Out of the Snifters and Into the Mixers
Brandies, Cognacs and Armagnacs wow the cocktail set.
The latest spirit to make a splash behind the bars of America isn’t a vodka flavored with tropical fruits, a new 100 percent agave Tequila spiced with ancho chiles, or a sultry infused rum from the Caribbean. In fact, there’s nothing new about this product at all—it’s been a staple at every restaurant, bar and tavern since this country was founded. I’m talking about brandy. Brandy, from France, California and elsewhere, is back in a big way, but it’s not necessarily being poured into crystal snifters. Indeed, you’re more likely to find it making its way into sleek, shiny cocktail shakers. In the 21st century, brandy is hip.
“One of the aspects of Cognac that bartenders and consumers alike have had to get past is the stigma attached to it,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, beverage specialist for the luxurious Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. “It used to be consumed only from large fishbowl snifters, after dinner, with a big cigar, while sitting in front of a fire in the La-Z-Boy. We need to stop being intimidated by Cognac.”
Abou-Ganim makes a fine point, but don’t think for a second that using brandy in cocktails and mixed drinks is a brand-new phenomenon—brandy’s versatility as a cocktail ingre- dient is merely being rediscovered. In 1838, Antoine Amedie Peychaud married his bitters to Cognac and served the result as a medicinal potion in his New Orleans apothecary shop. Another 19th-century mixologist in the Big Easy, a celebrated Spanish caterer named Santina, created the Brandy Crusta. This Crusta, made with brandy, curaçao, simple syrup and bitters, and served in a wine glass with a sugar-coated rim, was detailed in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. The cocktail was the ancestor of the sidecar, a 20th-century classic.
The sidecar was the drink that led the pack of newer brandy-based drinks. Created in Paris during World War I, the cocktail was so good that it found its way stateside before America went dry in 1920. This retro-chic potion is again being shaken and strained all over the world. According to Peter Dorelli, head barman of The American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel, the drink has made a comeback in his neck of the woods. Some 6,000 miles away, Ryan Magarian, a bar consultant at Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle, has used this classic as a base upon which to build new potions.
Restaurant Zoë in Belltown, Washington, offers a popular Casey creation called a Bistro Sidecar using Hennessy Cognac, Tuaca, Frangelico, lemon juice and tangerine juice. And Magarian, who moonlights as a bartender at Cactus, a popular Southwestern restaurant in Seattle, serves almost-classic sidecars, but adds tangerine juice to add what he describes as a “pleasantacidic backbone” that he thinks the original recipe lacks.
Sip these limited-edition bottlings on their own, but enjoy their younger siblings in sidecars
Another Zoë restaurant—this one in Manhattan and unrelated to the Belltown location—offers a Kentucky Christmas (also known as a Bon Bon), a variation of the brandy Alexander, another brandy-based classic. This creamy treat is made with Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon, RMS Californian brandy, Godiva chocolate liqueur, crème de cacao and fresh cream. Scott Lawrence, managing partner at Zoë, says that drinks such as this one (and Zoë’s version of the Ritz Champagne Cocktail—brandy, orange juice, grenadine and Champagne) “have inspired a new appreciation for the brandies” but that their “work as beverage educators is far from over…we must start the process by presenting the spirit in a familiar form to the consumer.”
These variations on classic mixed drinks show cocktailian minds at their very best while underscoring brandy’s versatility. By taking a classic formula, removing one component, and adding a new ingredient, instant success is almost inevitable. If, for instance, you remove a liqueur from a recipe and add another liqueur in its place, you’ve got to take sweetness and acidity into consideration. I recently made a sidecar using DiSaronno liqueur, an almond-flavored Italian product, instead of Cointreau, an orange-flavored liqueur from France. Since DiSaronno is far sweeter than Cointreau, I had to increase the amount of lemon juice in the recipe to properly balance the cocktail.
|The Bistro Sidecar|
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Kathy Casey, Kathy Casey Food Studios, Seattle
1 1/2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce Tuaca
1/2 ounce Frangelico
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce fresh tangerine juice
1 roasted hazelnut, for garnish
Shake over ice and strain into a chilled, sugar-rimmed cocktail glass. Add the garnish.
The Bon Bon
The Armagnac Newton
The Almond Sidecar
What do the brandy producers think of this cocktail phenomenon? They’re not only embracing the cocktail crowd, they’re helping the movement along. Hennessy was probably the first company to help popularize Cognac cocktails when they introduced the Hennessy Martini almost a decade ago; Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin have, by creating their own signature recipes, boosted the popularity of brandy-based mixed drinks.
Courvoisier has developed a line of “CV” cocktails, such as the CV Bite—made with Courvoisier, green apple schnapps, lime juice and simple syrup—and the CV Wink, a blend of Courvoisier, crème de banane, pineapple juice and fresh lemon juice. Remy Martin is touting a simpler Remy and tonic on its website, as well as another potion—made with equal amounts of Remy and crème de banane, that they simply call “Banana.” Martell offers a Martell Cider Breeze made with two parts Martell, one part calvados and a splash of cider; and a Tango in Paris, comprised of Cognac, pineapple juice and tonic.
But Cognac isn’t the only brandy being touted as a base for great cocktails: The producers of Armagnac—the other great French brandy—are promoting their products by organizing a cocktail competition for bartenders in New York.
“Armagnac’s distinctive flavor is meant for sharing. It’s time for France’s best-kept secret to be shared with everyone,” says Sebastien Lacroix, Director of BNIA, the French bureau that represents Armagnac producers. Thus far the competition has resulted in some exotic new drinks, including the Armagnac Newton, a cocktail that includes fig purée and a caramelized blue cheese-stuffed fig (see recipe below). The Newton was created by chef/owner Sam DeMarco, and bartender Lisa Tine, at District restaurant in Manhattan.
Not one to be left out, Korbel, a California brandy producer, has released a new bottling, Korbel XS Extra Smooth, that they tout as being “great on its own or mixed with everything from guava and papaya juice to energy drinks and sodas.” The company has also developed a line of cocktails that includes some classics and a few new potions such as the Korbel Brandy Cooler, made with brandy, rum, apple juice and lime juice.
Hennessy, meanwhile, has continued its cocktail crusade by promoting the Hennessy Sidecar, but let’s take a closer look at the drink that kicked off this campaign, the Hennessy Martini. Made by adding just a teaspoon of lemon juice to a jigger of Hennessy, and stirring over ice to chill and dilute, this cocktail actually has its roots in 18th-century France, when lemon juice was commonly added to Cognac.
Finally, just to prove once and for all how versatile brandy is, Bert Kennison, president of D.M.A., a Yarmouthport, Massachusetts restaurant consultancy company, is serving Cognac for breakfast. After instituting breakfasts with a French theme at Thirwood Place, a Cape Cod retirement community in which 80 percent of the residents are worth over a million bucks, Kennison was amazed to see how much the diners loved having a snifter of Cognac at 8:30 a.m.
“I came to the conclusion that Cognac represents not only wealth, but also relaxation,” Kennison says. “They told me some amazing stories of dinner parties, business meetings and political events where Cognac played some sort of role.” As for me, I’m saving my pennies: Thirwood Place seems like the ideal place to spend my golden years.
To read this article in its entirety, pick up the November 2002 issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.