As fall mercilessly lays its claim on the Inland Empire, many people move on to libations made for warming rather than refreshing. This often means various types of whisk(e)ies. Honestly, though, I have to say: Not that big of a fan of the Scotch or Irish or Bourbon or whatever. For me, the seasonal drink of fall is a cognac, and this is a quick 101 musing about it.
A wise man once said, "all cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are cognacs." In other words, a cognac is a brandy produced in the Cognac region of France. (For the sake of simplicity I will call non-Cognac produced brandies for "brandies," and Cognac produced brandies for "cognacs" from here on out.) There are those who will say that cognacs are vastly superior to brandies, and there are those who will claim the opposite. I say why not enjoy both? Those kind of arguments are best left to people with too much time on their hands, though my personal opinion is that in general a cognac usually has a richer flavor and goes down smoother than a brandy. Feel free to disagree.
The three most common grades of cognacs are based on how long the youngest grape has been stored in the cask:
VS: Very Special. A minimum of two years. OK for drinking, but probably better in mixed drinks.
VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale. A minimum of four years. Very good for drinking. A bottle typically runs between $35-$45 here in Washington. I like the Courvoisier.
XO: Extra old. A minimum of six years, though usually quite a bit more. Expect to pay no less than $100 for a bottle. Yeah, it's an investment not made lightly, but if you go for it, I recommend the sweet, smooth flavor of Hardy XO. It has been described as "feminine," and I am OK with that.
There are a few other categories, though for the most part, they can be sub-categorized in the three aforementioned ones. Most cognacs have sugar and caramel added to them, though some are completely pure. These are called cognac brut, and honestly, sometimes being a purist is just asinine. (Brut is not the traditional way of producing cognac anyway, hence why the other type is known as "cognac traditional.")
Cognacs, like brandies, are more often than not served in either snifters or tulip glasses. If you don't have either, wine glasses are considered acceptable. Depending on the season, I usually prefer mine neat, though a couple of ice cubes works well in the summer to make it a bit more refreshing.
Fun fact: Norway is the highest consumer of cognac per capita. 20% of cognacs sold there is XO grade, whereas it's 10% in the rest of the world.