Many visitors don't realize that this unassuming town of some 22,000 people is actually a community and not just a drink. Cognac may be beautiful to drink, but it's not beautiful to make. A black fungus that lives on the vapors released by the cognac factories has turned the town's buildings an ugly gray. But while the fumes discolor the houses, they also fill the air with sweetness.
If you'd like to visit a distillery, go to its main office during regular business hours and request a tour, or visit the tourist office for assistance. On a tour, you'll see some brandies that have aged for as long as 50 or even 100 years. You can have a free taste and then purchase a bottle or two. As far as we're concerned, Otard offers the most informative and insightful tours, partly because of the sheer majesty of its headquarters, in the late-medieval Château de Cognac, 127 bd. Denfert-Rochereau (tel. 05-45-36-88-86; www.otard.com). The tour is half historical overview of the castle, half a technical explanation of cognac production. Parts of the château are appropriately baronial (King François I was born here), and enormous other sections hold tens of thousands of bottles of cognac. Tours last about 1 hour and cost 7€ for adults, 3.50€ for students 12 to 18, and are free for children 11 and under. From April to June and September to October, tours depart at frequent intervals daily from 11am to noon, and between 2 and 6pm. During July and August, tours depart frequently, daily between 11am and noon and 1:30 and 7pm. During November to March, tours depart only Monday to Friday, specifically at 11am, 2pm, and 4pm. Call the tourist office or the company several days in advance to check times, which rotate according to the number of visitors and availability of guides. The château lies within a 10-minute walk from the town center near the Hôtel de Ville (city hall).
Other distilleries that conduct tours are Hennessy, 1 quai Hennessy (tel. 05-45-35-72-68; www.hennessy.com); Camus, 21 rue de Cagouillet (tel. 05-45-32-72-96; www.camus.fr); and Martell, place Edouard-Martell (tel. 05-45-36-33-33; www.martell.com). Rémy Martin maintains a battered but authentic-looking distillery in the countryside, at the domaine de Merpins, route de Pons (tel. 05-45-35-76-66), and a glossier, more media-hip information center and sales outlet in the heart of Cognac. Known as the Musée Rémy Martin, it's at 20 rue de la Société Vinicole (tel. 05-45-35-76-66), giving the most expensive tour of the lot. Priced at 25€ for adults and 14€ for persons 12 to 18, and 7€ for children 11 and under, it punctuates its insights into the world of Rémy Martin with frequent dégustations of esoteric cognacs and lots of bite-sized canapés to accompany them. Call in advance for reservations.
If you're short on time, a good retail outlet is La Cognathèque, 8 place Jean-Monnet (tel. 05-45-82-43-31), which prides itself on having the widest selection from all the distilleries, though you'll pay for the convenience of having everything under one roof.
No one ever accused the cognac industry of not knowing how to promote their products. The Musée des Arts de Cognac lies in the town center at Place de la Salle Verte (tel. 05-45-36-21-10). Within, you'll find exhibits showcasing everything associated with the cognac trade, from cultivation of grapes to bottle and barrel making to insights into global marketing and sales. Entrance costs 4.50€ for adults, 3€ for students. Admission is free for anyone 17 and under. It's open as follows: July to August daily 10am to 6:30pm; April through June and September to October Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 6pm; and November through March every Tuesday to Sunday 2 to 5:30pm. Accessible through an interconnecting door is L'Espace Découverte en Plays du Cognac (tel. 05-45-36-03-65), which, through slides, photos, and videos, showcases touristic and oenophilic attractions of the surrounding region. There's no additional charge for access.
Within a 15-minute walk lies the Musée d'Art et l'Histoire de Cognac, 48 bd. Denfert-Rochereau (tel. 05-45-32-07-25), with exhibits on popular arts and traditions, archaeological exhibits, and a fine art collection of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and furniture. Accessible with the same ticket that's valid for access to the above-noted Musée des Arts de Cognac (and vice versa), it's open as follows: July to August daily 10am to 6:30pm; April to June and September to October Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 6pm; November to March Tuesday to Sunday 2 to 5:30pm.
Cognac has two beautiful parks: the Parc François-1er and the Parc de l'Hôtel-de-Ville. The Romanesque-Gothic Eglise St-Léger, rue de Monseigneur LaCroix (tel. 05-45-82-05-71), is from the 12th century, and its bell tower is from the 15th. Admission is free; it's open daily 8am to 7pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.