Difference between Whiskey and Cognac

Key Difference: Whiskey or whisky is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from any form of fermented grain mash. Depending on the geographical region or type of whiskey that is being made, whiskey can be made from barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. Cognac is actually a type of brandy that has been distilled in the town of Cognac in France. It is more similar to brandy as both are made from grapes.

There are number of different drinks that are available in the market. They vary depending on the taste, aroma, flavor, the place where they were produced, etc. The sheer number of drinks that are available often confuses people that are new to this world. The different names, brands, ingredients can often be overwhelming. Whiskey and Cognac are two drinks are often confused as the other. However, they are not even made using the same ingredient. Whiskey is distilled from grains, while cognac is distilled from grapes.

Whiskey or whisky is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from any form of fermented grain mash. Depending on the geographical region or type of whiskey that is being made, whiskey can be made from barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. They are often aged in charred barrels. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘whiskey’ is the anglicisation of the Gaelic word ‘uisce|uisge’ meaning “water”. Distilled water was known in Latin as aqua vitae meaning “water of life”. The process of distillation can be dated back to the Greeks in Alexandria around the 3rd century AD; however they did not distill alcohol only spirits for fragrance purposes. The distillation process was passed down through the ages to Italy in the 13th century AD where the first distillation process of alcohol took place and alcohol was distilled from wine. The alcohol was originally used for medicinal purposes before it become consumable as a beverage. Whiskey first become popular as a beverage in Scotland before it spread to other neighboring countries.

There are various different types of whiskey and they differ in terms of base product, alcoholic content and quality. The main two types include malt whisky and grain whisky. Malt whisky is made primarily from malted barley, while grain whisky is made from any type of grain. These can further be classified under:

  • Single malt whisky: is whisky that is from a single distillery and is made from a mash that uses only one particular type of malted grain.
  • Blended malt whisky: is a blend of different malt whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended whiskies: is whiskey that is made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies along with neutral spirits, caramel, and flavoring.
  • Cask strength: These whiskies are bottled directly from the cask and are undiluted or only a little diluted. These are rare whiskies.
  • Single cask: Each bottle of a single barrel whiskey is from an individual cask with the cask number labeled on the bottle.

Whiskies must be strengthened and aged in a barrel. They do not mature in the bottle, hence if a person keeps the whiskey bottle over a long time, it would not become any stronger in flavor or alcohol content. The alcohol content and mash content varies depending on the regulations of the geographic region. The whiskies require a charred oak barrel during the aging process, which provides them with the golden brown and amber coloring. Additional flavors and colors can be added to the alcohol depending on the regulations.

Cognac is actually a type of brandy that has been distilled in the town of Cognac in France. It is more similar to brandy as both are made from grapes. Brandy is produced in the wine-growing region surrounding Cognac. There are only a few authorized regions that are allowed to make cognac and these regions have been divided into six zones or crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire.

Cognac is made from green grapes and only selected grapes are allowed in Cognac production. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, if the label will carry the name of the crus, then at least 90% of the grapes used must be Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard, while 10% can be Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François, Sélect, Montils or Sémillon. Cognacs that will not carry the name are required to use at least 90% Colombard, Folle Blanche, Jurançon blanc, Meslier Saint-François, Montils, Sémillon, or Ugni Blanc, and up to 10% Folignan or Sélect.

Once the grapes have been pressed, they are added with yeast and left to ferment for a couple of weeks. The wine is then distilled using traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills until they are a colorless spirit of about 70% alcohol. The distilled spirit is then aged for at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. In the oak barrels, the alcohol and the water start evaporating about 3% a year. The alcohol reaches the required 40 ABV by four or five decades. However, the alcohol can also be removed early and diluted with water to reach the same ABV. After four or five decades, the cognac can then be transferred to large glass carboys known as bonbonnes for blending purposes.

The interprofessional French institution BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac), the official quality grades of cognac as:

  • V.S. (very special) or *** (three stars): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.
  • V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much greater.
  • XO (extra old): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 years.

Image Courtesy: cookinglight.com, bartenderart.wordpress.com

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