Cognac: Straight or Mixed?
Whether served neat or in innovative cocktails, this classic spirit is worth discovering, or revisting.
For a while, it seemed like Cognac had gotten too fancy for its own good.
The French brandy—once known as the “drink of kings”—is steeped in heritage and history, but in recent years has not exactly been the life of the party. Finally, Cognac makers have given the amber spirit a much-needed makeover, focusing on approachable, mixable versions designed for blending into cocktails. These new brandies (and when done right, the cocktails, too) still feature the beautiful flavors that Cognac drinkers love—that captivating combination of figs and raisins drenched with caramel.
The industry hopes that younger drinkers weaned on Cognac cocktails now will develop a lifelong love of the spirit.
Not all brandy is lucky enough to be Cognac, and the strict rules imposed by the French government see to that.
First, the brandy must be produced in the Cognac region—about 75 miles north of the famed winemaking area of Bordeaux. Further, Cognac can be made using only a handful of grape varieties, primarily Ugni Blanc. It must be distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills, and aged for at least two years in French oak.
As in wine, terroir is important. Boundaries of the Cognac area, set down in 1909, have been subdivided into six areas (crus) of varying quality. In order of preference, they are: Grande Champagne, where the most prestigious Cognac originates, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires (also known as Bois à Terroir). A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne.
Compared to some spirits, where the age is proudly declared on the label, age parameters for Cognac tend to blur. It’s typical for Cognac houses to blend together eau de vie of various vintages.
The lower end of the age range is indicated in an alphabet stew of classifications: VS (Very Special) means the youngest eau de vie in the blend is no less than two years old; VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) means the youngest is at least four years old. Most of the Cognac sold in the U.S. is either VS or VSOP.
Meanwhile, categories like Napoléon and XO (Extra Old) require the youngest eau de vie to be at least six years old—generally, this Cognac is intended for sipping neat.
To mix, or not to mix?
In some cases, Cognac houses encourage casual drinkers to use younger expressions of traditional Cognacs, particularly VS and VSOP, for cocktail creations, while reserving the complex, long-aged XO and rare XXO renditions for patrons with deep pockets and experienced palates.
Adding to the puzzle are new variations. Despite being made with grapes sourced from the Cognac region of France and mostly made using traditional aging techniques, these new Cognacs often bear only a passing resemblance to their luxe cousins. These emerging spirits are specifically made for mixing, not for fireside sipping.
The end result has been a split personality for Cognac: Is it a spirit to savor straight, or to mix?
“There’s no one answer,” says Nicolas Palazzi, who blends, ages and imports Cognacs,and is known to some as “Captain Cognac.”
Frankly, most young Cognacs are lovely either way, mixed or straight. However, Palazzi warns that there is an excellent reason not to mix old Cognacs into cocktails—and it’s not the price tag. It’s the extended time spent aging in barrel, which adds wood tannins to the finished brandy.
“Ice makes the tannins really dry and grainy, and it’s not pleasant,” Palazzi says. “The aromatics might be good, but on the palate, it will be really dry, like sucking on a piece of wood.”
While bold, grain-based aged whiskeys may have the oomph to stand up to ice, the delicacy of grape-based Cognacs benefit instead from a glass gently warmed in the palm of the hand.
By comparison, Palazzi says, a “good mixing Cognac offers a good backbone, some good woody notes and is not too sweet.” At the same time, the sweeteners, citrus and other ingredients in a cocktail can help balance out a young Cognac.
While the explosion of Cognac-based drinks beyond same-old sidecars and the like are a welcome addition to cocktail menus, don’t count out the opulence of high-end, straight-up sipping Cognac just yet. They are what Cognac Ferrand distiller Alexandre Gabriel refers to as “bedroom Cognacs—you take them to your bed and read a book and linger.”
Six Cognacs to savor straight up
96 Frapin Domaine Château de Fontpinot Grande Champagne XO.
One of the smoothest, mellowest Cognacs around, with a bright copper-penny color and complex flavors of coffee, hazelnuts and bittersweet cocoa, tapering off to an elegant caramel note. Palm Bay Imports.
abv: 40% Price: $95
95 A. de Fussigny Fine Champagne XO.
Housed inside a striking square bottle that resembles an oversized perfume flask, this deep copper-colored Cognac features a rich toffee scent, a velvety feel and inviting cocoa and leather flavors accented with cinnamon and clove. Add it to the gift registry. Castle Brands.
abv: 40% Price: $199
94 Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges Grande Champagne.
Made with 30-year-old Cognac, this rich and mellow spirit yields warm flavors reminiscent of dried fruit, toffee, almond and Sauternes, with a long, smooth finish. Pour a snifter and curl up by the fireplace. Deutsch Family Wines & Spirits.
abv: 40% Price: $145
93 Courvoisier Connoisseur Collection Aged 12 Years.
One of the few Cognacs with an age statement, this has a maple color and aromas reminiscent of ripe fruit drizzled with honey. Look for a relatively sweet, luscious caramel flavor dusted with cinnamon and ginger. Consider serving well-chilled to a viscous glacé consistency alongside pastries or cakes. Beam Global.
abv: 40% Price: $50
93 Hine Rare Fine Champagne VSOP.
This rich, supple Cognac is like a liquid expression of a vintage leather club chair. The nut-brown spirit has big aromas of crème brûlée, toffee, cigar tobacco and cocoa. After an initial sweetness on the tongue, it finishes relatively dry, with lingering caramel, raisin, leather and orange peel flavors. Hine USA.
abv: 40% Price: $50
90 Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal Fine Champagne.
Blended for “aromatic intensity,” look for sweet bursts of burnt caramel and orange peel, opening up to a slightly chocolaty fragrance. Big caramel flavors wind into coffee and dark chocolate notes on the mellow finish. Remy Cointreau USA.
abv: 40% Price: $50
Three easy-to-make Cognac-based cocktails
Recipe courtesy Richard Boccato, co-owner of Dutch Kills and Weather Up, New York City
This cocktail is elegant, but packs a punch. If desired, substitute a standard-strength Cognac.
1½ ounces Louis Royer VSOP Force 53 (or other high-proof Cognac)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce maple syrup
¼ ounce Campari
Orange slice, for garnish
In a cocktail shaker, combine the first 4 ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a coupe glass. Cut a slit in the orange slice and perch it on the side of the glass.
Spiced Orange Smash
Recipe courtesy Jordan Bushell, mixologist for Moët Hennessy USA
This refreshing cocktail is just right when winter citrus comes into season. A bonus for the holiday season: Bushell often uses a mixing spoon to break up clumps of marmalade in his cocktail shaker. Post pour, he clangs the spoon inside the empty vessel, creating a festive chime: “It’s the holiday bell ringing!” he exclaims.
1½ ounces Hennessy VS (or other VS Cognac)
¾ ounce Velvet Falernum
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 heaping tablespoon orange marmalade
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
Orange peel, cut thick and twisted, for garnish
Add the first 5 ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake until well chilled. Fine strain (to strain out solids from the marmalade) it over fresh ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Mystery of Monasteries
Recipe courtesy Albert Trummer, co-owner of Apotheke, New York City
While Trummer spikes his version of this drink with a dash of his proprietary thyme-orange Elixir Number 4, a sprig of fresh thyme approximates the right herbal touch.
2 ounces D’ussé (or other VSOP Cognac)
1 ounce Bénédictine
1 dash orange bitters
Sprig of fresh thyme, for garnish
In a large whiskey tumbler or brandy snifter, stir together the Cognac, Bénédictine and bitters with a large ice cube. Gently roll a sprig of fresh thyme between your palms to release the fragrance, then add the sprig to the glass as a garnish.