Where is Cognac heading next? Out of all the various spirits categories, France’s flagship grape brandy has perhaps the haziest outlook right now.
It’s not that sales are flagging. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), sales of Cognac grew a respectable 7.1% in 2016, particularly among higher-end offerings.
But Cognac producers seem a little unsure about how to appeal to American consumers these days. After years of rip-roaring growth in the American whiskey space, particularly Bourbon, an increasing number of Cognacs now seem designed to appeal to the palates of Bourbon-lovers, with more sweet vanilla and spice.
Bache-Gabrielsen, for example, debuted its American Oak bottling, aged for six months in new Tennessee oak barrels. Meanwhile, legacy Cognac maker Hennessy released its Master Blender’s Selection #1 bottling in 2016. Though it doesn’t involve American oak, it certainly drinks a lot like Bourbon, with a vanilla-forward flavor. At a slightly higher proof and packaged in a rectangular, flask-like bottle, this is unlike the usual elaborately curved Hennessy bottles and it could easily pass as American whiskey.
Another noticeable trend has been the uptick in single-vintage bottlings—a rarity in Cognac. But Normandin-Mercier (1976), Maison Surrenne (1975), Jean Grosperrin (1991) all dipped into the Paradis—the cave where rare brandies usually are stored—and released some of the best Cognacs you’ll see in your glass this year.
For those seeking a more value-priced Cognac pour to toast the coming of the new year, take a look at some of the VSOP bottlings reviewed this month. It’s hard to say what 2018 will hold for Cognac. Luckily, odds are high that it will yield something delicious.
Normandin-Mercier 1976 Cognac (France; Heavenly Spirits, Lakeville, MA); $350, 97 points. Most Cognacs blend various vintages together: This one is a single-vintage Cognac that was distilled in 1976 and bottled in 2016, after 40 years in oak. It’s a stunner, with a complex, perfumy nose and kaleidoscopic palate that starts with cocoa and walnut, moves to a rounded, surprisingly fresh red apple note midpalate, and finishes with vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and hints of tropical fruit. It’s drying, slightly grippy and not nearly as oaky as one might expect. Petite Champagne region. abv: 41.4%
Camus XO Cognac (France; CIL CIL Wines & Spirits, Fort Lauderdale, FL); $180, 97 points. Dark, mysterious and complex, this deep-amber liquid has a sherried scent, with hints of fresh figs and black cherry. The mouthwatering palate is sweet up front, showing vanilla and black cherry, drying to a long finish of earthy espresso, leather, orange peel and a brush of cocoa. Borderies region. abv: 40%
Maison Surrenne Lot David Picoron Cognac (France; Alambic, Ukiah, CA); $350, 96 points. This is made from the 1975 vintage from David Picoron’s hillside vineyard in the Grande Champagne region. Intriguingly deep, dark aromas beckon: figs, toffee and Port-like dark fruit. These flavors show a bit drier on the supple palate, transforming into dark chocolate, oak and stewed cherries, finishing very long with walnut, leather, clove and black pepper. abv: 40%
Jean Grosperrin 1991 Cognac (France; Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, New York, NY); $220, 95 points. Made on the Ilse d’Oléron, this unusual “maritime Cognac” was distilled in 1991 and bottled at 24 years of age. Fleeting cinnamon-roll sweetness up front gives way to an herbaceous sarsaparilla note, coupled with hints of honey and apricot. The drying cinnamon-laced finish shows orange peel and walnut. This is elegant and bright, but it’s also overproof so keep some ice or water on hand to lengthen sips. abv: 53.1%
Merlet Cognac XO (France; Bedford & Grove, Louisville, KY); $90, 95 points. The hazelnut aroma suggests a rich, sweet brandy, however the palate is surprisingly light and delicate. Initial nutty, fudgy notes quickly give way to lively orange peel and spice, finishing with an elegant hint of violet. abv: 40%
Tiffon Reserve Fin Bois Cognac (France; Martin Scott Wines, New York, NY); $228, 95 points. Look for elegant vanilla, lemon cream and apricot on the well-balanced nose and palate, finishing long and spiced on a distinct lemony note on the exhale. abv: 40%
A. de Fussigny Cognac VSOP (France; Saranty Imports, Stamford, CT); $60, 94 points. This shows enough intensity to appeal to whiskey drinkers but plenty of brandy finesse. The palate shows luxurious caramel, rounding out to baked apple and spice, finishing with enticing hints of red fruit and violet. Borderies region. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Augier L’Oceanique Cognac (France; Quest Brands, Chattanooga, TN); $62, 94 points. This straw-hued Cognac has a distinct buttered-popcorn scent. On the palate, that morphs into a salted butter note, with a saline influence reminiscent of some Scotches, coupled with vanilla, a juicy hint of pear, white flowers and a hint of lemongrass on the finish. The mouth waters with a racy astringency not often seen in brandy. Bois Ordinaire region. Made from 100% Ugni Blanc. abv: 40.8%
Bache-Gabrielsen American Oak Cognac (France; BCI, Houston, TX); $40, 93 points. This unusual Cognac is finished in Tennessee oak barrels for a minimum of six months, marking it as an American whiskey-lover’s brandy. The nose and palate show plenty of oak, vanilla and baked apple, landing on apricot and orange peel for the spicy, mouthwatering finish. Sip or mix. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Hennessy Master Blender’s Selection No. 1 Cognac (France; Moet Hennessy USA, New York, NY); $80, 93 points. Think Bourbon flavors with brandy delicacy. Notably dark-nut brown in the glass, this Cognac opens with warm caramel, toffee and cocoa on the nose and palate. Echoes of brandied cherry, orange peel and cinnamon-clove spice wind into the finish. This might be just the ticket to experiment with Cognac-based Old Fashioneds. abv: 43%