One thing that surprises many people, is that the raw component of Cognac, the distilled eau-de-vie, is actually a clear, a colorless liquid. So if that’s the case, how come Cognac is brown?
Well, let’s be a little more accurate when it comes to describing the color of Cognac, because in all reality it ranges from a deep mahogany brown through to a yellow straw color. And there are many different reasons as to why this is. One commonly held belief of many is that the older the Cognac, the darker the color. And whilst this holds some semblance of truth, it certainly isn’t the whole story.
So let’s set about debunking the mystery of the color of Cognac, and why Cognac is brown, once and for all.
A clear, pure Spirit
As you probably know, there are strict regulations in place for a drink to carry the name of Cognac. One of these is that it’s double distilled. This is when the wine pressed from the grapes grown in the region is then heated in copper pot stills to create the product we call, eau-de-vie. And after this stage of the Cognac making process, the liquid is as crystal clear as freshly melted ice.
The next stage that the liquid undergoes is aging, and this takes place in oak barrels over many years.
The Miracle of French Oak
One of the other ‘rules’ for making Cognac is the type of oak used to make these aging barrels. This can be one of only two types, Limousin or Tronçais. Limousin oak comes from the forests of the same named region in southwest France. And similarly Tronçais oak comes from the forests in Tronçais, near Burgundy.
There’s one major difference between these two types of oak. And that’s that Limousin oak has much wider grains compared to its Tronçais cousin. This allows the liquid within to penetrate further, and consequently the aging process happens more quickly. Of course, the word ‘quickly’ has to be taken in context, because when it comes to Cognac, nothing happens fast. Another important point to note is that when a barrel is first made, it undergoes a process known as, toasting, or ‘bousingage’, a procedure that literally chars the wood. This can be carried out to a greater or lesser extent, and is done to remove any harmful tannins in the wood.
Oak = Color
Now, as we all know, wood is brown. So when the colorless eau-de-vie is placed within a barrel, slow chemical changes begin to take place. This is all part of the aging process. And one such change is that the liquid gradually begins to take on a darker hue. In general, the longer the eau-de-vie remains in the barrel, the darker it will become.
That’s all quite easy to follow so far, isn’t it? But now we’re going to muddy the waters somewhat, because there are most definitely some exceptions. And this is where the reasoning behind why Cognac is brown begins to get a little complicated. But bear with us, and all will become clear.
You remember that the oak barrels are toasted? Well, the heavier and more charred this toasting process is, the more color it will impart on the liquid contained within. So, you might think, aging eau-de-vie in more heavily toasted barrels would be desirable? This is not necessarily so, because such barrels cause the eau-de-vie to become more bitter in flavor, and this can take a long time to disappear. In general, the newer an oak barrel, the more color and taste its wood will give to the liquid it contains.
Because of this, many cellar masters age eau-de-vie in newer barrels for a short period of time–around 18 months or so–and then transfer to older barrels for the majority of the aging process.
And this brings us neatly onto…
The age of the barrels
Cognac barrels are split into three categories. Those aged between one and four years in age are called, ‘Meuresmeur’. The name for barrels aged between four to ten years is, ‘Barriques Rouges’, (red barrels), and those over this age are called ‘Vielles’.
Another aspect that influences the color of the Cognac is the size of the barrel. The smaller the barrel, the larger the surface area of the eau-de-vie that will come into contact with the wood. And therefore, the liquid will become darker.
Other Color Influences
There are two other main ways in which the Cellar Master can further influence the color of a Cognac. The first is by adding ‘Boise’, although it has to be stressed that color change is not the primary reason for this additive to be used. This is a traditional process whereby wood chips are boiled in water multiple times, until it becomes a dark, syrup-like liquid. This can then be added to a Cognac mainly to correct tannin levels. However, a secondary aspect could be that it darkens the color of the liquid, making it more brown, rather than yellow or golden. In addition, this method can result in the Cognac having a slightly bitter flavor, although this does disappear over time. Clever use of this process can lead to a more developed intensity and richness in the taste of the Cognac. But it’s a highly skilled process, and one that has to be undertaken with care.
And secondly, there’s the addition of artificial coloring agents. The main one used by some houses is that of caramel E150. Now, E numbers never mean anything good, right? If you put the quandary of the adding caramel as coloring to any craft producer, you’ll be likely to get the very same response: Not in any of my Cognacs!
Discover more about the use of caramel in (some, not all) Cognac, in our article, Color of Cognac: When darker doesn’t always mean older.
To sum up, you can learn a lot from the color of a Cognac. But the widely held belief that the darker the shade, the older the Cognac, isn’t necessarily so. It’s all down to the skill of the Cellar Master during the aging and blending process as to the eventual color of the Cognac that reaches the bottle, and ultimately, your glass.
Cognac is brown because of the chemical changes that happen during the aging process in oak barrels. However, the depth of this brown color is dependent on the type of oak, the toasting process, the age of the barrel, the size of the barrel, and the length of time spent in the barrel. Cognac color can also be deepened by processes such as the addition of Boise, or caramel.
So the next time someone tells you that the reason why their Cognac is a deep brown color is down to how old it is, you can now enter into an educated discussion as to why that might not be the case. Or you can just enjoy the Cognac. Which, in our humble opinion, is probably the best solution all round.