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In the traditional hierarchy of spirits, even the best whiskey was always "substitute standard," as the Army used to deem things that weren't what you really wanted but would work if you had to make them work. The spirit you really wanted, presumably, was brandy -- French brandy, to be precise, and cognac, to be preciser. Cognac was the king of money-is-no-object, sitting-and-contemplating-the-meaning-of-life spirits. With a brief interruption in the late 1800s, when phylloxera lice ate up all the French vineyards, it held that position from the early 18th century almost to the end of the 20th century. Then, in a fit of middle-aged crazy, cognac more or less abdicated the throne to go chasing after luxury-goods markets in Asia and wherever else nightclub is spoken. Prices went up, ages went down, and single-malt Scotch stepped in to fill the vacuum. Now there's a whole generation of discerning drinkers that knows everything about whiskey and next to nothing about cognac.

That's a shame. If you're willing to ignore some ham-handed marketing and pay not much more than what a decent bottle of malt costs these days, cognac still offers some spectacular drinking. They make the stuff pretty much the way that always did, pot-distilling it from local white wine and then aging and blending it according to the closely guarded system known to the trade as élevage. Élevage means raising or breeding -- kind of like how we say "I'm into raising Arabian horses for racing" -- and it requires a similar level of devotion.

Unlike the relatively straightforward aging process most whiskey goes through, in which it stays in the same barrel and the same warehouse until it's ready for bottling, or blending and then bottling, élevage can see a young cognac shuttled between new and old barrels, stored in damp or dry warehouses, and blended with other cognacs of various provenances and ages -- similar, complementary, or contrasting in flavor -- before further aging, and so on and so forth. When the final blend of cognacs is assembled, it's reduced to proof with water that has been stiffened with a little cognac and barrel-aged, and then it's adjusted for color with similarly aged caramel. The whole process is complex, painstaking, and very expensive, but given enough time it yields brandies that unite the best aspects of young spirits and old ones -- brandies that are fresh and juicy yet also rich and deeply spiced. Given enough time.

Serious cognac begins at the VSOP grade, in which the youngest brandy is four and a half years old. In the case of all but the cheapest brands, it will be at least six, with considerably older cognacs in the blend (in the entry-level VS grade, a cognac is at least two and a half years old, but often isn't much older; for our money, you're usually better off drinking bourbon).

You can see the results in a cognac like the Camus VSOP Elegance ($74), with its youthful notes of apricot jam offset by the cinnamon-spice notes of a spirit that has spent considerable time in wood. The Hine Rare VSOP ($74) plays up the old-barrel flavors -- Earl Grey tea, dark chocolate, leather -- while still offering young floral notes. As is typical of the VSOPs, both have a little fire in them and can easily handle an ice cube or two to cool down.

Step up to the XO or "Napoléon" grade and you'll get blends that use many more brandies, the youngest of them being ten years old at least and the oldest up to 20 or 30 years old. The Courvoisier 12 ($50), a rare same-age blend, has none of those old, old brandies in it; it's fully mature, smooth, rich, and nutty, but there's plenty of fruit left. The classic Martell Cordon Bleu ($180) is a seamless essay on sipping a spirit, with more layers than an Iditarod racer and a finish longer than the 2016 presidential campaign, but without that astringent woodiness one all too often finds in a venerable old whiskey. If the meaning of life lies in a glass, it might just lie here.

- David Wondrich
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