Few fluids are so all-American as bourbon, but the category is getting a lift from a liquor that’s pure à la française. We’re talking about straight bourbon whiskeys finished in cognac casks, a growing trend we’re delighted to see more of.
We’ll assume that bourbon needs no introduction, but that a cognac primer may be appreciated. Cognac is a brandy distilled from white wine; unlike other brandies, it may only be produced in the designated Cognac region in Southwestern France and is subject to a number or regulations laid out in its Appellation D’origine Contrôlée (AOC) status.
These regulations mandate that it must be made from among nine grapes grown in the Cognac region, distilled twice in copper pot stills, and aged for a minimum of two years in oak casks. That two-year minimum grants it the basic status of V.S. (very special), with higher degrees of aging awarding V.S.O.P (Very Superior Old Pale) status for four years, X.O. (Extra Old) after six years, and Hors d’Age following a decade or more of oaky slumber.
So, why would you want to transfer the ghostly imprint of cognacs past to bourbon through cask-finishing? For the same reason that anything is finished in casks: flavor. In this case, the notes typically associated with cognac—brandy, stone fruits, nuts, honey, baking spices—are bound to play with and enhance the bourbon’s existing notes, creating something special. To test this hypothesis, we tasted three recently released cognac-finished bourbons.
Redemption Cognac Cask Finish Bourbon ($70)
Launched in October 2021, Redemption Cognac Cask Finish is a limited-edition release that sees the maker’s high-rye bourbon finished for an additional year in cognac casks provided by Maison Ferrand. The effect that these casks—some of which are 30 years old—has on the bourbon is both sweetening and lengthening. It’s unmistakably a high-rye bourbon, but gains the light, bubble-gum like flavor often ascribed to French oak casks, together with pleasing notes of fruit leather, apricots, and hibiscus coupled to warming spices and a nutty finish that’s fat with pecans and pralines.
TX Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cognac Casks ($64.99)
Another October baby, TX Whiskey’s Straight Bourbon Finished in Cognac Casks marks the conclusion of the label’s Barrel Finish Series, which also included sherry and tawny port finishes. In this case, TX’s two-year-old bourbon napped in cognac casks for over 17 months. It’s a hot (101.6 proof) and earthy bourbon with that trademark corn sweetness and chalky mouthfeel, filtered through surprising (for a non-cognac cask finished bourbon, anyway) flavors of apricot, plum, and pear. Its finish is delectably spiced, aided by dried fruit leather and figs.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Ferrand ($124.99)
Bardstown Bourbon Company also went knocking on Maison Ferrand’s door to produce this whiskey, which sees a blend of seven and 11-year-old Kentucky bourbons finished in cognac barrels for eight months. It brings the heat at a substantial proof of 110, but layers it with rich notes of grilled peaches, honey, and sweet yet slightly sour cream. Still apparent—or perhaps enhanced—are the characteristic big bourbon flavors of vanilla, wrapped around those backyard-barbecue-dessert notes of cooked fruit and cream. The finish is a hot, sweet pang of cooked grapes (aka, brandy), partnered to treacle syrup, figs, and date juice.