Cognac producers constantly harp on the essential role of blending to the final product. They wax poetic about tasting hundreds of eaux-de-vie (the distilled grape spirit that cognac is made with) in order to choose which go into the final mix. Regular cognacs as well as more rarefied aged bottlings such as VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old) are all blends. The key difference is that the number of eaux-de-vie increases with older and more expensive cognacs.
I went to a Hennessy blending seminar a few weeks ago to find out what all the fuss was about. We sniffed, sipped (and sometimes even spit) Hennessy vintage cognacs from 1986, 1978, and 1975, and learned that you can't judge the quality or age of a cognac by its color (the 1986 was the darkest). The aim of every cognac house is "consistent taste all through the years," according to Hennessy cognac enologist Laurent Lozano, who came from France to lead the blending seminar. VSOP cognacs can have a mix of 60 eaux-de-vie, XOs can have 100, and a top-of-the-line brand like Hennessy Paradis could have several hundred. However, blending isn't the only factor influencing the final product. While all cognac is matured in French oak, there can be great variations in the style of the oak, as well as its age.
According to Randall Obrecht, beverage manager at Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Seattle, blending is as important as aging in producing superior brandy, as well as giving cognac a "smoother finish" and providing "a more well-rounded style." Not everyone agrees. "Blending is a great selling point, but in the end I think it's the aging that differentiates one cognac from another," says Eryn Paull, co-owner of Mira in Belltown. "Blending has become much more of a science than an art, and good cognac should always be an art form."
So why do cognac houses focus so intently on the effects of blending? Well, how else do you market a product that has been constant for years, asks Paull? The different Hennessy bottlings I tasted had enormously different taste profiles, but I can't claim to tell you if it's all about the blend or the barrel, either. But it is a catchy marketing tom-tom to beat.