Before I got into wine, I didn’t know much about it: I thought Bordeaux was used to make bread, I assumed wine in a box was as good as any, and I figured that Cognac was the name of the guy who wrote On the Road. It turns out, I was wrong on all points.

Even as I learn about wine, write about wine, and drink all kinds of wine, I still must admit that I don’t know everything. Truth be told, wine is such an extensive subject that it’s nearly impossible to possess every single seed of knowledge. Take for instance, Cognac. While maybe not an accomplished author, it is still a drink rich with complexity and sophistication.

Essentially the king of brandy, Cognac is produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France; it gets its name from a local town. The anal-retentive drink of the alcohol industry, Cognac must be made under extremely precise regulations. Deviating from these regulations even slightly turns Cognac into regular ol’ brandy.

Seven areas in France are designated for Cognac production. Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies produce the majority, but Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaires, and Bois Communs tend to squeeze out a drop or two. Each area creates a unique drink, but all are of high quality: they each have a knack for Cognac.

The grapes used for Cognac are very exclusive: no matter how many beg to be picked, only certain ones are. First of all, Cognac must be at least 90 percent Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes. Ugni Blanc carry the most weight (some Cognac is made solely of this grape), with Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes minimally represented. The remaining ten percent may, by law, include other varieties of grape. These varieties are typically specific and, like a grape involved in drama club, highly eccentric.

Dissimilar to other brandies, Cognac must be distilled twice in copper pot stills. After the second distillation, the heart of the Cognac, or the eau-de-vie, is placed into barrels made from the oak trees of the Troncais or Limousin forests. Here, the eau-de-vie must be aged for a minimum of two years, though most is aged for much longer. Still, Cognac isn’t allowed to get too old: it’s usually not kept barreled up for more than five or six decades; it does, after all, have things to do.

The age Cognac can be somewhat confusing (cutting open the brandy and count its rings doesn’t work). A system does, nonetheless, exist to help you understand the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend. A VS (very superior) or three star label is for the youngest, meaning that all the eau-de-vies in the blend are at least two and a half years old. A VSOP (very superior old pale), a VO (very old), and Reserve label is for the middle child, meaning that all the eau-de-vies in the blend are at least four and a half years old. A XO (extra old), Napoleon, Extra, Vieux, and Vielle Reserve is for the eldest, meaning all of the eau-de-vies in the blend are at least six and a half years old.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this system of labeling is used only to determine the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend and not the average age of the Cognac. For instance, a Cognac could be blended with a two year old eau-de-vie and a sixty year old one, possessing an average age of twenty nine years.

Whether young, old, or somewhere in between, Cognac produces a smooth, rich, and well balanced taste with flavors of smoke, soil, fruit, vanilla, and honey. It’s a drink people tend to nurse: chugging it, shooting it, or sipping it through a straw just doesn’t seem to do it justice.

One of the more expensive drinks, Cognac isn’t something you will ever find on the clearance racks of your local liquor store. For this reason, it’s not something you’re likely to find yourself drinking frequently: it may just be reserved for special occasions - like pay day.