We’ve all been there. You get partially through a recipe and realize you’re missing one of the key ingredients. While it may be easier to choose a substitute for some things, others feel so crucial to a recipe they leave us scratching our heads.
Cognac is one of those ingredients. Whether you’re making a classic sidecar or mixing things up with a RumChata Alexander, you may think you’re all out of luck if you’re all out of Cognac. But, not all is lost. There are some simple ways you can swap out Cognac and still make a recipe work.
What Is Cognac?
Cognac is an aromatic spirit made from white grapes that’s distilled twice, says Arthur Campain, brand ambassador for Larsen Cognac. The spirit is a type of brandy that is made under strict rules and regulations. Similar to Champagne, which can only be called such if it’s made in the Champagne region of France, only products made in the nation’s Cognac region an hour north of Bordeaux can be called Cognac.
“The Cognac vineyard, process and making are very controlled,” Campain says. “Rules and regulations are set up by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac), a bureau that sets rules for the Cognac industry, either for quality control, provenance or production process.” So, in essence, all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy can be Cognac.
Though it is often consumed neat, Campain says Cognac is also great in cocktails and used regularly in cooking.
“Cognac is also used to [flambé] some dishes, such as shrimp, or to give a little flavor to a preparation,” he says. “You could also add a splash of Cognac in a sauce to enhance it.”
Types of Cognac
“Cognac is such a diverse product category, from terroir to individual production and maturation considerations, so when looking for an alternative, the best question to start with is which Cognac you are trying to replace,” suggests Natalie Migliariani, author of Beautiful Booze: Stylish Cocktails To Make At Home and participant on the Netflix show Drink Masters.
Cognac is broken down into different types, each with its own unique flavor qualities. Here are some common types:
- V.S. (Very Special). Cognac V.S. is a young form of Cognac that has been oak-aged for a minimum of two years.
- V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale). Cognac V.S.O.P. means that it is oak-aged for a minimum of four years.
- X.O. (Extra Old). Cognac X.O. recognizes a minimum of a decade aged in oak.
- X.X.O. (Extra Extra Old). The newest designation of Cognac, a X.X.O. signifies Cognac aged at least 14 years.
- Napoleon. Napoleon may be seen on the bottle, which means that the grapes have been oak-aged for at least six years.
Alcoholic Substitutes for Cognac
There really is nothing exactly like Cognac, Campain admits. “There is a true difference if you use another spirit other than Cognac in a drink, as Cognac’s aromas really enhance any cocktail,” he says. The good news, however? Cognac has some foolproof substitutes if you simply must make a swap.
Brandy is the most authentic swap for recipes that call for Cognac, says Camille Wilson, author of Free Spirit Cocktails and founder and owner of The Cocktail Snob.
“Brandy and Cognac are both made from a process that involves distilling wine,” she says, adding that “Brandy is to Cognac what sparkling wine is to Champagne.”
If you can’t get your hands on brandy, another booze to use is Sherry, Wilson suggests. Sherry is a fortified wine that is similarly high in alcohol content to Cognac and, though not an exact match, can mimic Cognac’s fruity, bright and sometimes sweet flavors.
You can switch Cognac and bourbon depending on the cocktail. Bourbon’s oak aging process brings out strong, bold flavors reminiscent of Cognac, although Cognac tends to have more fruit and floral notes. However, both settle into vanilla and caramel characteristics, making them a good swap for one another, explains Wilson.
A word of warning, however: “I would stay away from flavored bourbons here as they tend to be too sweet,” “Wilson says.
Migliarini agrees. “I would recommend bourbon when you are looking for a V.S.O.P. alternative,” she says. “However, the right bourbon would be something that has touched French oak staves at some point in their maturation. Maker’s 46 is the best example of this.”
Rum, too, can be used as a substitute because its sweetness mirrors that in Cognac. Wilson says to look for a dark rum or aged rum to make a successful swap. Migliarini adds that rum often works for those cocktail recipes that call for V.S.O.P. or X.O. style Cognac, depending on the producer.
Non-Alcoholic Substitutes for Cognac
There are only a few non-ABV options that can be used instead of Cognac. Wilson’s suggestions include ArKay’s non-alcoholic brandy or the Ritual Whiskey Alternative. Migliarini adds that The Pathfinder, which is made with hemp, has the flavor profile of an aged spirit. Fruit juice can also be used, but it won’t have the same bite as Cognac.
Substitutes for Cognac in Cooking
Brandy would be the top choice if Cognac isn’t available for use, but Wilson says that white grape juice has been a solid swap for her recipes. “The grape flavor is reminiscent of the grapes that are the foundation of Cognac,” she says.
Migliarini, however, starts with Sherry when she’s missing Cognac, but brandy or fruit juices are also go-to choices.
Campain also notes that cooking fruit may be a shortcut to the flavors and aromas of Cognac. “You could replace Cognac by cooking with pears, apricots or peach juice, or even with Sherry, just to give a fruity flavor to your dish or sauce,” he says. “A last option would be to use wine and add a little bit of sugar in your preparation.”
Of course, no substitute will precisely match Cognac’s complex aromas and flavors. For those, you’ll just have to invest in good Cognac bottle or two.