France’s celebrated spirit demystified.
by Libe Goad
photograph by Adrienne Helé
In the midst of the cocktail revolution,cognac has managed to stand on its own, maintaining its reputation as a drink of sophistication that has garnered the attention of trendy cigar smokers and members of the spirits elite adhering to the drink-less-drink-better credo.
And with cognac consumption as its highest since the late ’80s, according to the 1998 Adams Liquor Handbook, it’s apparent that consumers have found renewed interest in cognac’s complex nature and are ready to gain a better understanding how this spirit, also known as “liquid gold,” made its way into existence.
In fact, the cognac market boomed in 1997, up more than 10%, with leading brands Hennessy, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin all showing significant increases.
In the Beginning
Sources dispute who gets the credit for discovering this spirit goldmine. The French would obviously like to lay claim to its creation, though the history books say it originated with the Dutch, who found themselves burdened with excessive import taxes on low-alcohol wines coming from the region of France now known as Cognac. The wines often did not survive the trip back to Holland so the prudent Dutch distilled them before the voyage home, creating brandewijn, Dutch for “burned wine,” with the intent of replenishing the transported eau-de-vie, or “soul,” of the wine with water. The Dutch tried the brandewijn, liked it and thus the inception of the cognac, and brandy, trade.
Over-sized baloon snifters may be the most popular way to serve cognac in the US, but cognac cognoscenti, such as those shown here recommend using the chimney glass to concentrate the spirit’s aroma.
For the next two centuries, the cognac market matured into a legitimate industry. The French improved production with the introduction of the double-distillation process. Cognac agencies sprouted in major French towns, collecting cognacs from distillers and establishing a distribution network in Holland, England and northern Europe that eventually expanded to North America and the Far East.
The 19th century was one of extreme highs and lows for the cognac industry, the highs when cognac started to be shipped in bottles rather than casks, which stirred up the need for related industries, such a glass works, cases and cork manufacturing, and printing. Around 1875, however, the cognac industry faced major losses when a virus in the Charentes destroyed a majority of the vines in the area. But under strict protective regulations, the vines and production have made strong comebacks in this century, creating cognacs that have earned the favor of spirits sippers around the globe.
To the novice spirits sipper, cognac may present as much of a mystery as do its beginnings. Deconstructed, cognac is a brandy grown in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments in western France. Distilled from wine under strict regulations, cognac originates from a low-alcohol wine made of ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard grapes grown in the region. (While colombard once predominated, today ugni blanc is the main grape of cognac.) No brandy made from grapes grown outside of the legal boundaries of these regions can be called cognac.
The wines that become cognac are, under government supervision, distilled twice in small batches to extract the fruity and flowery aromas and flavors of the grapes. The freshly distilled eau de vie then rests in new French oak casks for up to a year before being transferred to older casks to mellow, age and develop cognac’s characteristic complex flavor. The minimum aging period for cognac is two and a half years, but most are aged longer. The best mellow in their oak homes for 20-30 years.
As cognac ages in Limousin oak casks, it extracts colors and flavors.
As the spirit comes of age, the cognac casks are uncorked and blended with other batches until the desired mixture has been achieved. The “married” cognac is ready to be bottled, shipped and of course, drunk.
Tasting cognac differs from wine tasting, and unless customers are knowledgeable cognac or spirit drinkers, the initial tasting experience can be a bracing one.
Once you give a customer a tasting glass or snifter of brandy, advise them to cradle the glass in their hand to warm the brandy, which will aid the release of flavors and aromas. Cognac makers have started advising against the giant balloon snifters commonly used today, favoring the tulip glass instead. As Alexandre Gabriel, co-owner of Cognac Ferrand, says, professionals favor the narrow-mouthed glass to evaluate and enjoy cognac because it concentrates rather than dissipates all the best aromas in fine cognac. “You lose the nose through evaporation. Instead of appreciating aromas of vanilla, nuts and flowers, all you smell is alcohol.”
Swirling and aerating the spirit before nosing is also a method in dispute, as some say that, unlike wine, the aeration tends to push forward and enhance the powerful alcohol nose instead of the underlying flavors.
Nosing the spirit should be done cautiously by novices in any case, since most cognacs are 86 to 100 proof and a big whiff can be a surprising experience, or, as Oz Schoenstadt, owner of Chicago’s Huron on Hudson, says, “It will impair your ability to press on.”
Customers should then slowly sip the cognac and let the complex flavors unfold on the tongue. Depending on what cognac the customer tastes, they may pick up flavors of chocolate, leather, tobacco or a stronger vanilla-like quality. André Jammet, owner of LaCaravelle in Manhattan, says the first mistake people make is gulping down the cognac without taking time to experience the full range of flavor. “They think they are drinking Coca-Cola,” he says. “If you give me a good cognac, I can sit with it for an hour. It’s about tasting.” The aromas are so strong that, hours later, the aromas will linger in the empty glass.
Reading the Signs
Unlike with wine, cognac producers by shun vintage dates and rely on a letter and/or star system instead. (In fact, by French law, cognacs are not bottled in vintages, as most cognacs are blends of different spirits with different ages from different distilleries.
The lettering system, the most common of the two, can be thought of as the ABC’s of cognac classification. C stands for Cognac; E for Extra or Especial, F for Fine, O for Old, P for Pale, S for Superior, V for Very and X for Extra. Put them together, and you get the standard classifications for cognacs, as well as an idea of how long the cognac was aged and how it tastes. VS stands for Very Superior cognac but also communicates that the cognac is a young one, aged from two to four years and is best used as a mixer in cognac cocktails. VSOP, which is aged for four-and-a-half to 10 years, tells us that it can be savored both mixed or on its own. At the top of the list in age, and usually price, the XOs sit in casks for decades at a time and are the most expensive with a long and smooth finish worth savoring.
Hennessy, one of cognac’s largest producers, claims to have invented a star-rating system based on the winemaking lore that said comet years produce the finest wines. So, in the 1811 comet year, shippers designated the brandy of that year with a star. When an equal quality brandy was produced the next year, it was designated with two stars. After several more years of excellent wines, shippers stopped at five stars, and it became a standard for rating cognac, though the meaning of numbers of stars vary per cognac house.
Restaurants across the country aim to recruit people to the “cult of cognac” by offering small-scale tastings and with the power of suggestion.
Oz Schoenstadt, Harvest on Huron’s “Brandy Man,” finds that offering cognacs in full and half-size portions frees people to explore the mouth-feel and flavors of cognac. “We may do all five of the Delamain product, so they can explore a whole family, “Schoenstadt explained, “or we will do a line of VSOPs so they can explore a certain level laterally.”
Harvest on Huron also offers customers an introductory tasting mat that includes two cognacs, two armaganacs (single-distilled brandy) and a calvados (French apple brandy), so customers can compare at their leisure. And if they want help, Schoenstadt readily lends advice. “If they want a good cognac, I’ll give them a Pierre Ferrand Reserve, a Delamain Vesper or Pale & Dry or A. de Fussigny,” he says.
André Jammet of La Caravelle, who has recently introduced its own brand of cognac, La Caravelle Fine Champagne cognac blended by Alain Royer of A. De Fussigny, finds that customers respond better to buying cognac when presented with a list that includes prices.
“A person can say, ‘Give me the best of the best’ and then doesn’t want to pay,” he says. “I can bring it in the glass, and they say its beautiful, and then I tell them how much it is, and they don’t want it. The [customer] is never going to be happy, even if the cognac is good, and we don’t want that.” Jammet watches his customer base carefully, though, and when he finds someone who is willing to pay for fine wines and other spirits, he will approach them about trying a cognac. “It’s unexpected, and they enjoy that.”
Both restaurateurs agree that the older population are not the only ones sipping from the golden bowl. The cognac cult includes all ages, though most fall into upper income brackets. Though beer drinkers aren’t likely to be trading in their pint glasses for snifters anytime soon, the current experimental mindset among drinkers may develop into an increased number of cognac consumers–the same mindset that Schoenstadt says keeps three generations of people drinking his cognac.
“It’s people into food and wine,” Schoenstadt says about his cognac customers, “There is a savvy young group out there with people who are so naturally curious.”
Libe Goad, managing editor of Cheers, has recently learned to love cognac.
ONES OF A KIND
Single-malt Scotches begat single-barrel bourbons, which begat single village tequilas. Now, the single family has a new member: single-distillery and single-district Cognacs, different versions of which are now being imported from at least three French distillers.
Cognac has for generations been brought to market as a blend of numerous eaux-de-vies distilled in the Cognac region’s six sub-regions: Bois Ordinaire, Bons Bois, Fin Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne. But Hennessy, Gabriel & Andreu, and Louis Royer all have recently trotted out cognacs that have been distilled, aged and blended all in the same distillery, considered a radical idea in some parts of the business, where consistency year after year has become the hallmark of a successful distiller.
Hennessy’s three varieties, which already contribute much of the body and flavor to the company’s blended Cognac products, are Camp Romain, Izambard, and Le Peu, each the product of a single distillery which blends its own cognacs ranging from 7 to 25 years old to come up with the single distillery version.
Gabriel & Andreu is making a push for its own single-district, single-distillery cognacs, perhaps the first on the US market, distilled only in the four subregions known for the more refined Cognacs: Fins Bois (aged eight years), Borderies (aged 15 years), Petite Champagne (aged 25 years) and Grand Champagne (aged 35 years).
Louis Royer has just introduced its own array of five different single-distillery cognacs, each from a different distillery in a different growing region (cru) of the Cognac district. Each one is a different age, and distilled according to methods appropriate for the specific grape qualities. Its Fins Bois cognac from distillerie Chantal is two-to-three years old, from Fins Bois four-to-five, from the Borderies about eight years, from petite Champagne about 12, and from Grand Champagne about 15.
COGNAC IN THE NEW COCKTAIL ERA
While Cognac’s allure has been highly elevated in the US with the use of balloon snifters and tableside serving trays, in France, much of the output goes into cocktails and mixed drinks served the way we consume vodka and blended whiskies in this country. Cognac with soda, ginger ale, even tonic, are common sights in French bistros. Here are a few of the most popular.
3 large ice cubes
1 part cognac
2 parts fresh-squeezed orange juice
garnish with a spiral of orange peel
1 1/2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. Curacao
1/2 oz. orange juice
Shake in a shaker glass filled with ice. Strain into a Martini glass and garnish with a cherry.
1 1/2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. sugar syrup or to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon
Mix all ingredients, except champagne and lemon peel, with cracked ice in a shaker and shake. Pour into a chilled highball glass and fill with cold champagne. Twist lemon peel over drink and drop into glass.
1 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. raspberry liqueur
1/2 teaspoon Framboise
Stir Cognac and raspberry liqueur with several ice cubes in a mixing glass until well chilled. Pour into a chilled tulip glass and fill with cold champagne. Twist lemon peel over drink and drop into glass.
Ille de Plaisir
1 1/2 oz. Cognac
1/2 oz. Kaniche rum
1/4 oz. sugar syrup
1/4 oz. vanilla extract
1 teaspoon heavy cream
Mix all ingredients with cracked ice in a shaker and pour into a chilled Old-Fashioned glass.
1 oz. Curacao
1 oz. orange juice
2 oz. Cognac
Mix all ingedients in a skaer cup with ice. Shake, strain and serve.
2 oz. Bacardi light
2 oz. Cognac
juice of 1/4 lemon
Mix all ingredients in a shaker cup with ice. Shake, strain and serve.
Recipes drawn from Cognac, by Axel and Bibiana Behrendt, Abbeville Press; The New American Bartender’s Guide, By John Poister, Signet; and courtesy of Alexandre Gabriel of Cognac Pierre Ferrand, and Jacques Hebrard