Kicking back with a brandy seems like an old fashioned way to imbibe. But brandy, Cognac and Armagnac appeal to a variety of spirits aficionados.
Brandy can be front and center in a cocktail, or add subtle notes along with another base spirit. And as with many spirits, classic libations have helped drive sales of wine’s more-spirited cousin.
“The cocktail culture has relied on resurrecting the original versions of drinks and long-forgotten drinks, and this category plays a huge role in those cocktails,” says James Tidwell, master sommelier/beverage manager for the 34 U.S. locations of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. The high-end hotel chain stocks 15 different expressions of brandy, priced from $14 to $188 for a 2-oz. pour.
As for cocktails, Four Seasons’ dining and bar concepts offer options like the Cognac Smash ($14), with Courvoisier VS Cognac, lime, simple syrup and mint, topped with soda. A more luxurious version of the traditionally gin-based French 75 ($27) is made with Roederer Brut Premier Champagne and Rémy Martin VSOP Cognac.
At the 11 locations of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, the Original Sazerac ($14 to $16, depending on location) replaces rye with Cognac—traditionally used in America’s oldest cocktail.
“The original recipe is smoother and easier to drink, with no pepperiness from the rye,” notes Ed Eiswirth, director of beverage for parent company Double Eagle Restaurant Group, headquartered in Southlake, TX. “Not better or worse—just different.”
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse does offer a rye version of the Sazerac; and it’s also added a Sidecar ($14 to $16, depending on location), which Eiswirth believes better highlights Cognac. The chain carries 17 Cognacs, Armagnacs and brandies priced from $10 to more than $250.
Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., a 167-seat steakhouse and seafood restaurant operated by the Michael Mina Group, also offers an original Sazerac ($23), with Rémy Martin 1738 Cognac. “Depending on the function, like any base spirit, [brandy] gives structure to a cocktail,” explains head bartender Duane Sylvestre. “It all depends on the style of brandy you’re using, the fruit base, and whether the spirit is aged or unaged.”
The Brandy Crusta-esque Classic Cocktail ($17), from the 1930s Savoy Cocktail Book, combines Hardy VS Cognac, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, Luxardo Maraschino and lemon. It’s served up in a coupe with a sugared rim and lemon twist. Bourbon Steak stocks 33 brandies, priced $11 to $650.
Sprucing up the Stinger
A classic Stinger adds crème de menthe to a spirit—usually Cognac. Refreshingly minty, this cocktail was the nightcap of choice in the 1950s and 1960s.
Chicago gastro-lounge Sable Kitchen & Bar has revived the Stinger, along with a few other two-ingredient classic cocktail riffs, all priced at $14. A good Stinger, according to head bartender Mike Ryan, should be well balanced, and use a high-quality crème de menthe—he’s partial to Giffard.
“The Stinger is a great digestive cocktail, bracing and bold,” he says. “It uses a ridiculous amount of crème de menthe, and shouldn’t work, but the acidity of the Cognac and the overall intensity of the cocktail brings it all together.”
While Ryan admits that that Stinger is perhaps a “red-headed stepchild of the cocktail world,” this love-it-or-hate-it libation can appeal to anyone “who wants that retro feel, or just wants a delicious, palate-cleansing after-dinner drink.” Sable Kitchen & Bar stocks 47 Cognacs, Armagnacs and brandies, which are priced $9 to $280.
Depending on its other components—and the amount used—brandy can either play a lead or supporting role in a cocktail, according to Tim Riley, beverage director for the five concepts of Bagby Restaurant Group in Baltimore and Towson, MD. He likes to mix it with other spirits, including aged rum and rye.
“The combination of fruit and oak spice that these spirits offer is so friendly in drinks,” Riley says. Bagby Restaurant Group concepts offer about 15 brandies, which range in price from $8 to $40.
Offer an Education
Though Cognac and its ilk can be a little daunting for the newbie, Dennis Lofland says it’s a category definitely worth exploring. “Guests, in some cases, can be intimidated by the category, but those in the know truly delight in the complexities these spirits have to offer,” notes the director of beverage for the 3,309-room Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Lofland created the cocktail menu at Franklin, a cocktail bar at the Delano Las Vegas hotel located within the Mandalay Bay. The New Deal drink ($15) shakes D’Usse Cognac with lemon, orgeat, Licor 43 and plum marmalade. “The balance of sweet, sour and bitter serves to perfectly complement the subtle oakiness of D’Usse, and leave a soft and balanced finish on the palate,” he says.
The brandy category is so vast that many guests are unsure what even constitutes a brandy, Sylvestre says. Enter Bourbon Steak’s trolley, which stocks high-end brandies (and whiskeys), which are wheeled over and poured tableside.
Launched this past April, the custom-built cart has been a huge hit—and offers a bit of liquid education for guests. Past trolley offerings included a foie gras-infused Armagnac from Castarede ($23), a nod to the propensity for duck on the menu in Gascony, the region in France in which the artisanal brandy is produced.
At Four Seasons’ locations, Tidwell stocks Armagnac (which he refers to as “the outsider beverage of choice”) as a more robust and flavorful alternative to refined Cognac. It provides servers and bartenders a talking point to make a connection with guests.
Tidwell has also seen a resurgence in Normandy’s apple-based brandy. “Calvados is having a renaissance due to the current infatuation with cider,” he notes. Four Seasons offers the Christian Drouin ($14) and Daron XO ($15) Calvados.
Many guest still enjoy a brandy at the end of a meal, but operators shouldn’t take an after-dinner drink order for granted, says Eiswirth. The general trend is to go straight to coffee, he says, as even guests who aren’t partaking in dessert want something to enjoy after the meal.
This is an opportunityto suggest a brandy or Cognac after dinner, Eiswirth says. As a guest, he notes, “I don’t think about ordering Cognac or brandy unless you ask me—so ask for the sale.”
Del Frisco guests typically gravitate towards either a Brandy Alexander ($8 to $12, depending on brandy used), or one of the three to five brandy options priced $10 to $18, served neat. Eiswirth advises guests looking for value to order Hennessey XO Cognac, which delivers well for the price. He also recommends anything by Hardy.
Guests at Mandalay Bay’s various on-site food and beverage concepts typically enjoy Cognac, Armagnac and brandy neat, Lofland says. The resort offers 16, with prices ranging from $16 to $77 for a 2-oz. pour.
Stricter no-smoking policies have in large part caused a downturn in the brandy enjoyed after dinner, Eiswirth says. “We’ve lost the ability to sell cigars as a country, and it’s affected sales of Cognac and brandy over the years.”
He notes that the Denver location of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse maintains a completely enclosed cigar lounge—it also happens to have the highest Cognac sales of any location.
Some operators are seeing brandy cocktails overtaking the snifter and cigars. At Sable Kitchen & Bar, Ryan says Hennessey with Coke or cranberry juice is responsible for 20% of Cognac sales, ultra-high-end Louis XIII Cognac sipped neat accounts for another 20%, and the remainder is for classic sips like the Sidecar, Crusta and Jack Rose.
Brandy-based libations, Ryan says, are versatile and appeal to a wide demographic. The audience for this drink “is everyone from young millennial hipsters to aging yuppies to blue-haired little old ladies.”
Kelly A. Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.
Introducing the Hennessy HenChata
Horchata, a Latin American beverage made with ground almonds, rice, cinnamon and other ingredients, is making a splash in the mixology world. First the folks at RumChata had the idea to mix horchata’s flavors with rum to create a cream liqueur, which in turn spawned several competitors and started the sugar-cereal-flavored drinks and shots trend.
Now a cocktail that mixes traditional horchata with Hennessy Cognac is lighting up the Bay Area. Jorge Sanchez of Chacho’s in San Jose is credited with creating the Henchata, which combines 1 ½ oz. of Hennessy VS with 3 oz. of horchata. (A plastic clip that clamps onto the rim of the glass holds an upside down 50-ml. bottle of Hennessy in place.)
Horchata is a common flavor in aguas frescas–light, non-alcoholic beverages popular in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, says Manny Gonzalez, Hennessy’s senior director of multicultural. This is part of the cocktail’s appeal among Latino consumers. Other agua fresca flavors include tamarind, hibiscus and watermelon.
“We have to be careful with what we blend [Hennessy] with,” Gonzales says of the brand’s concerted efforts to appeal to the Hispanic demographic. “Authenticity is the only way we are going to be credible.” —MD