Stars and Letters

Nov 22, 2001

The Bottom Line Drop that bottle. On second thought, put it down gently. Read this before you buy.

Yes, you there in the back with your hand up.

Shell Answer Man, what's the difference between brandy and cognac?

Glad you asked. Cognac is brandy made in the area around the town of Cognac, in the Charente district of France. It is highly regarded as some of the best, if not THE best, of that type of alcoholic beverage. Everything else, no matter how good, is simply called brandy. (This is a similar situation to champagne, which must by definition be made in the Champagne region of France. Everything else in the same category is "sparkling wine.") [starts to walk away]

But, Shell Answer Man, what about the cognac I've heard about with the stars on the bottle? And what about all those letters? What do they mean?

Let me fill you in on the "rating system." This is the conventional wisdom about brandy and cognac. [lowers voice to a conspiratorial level] One star indicates that the contents have aged for three years, two stars indicate that the contents have aged for four years, and three stars indicate that the contents have aged for five years. Above that, the ratings are indicated by letters. First, there's "V.S." which indicates "very superior" or "very special." Above that is "V.S.O.P." which stands for "very superior (or very special) old pale." Above even that is "X.O." cognac, which stands for "extra (or extremely) old." The most prominent brandies and cognacs have "Napoleon" somewhere on the bottle.

Oh, thank you kindly, o wise one. [begins to write it all down]

Not so fast. Now that I've told you all that, forget it. It's a total crock.


The truth, as usual, is not very glamorous. Here's the real story. The stars mean nothing. You can paste as many stars on a brandy bottle as you want. Feel free to sucker your friends by sticking on your own gold stars from the drugstore to the nearest brandy bottle. Same thing with the word "Napoleon." Means nothing. The brandy makers would like you to believe that "Napoleon" on a bottle indicates their finest product. In fact, anyone can put "Napoleon" on any $1.98 swill.

So there's no way to judge the quality of a brandy or cognac? What about the letter system?

"V.S." brandies are not necessarily "very special." Same with the other letter designations. The letter system is only good for one thing: rating one company's brandies or cognacs against EACH OTHER. Generally, an "X.O." will be aged longer than the same company's "V.S.O.P.", which will be aged longer than the same company's "V.S." And generally the longer the aging, the smoother and more refined the result. But by no means can all "X.O." cognacs be compared side-by-side with each other, for instance. It would be like challenging someone to a race who was driving the most powerful model of Ferrari and thinking that the race was going to be fair because you were driving the most powerful model of Datsun. Remember that the letter designations are only applied INTERNALLY, by the maker, simply to distinguish (you hope) good, better, and best. They're not regulated by any government, they're just a marketing ploy.

So that bottle of "X.O." cognac I bought in the drugstore for twelve dollars wasn't a bargain after all?

Er, probably not. Pierre Ferrand, widely thought of as one of the best cognac makers, doesn't even use letter designations at all for its various types of cognacs. They simply give each type a name, like Abel, Selection des Anges, and Ambre. The oldest cognac made by Hine is simply called "Hine Antique."

I guess there's no point in asking about those neat-o crystal decanters that look so good on the shelf, is there?

Not really. It's what's inside that counts, after all--although some of the bottles DO look impressive. But again, Pierre Ferrand puts its cognac in plain, tall bottles that look as if they were made to hold Bordeaux. The finest Baccarat crystal in the world isn't going to make "Old Mother Manson's Homemade Napoleon X.O. Brandy" ($10 for a gallon) taste any better.

Gee, thanks, Answer Man. [walks away grumbling]

Hey, I didn't say it was going to be fun. I just said it was the truth.

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