are these older ratings not used anymore?

  3. Bob Dickson May 1, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    In 1964-67 I was given a bottle of Remi Martin VSOP age unknown – 1st served to the Queen and Philip in 1947 (I think this was written on the tag – tag lost) – What would the value of this be now?

  4. greta September 13, 2011 at 5:29 am

    i e mailed your company on the 29th of August, 2011 regarding a bottle of otard55 cognac.
    i included photos with my e mail and was wondering on a value.
    as to date (13th September, 2011) I have not received a response.
    If you could e mail me back regarding this matter (in case my e mail did not get to you ) i would appreciate it.

  5. E Patten October 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    what is the signafince of a united nations symbol on a bottle of otard xo cognac packaged in a wooden box with the UN symbol on the box as well?

  6. Cognac Expert October 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    @3: a United Nations symbol on a Baron Otard XO cognac?
    well.. that’s something we would like to see:

    can you please use the SUBMIT BOTTLE function at


  7. E patten October 31, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    photo sent awaiting your comment thank you

  8. E Patten November 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    in responce to #6 i sent a picture with U.N. symbol on the bottle.What if any is the signafince?

  9. Joe December 24, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I hace a bottle of Courvoisie Grande Fine Champagne ExtraVielle. Bought in 1971.Dark frosted bottle with E stamped in the bottom along with SG in a square box. Can you give me any info..ie when Mfg and value.

  10. peter yeung February 27, 2012 at 5:51 am

    My father bought a bottle of Nepolean V.S.O.P Cognac Courvoisier in Dark Green
    Bottle with US at the bottom of the bottle in original green box about 45 years
    ago in Hong Kong. Can you give me any information how to sell it and how
    much will it cost.

  11. Jock June 1, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    I am trying to find the value of a bottle of Otard VSOP Cognac (old style bottle,slim neck) Original red box.70 cl. Can anyone help PLEASE

  12. Robin July 15, 2012 at 1:49 am

    I am trying to figure out what year my bottle of courvoisier v.s. cognac is. It says le cognac de napoleon 750ml. It is a green bottle with a burgundy collar. It came in a set with two glasses, I could not located a date on the bottle or on the box. . . . any ideas?!

  13. M. Glazebrook October 7, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I was given a whimsical decanter of Cognac some years ago. The label indicates Napoleon Grande Champagne from Elie-Arnaud Denoix. The bottle is in the shape of a Dauchshund. I have had it for about 7 years. Have not been able to find any info on it. From the information above would you be able to tell me how old it might be and its value!

  14. eugene flynn October 15, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I have a years 30 old cognac napoleon brand sealed bottle.84 proof,4/5 quart,produce of france,richard freres-cognac-france,imported by cartier & co beverly hills,calif..cream label with green frame.had over 55 years.what is this worth,thanks.

  15. chris March 4, 2013 at 1:27 am

    Have a bottle of Remy Martin Napoleon champagne cognac green bottle in a Red box no date. How much is this worth?

  16. Abduselam May 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

    I have VSOP Fine champagne which have at the bottom A .SG E COURVOISIER L1019013,if want this old bottle,please email to me.

  17. Michael June 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    A bottle VSOP who is 20+ years old will allways be a VOSP bottle. The ageing is made in Barrel. This will never be a XO Cognac like the old flash in refrigereitor will never be procioto, Or the congelait chease vill never be parmezan !

  18. Forskjellen på VS, VSOP og XO Cognac November 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    […] Det finnes flere ulike betegnelser på cognac, men VS, VSOP og XO er de mest vanlige. I tillegg til disse finner du betegnelser som Cognac Napoleon og Hors d’âge. Du kan lese mer om disse og hvordan de ulike betegnelsene skiller seg i fra hverandre hos Cognac-Expert.com […]

  19. Ole Cigar January 16, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    To most of you asking about the value of your old cognacs: There is no development of the cognac on the bottle like in winebottles. What you have is a cognac of a quality I would never drink. Keep the bottle as a memory of something and put the cognac in the coffee.

    “And naturally, the larger houses have an advantage when it comes to their choices of eaux-de-vie, simply due to their contracts with various winegrowers and extensive stocks within their cellars.”

    I do not consider this to be an advantage!
    Just use the Hennesy XO as an example. They tell us “it is a unique blend of 64 eau-de-vie’s”.
    I want the best samples of the 64 eau-de-vie’s. Not number 62, 63 or 64!
    This is another bullshit story by Hennesy. The truth is Hennesy must use all of these contracted cognacs -the ones of lower quality as well. What better story to tell us than it is “a unique blend of 64 eau-de-vie’s”?
    Then add an amount of sugar to camouflage the distallates of lower quality and the marketing department is ready to roll…

    Stay with the small and honest producers like Ragnaud-Sabourin, Jean Fillioux, Leopold Gourmel and Normandin-Mercier. You get better cognac than Remy Martin Louis XIII at one tenth of the price.

  20. Rich January 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I understand that Kenyan Cognac is as good as any French Cognac. Has anyone tasted Cognac from Kenya pls? I have been offered a bottle in Nairobi.

  21. Cyril July 1, 2014 at 4:14 am

    I own a bottle of 1812 Napoleo Fine Old
    Grand Fine Champagne Cognac
    Jules RacinEet CIE
    Net contents 26 Fi
    Do you know the value and history?

  22. Doug September 19, 2014 at 12:49 am

    I have a bottle labeled “Cognac Napoleon Grande Reserve”, No date but the bottom of the bottle has a number 168. Can you help me with identifying it?


  23. Mario Amato December 10, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Hi, about 1 month ago, on a special occasion, an age unknown bottle of COURVOISIER FINE CHAMPAIGNE COGNAC (with a map denoting the geographic area) and the ever present Le Cognac de Napoleon. When I tried to open the bottle the plastic top broke off. We were quite disappointed as the bottle had been saved for a special occasion. We managed to open the bottle anf filtered the fallen cap residue. Imagine our disappointment when the taste of the liquor was quite foul and undrinkable. I advised my collegues, as a regular Courvoisier user that I would reach the company and expressed confidence that the company would make it right. I was wrong, after sendind the details and pictures of the bottle, I was asked to look for a number on the bottle as it did not have the normal lines for scanning. Their response…. the bottle, according to the numbers given, was over 3 years old and as a result, was passed the quality guarantee by the company – later on I was advised by a manager tyhey could not take reponsability for improper storage. I am a Cognac lover, not an expert. I have never heard of any of that info. I requested the company do the right thing as a public relation gesture. The request was denied and my request to speak to a superior (all in email) has so far been ignored. I very much want to persue this further. Any suggestions? I am considering the French Minister of Agriculture. I find it difficult to accept that the proud french people would go out of thir way to cheat a customer. Your thoughts would be appreciated. Merci Beaucoup! Mario

  24. Max (Cognac-Expert.com) December 11, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Hey Mario thanks for your detailed message.

    It’s interesting that the liquor seemed to be foul. Was the cork perhaps entirely broken? Where was the level in the bottle neck? Upper, lower..?

    Also, it would be good to know when this bottle was produced, is it a recent product or was the cognac bottled 10,20,30 years ago?


  25. KT December 11, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    thanks for your infomative webste. I have been trying to work out what to do with some old bottles left in my aunt’s house when she died. I am still confused though about a Napoleon Grand OX Reserve [not XO] that has a green and red paper seal with ‘Spirograph type patterns on and QR No424450 printed on. I don’t really drink so should I sel /,give [do any charities accept alcohol? /, throw or put it on the Cheistmas pud?
    Thanks for any info

  26. Paul December 18, 2014 at 6:13 am

    I’m curious. You solicit comments but never answer them.

  27. joan oosthuizen December 13, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    I have a bottle of Napoleon d’or marked as blended by M Bredon in South Africa and would like to know what the value of it is as i intend selling it along with a collection of whiskies as well

  28. Paddy Fields February 5, 2016 at 5:28 am

    I’ve got a bottle Marked XO Jizz. Should I drink it?

  29. Daniel October 26, 2016 at 11:07 am

    “There is no development of the cognac on the bottle like in winebottles”. So, what is happening than? Nothing? Does it loos a value, taste, aroma…?

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