XO XO: Cognac Abbreviations and What They Mean

Although I normally just stick to wine, sometimes you’ll find me talking about other kinds of drinks and spirits on Cluster Crush, including brandy, and specifically Cognac, which is a particular kind of brandy. And no, you don’t have to be the Ladies’ Man sucking down snifters of Courvoisier in order to appreciate it!

As the Ladies' Man can tell you, there's plenty to enjoy about Cognac.

As the Ladies’ Man can tell you, there’s plenty to enjoy about Cognac.

Cognac is a type of brandy from the area surrounding the French town of Cognac, northeast of Bordeaux in the region of Charente. Like wine, Cognac is made from grapes which are fermented and then distilled twice in traditional copper stills.

When it comes to the grapes used, at least 90% must be Ugni Blanc, Colombard and/or Folle blanche, while up to 10% can be a few other specific varieties. After fermentation and then distillation, the alcohol is aged in oak casks for at least two years, though often much longer.

For further storage and aging, some spirits are transferred to glass containers and then saved for blending. At that point, Cognacs can be blended from any number of productions, years and ages, though any age indicated is usually that of the youngest spirit in the blend.

What I really wanted to get to today, though, is what those abbreviations on a Cognac label mean. Though the combination of letters like XO and VS may look like part of a license plate, or new text-language sign-offs, they actually have very specific, and easy-to-remember meanings. Not least of all because they’re in English!

You see, the English merchants who were some of the primary players in the French wine market needed to denote the brandies produced in Cognac by age and quality, so they came up with a simple system.

VS is easy to remember. It just means "Very Special," as written out on this Hennessey label.

VS is easy to remember. It just means “Very Special,” as written out on this Hennessey label.

VS: When you see this on a Cognac label, it stands for “very special.” This means that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in oak for at least two years.

VSOP just stands for Very Special Old Pale. But more on that below.

VSOP just stands for Very Superior Old Pale. But more on that below.

VSOP: This takes it a step beyond, and stands for “very superior old pale,” or “very special old pale,” though who doesn’t appreciate the opportunity to use superior over special given the opportunity? It can also be called “Reserve,” and means that the youngest brandy in here has been stored in oak for at least four years. The “pale” part means it is a Cognac that has not been colored by an additive, only by oak aging.

In this case, XO doesn't mean hugs and kisses.

In this case, XO doesn’t mean hugs and kisses.

XO: This is kind of my favorite designation because it’s a shortening of an abbreviation, sort of like a double-abbreviation, and stands for “extra old.” You’ll also see Cognacs of this caliber labeled “Napoléon.” It means that the youngest spirits in the blend have been aged for at least six years, though for Cognacs produced in 2016 or later, that requirement has jumped to 10 years.

Hors d’âge: Literally “beyond age,” this title is typically used to designate an XO blend that is of excellent quality.

Remember, though, those ages mentioned are just minimums, and often Cognacs of the highest quality include much older spirits in their blends. Some XO Cognacs will have brandies that are decades old, in fact.

What kind of Cognac do you like? The relative babies of the VS category, or those grande dames classified in XO and beyond?

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