The cocktail revolution has left its mark all over the spirits business. The resurgence of gin and the reawakening to rye are only two of the most obvious examples of what contemporary mixology trends can do for a spirit.
So, what about Cognac and brandy?
The category expanded 0.9 percent in 2007 to reach 10.6 million cases, according to Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, but take away the increases logged by leading Cognac brand Hennessy and leading domestic brandy E&J—3.1 percent and 5.4 percent gains in 2007, respectively—and you’ve got a category that’s down by more than 100,000 cases. Subtract the gains of second leading Cognac brand Rémy Martin, which grew 1.7 percent, and it might be considered a category in trouble. But it need not be.
American and imported brandy, while a staple in the tavern business in a few states (see sidebar), has little national presence on-premise; it’s primarily a retail category. Its luxurious and complex imported colleague, Cognac, however, now has a unique opportunity to show off the depths of flavor and nuance it brings to cocktails. But convincing bartenders and guests that there is life for Cognac beyond the snifter requires leaping over a few obstacles.
“The marketing of Cognac has been driven so much by the neat drinker—the connoisseur—that it hasn’t really emphasized how incredibly well it mixes,” says Portland, Ore.-based cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian. “I’m a huge fan of Cognac in cocktails, and I’m surprised [how poorly it does on-premise]. The way Cognac has been marketed for so long has impaired bartenders’ ability to think about it as a mixer.”
“I haven’t seen a lot of cocktails made with Cognac these days,” says Ray Srp, master mixologist for Bellagio Las Vegas. “I think part of the reason is that it’s just not a familiar product to work with. If you told most bartenders to create a cocktail for you and you didn’t mention a spirit, they’re going to reach for vodka, gin or maybe bourbon, but not Cognac.”
Quite a comedown for the core spirit in classic cocktails such as the Sidecar, the original Sazerac and the Brandy Crusta.
It’s not like the Cognaçaise aren’t trying. Last February, for instance, Cognac makers invited a host of international bartenders, including Americans Brian Van Flandern, Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders and Jacques Bezuidenhaut, to the Cognac Summit, a multi-day cocktail development effort to highlight the regional spirit.
Cognac adds to the luxurious experience at venues such as Alex in the Wynn Hotel and Casino (above), and to cocktails such as the Aphrodisiac (below), which combines Remy Martin VSOP with fresh strawberries, pomegranate juice and pressed apple juice.
Individual brands are doing their part as well. Magarian’s consulting company, Liquid Relations, worked with New York City mixologists Chad Solomon and Christy Pope on a national tour for Hennessy to demonstrate to bartenders the spirit’s mixability. Courvoisier’s marketers are promoting a new brand, Exclusif, as a sweeter and more mixable VSOP, and just introduced the trade program, “Le Nez de Courvoisier,” to educate retailers and distributors about the house style. Rémy Martin’s single-vintage 1989 and Martel’s Grand Création Extra Cognac recently were introduced as luxury expressions priced at around $300 retail in the hopes of creating a stir among barkeeps and their patrons.
For his part, Magarian has included Cognac-based cocktails on drink menus he’s created for SBE Restaurant and Nightlife Group, which operates, among others, Foxtail Restaurant & Lounge and Katsuya in Los Angeles. Among them are the Foxtail Fresh, made with organic mint, Hennessy VS, Lucid Absinthe, lemon juice and club soda, and the Authentic Eastern Raspberry Sidecar, created with raspberries, Hennessy VS, cloudy Nigori sake, Cointreau and lime, both of which he says are selling well. Srp just introduced a Sidecar involving Cognac infused with pineapple, orange zest and vanilla bean for the Baccarat lounge at the Bellagio, where most Cognac is ordered by high rollers going for top marquees Hardy Perfection, Courvoisier L’Esprit and Rémy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl, which is priced at $1,200 a serving.
But both drink mavens are conscious of the hurdles Cognac faces. Cognac’s imagery in the U.S. as an after-dinner treat has created a barrier, says Srp. “People aren’t used to seeing cocktails made with Cognac; they’ll sip one neat after dinner but wouldn’t consider a Cognac cocktail.”
Which is odd, says InterContinental Hotel’s Rene Van Camp, corporate beverage director for the Americas. He observes, “If you go to Cognac, they’ll mix it with anything. As long as it tastes good and is well balanced, they don’t mind.”
Other hurdles may include the spirit’s hefty price tag, says Jim Meehan, owner of New York’s cocktail destination, PDT. “The cocktail generation has grown up on gin, rye, applejack and rum, where you’ve been able to find good brands at $18 to $24 bottle, which is the sweet spot. You can make a profit on a cocktail program built on those spirits.”
Now that consumers in major cities accept cocktails priced at $12 and up, he says, more bartenders might start working with Cognacs. But the awkward bottle sizes and shape, Meehan points out, won’t help; Cognac makers traditionally have emphasized stand-out bottle design, often using squat and curved bottles that are sometimes ribbed or otherwise designed for looks and not utility. They’re simply not easy bottles for bartenders to handle, Meehan contends.
“I’ve said to producers that they should start thinking of what can fit best in the bartender’s hand and in the well,” Meehan notes. Indeed, reasonably priced and pour-friendly bottles might more rapidly end up in the speed rail, where brands build case sales.
High-end Cognacs shine at InterContinental Hotel Buckhead’s XO Bar.
Bartender and consumer awareness is an issue, adds Magarian. “To the average American drinker, Cognac is scary; it’s a commitment by the drinker. It also evokes smoky rooms, cigars and hangovers to the average drinker,” he says, making it a hard sell for younger drinkers with no previous connection with the spirit.
Although it is what makes it special, the complexity of the spirit presents another challenge. While she has created several Cognac cocktails as mixologist for Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Patricia Richards says higher-end Cognacs can flummox the best bartender.
“You need to be careful—some Cognacs can overpower the other ingredients, so it’s important to select one with the right balance and softness on the palate.” When creating the Centurion—Cognac, Grand Marnier, fresh sweet and sour and ginger ale—she found that Hardy Noces D’or and Hennessy XO overpowered the drink; she prefers Hennessy VS with its subtle apple flavors.
She also notes that the flood of newly introduced products means Cognac makers will need to invest in developing back shelf presence by winning the loyalty of bartenders and servers.
Lots of operators seem determined to update Cognac’s image, or at least meld it with the more traditional one. New York City’s Brandy Library built its brown spirits reputation on the world’s brandies and Cognacs. XO Bar at the InterContinental Hotel Buckhead in Atlanta goes a step further, serving only Cognacs XO and above (XO, or Extra Old Cognacs, must be aged in wood for a minimum of six and a half years, and many contain Cognac older than 30 years). The lounge now stocks more than 100 Cognacs, some sourced from auctions and private collectors.
“The idea was pretty basic,” says Van Camp of the XO concept. “We have made it very accessible and not overly expensive for people to taste and try Cognac, to learn what the differences are [between brands], where Cognac comes from, what it is and what it is not.
“We have the classic cocktails, of course, but we made some with the most expensive Cognac sold in the country,” Van Camp adds. “We thought it would be a good way of showing that you can do a lot with expensive Cognac.”
XO’s cocktails definitely are for high rollers: the Le Rève des Anges, made with Hennessy Timeless, Chambord and Dom Perignon, is priced at $550, the Les Fleurs du Roi, made with Louis XIII, Perrier Jouët La Belle Epoque Fleur de Champagne, rock candy syrup and Angostura bitters, goes for $400, and the L’Esprit XO, composed of Courvoisier L’Esprit and Extase XO, is listed for $450.
Other establishments are also taking the super-expensive path, like The Body English Nightclub at the Las Vegas Hard Rock, where the Presidential, made with Rémy Martin Louis XIII and Dom Perignon, is priced at $1,000. Or Vegas’ MGM Grand, where $2,200 is the price tag on the High Limit Kir Royale, featuring Roederer Cristal Rosé Champagne, Hardy Perfection, Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantenaire and raspberries.
Manhattan’s Brasserie Cognac, which stocks nearly 100 Cognacs, has taken a more modest route to Cognac cocktails, creating eight $12 drinks for the restaurant’s list. The most popular, the Do-Rémy, is made with Rémy Martin VS, apple juice, sour, St-Germain and Piper Heidsieck Champagne. As many as 50 go over the bar on a busy night, says bar manager Ben Demarchelier.
In developing the menu, Demarchelier focused on digestive drinks, like the French Manhattan, but the positive response moved him to experiment with more fun Cognac-based cocktails that could be served throughout the meal. Dessert drinks are selling well at meal’s end, like La Crème de la Crème, made with Rémy, pastis, Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur, Grand Marnier and heavy cream. Brasserie Cognac also educates guests about each brand and expression with descriptive notes in a Cognac menu book.
Meehan says he’s always had a Cognac cocktail on his menus, but that brandy-based drinks traditionally are the slowest sellers of his drink offerings. One exception is his recent success, the French Maid, made with Cognac, cucumber, mint, falernum and house-made ginger beer. The cocktail built on the spirit’s high acid, body, presence on the palate and fruit qualities—not to mention the current popularity of cucumber and mint in drinks—to propel the drink to the top of his sales list.
Tapping into the spirit’s mixability is what Magarian and others call necessary to revive Cognac and turn on new imbibers to the venerable spirit. “Cognac will meld especially well with drinks with fruit flavors and complex bitters,” Magarian says, noting that the traditional approach to the spirit will likely not interest the current generation of enthusiastic cocktail drinkers. “I don’t think there are many new drinkers coming to Cognac in a snifter anytime soon.”
Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers, and he’s written for the Food Network and publications such as the New York Daily News and the Washington Post.
Mixing in the Midwest
Visitors to Wisconsin who order a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned in a restaurant may be surprised when they are served a drink that’s been made with brandy rather than bourbon or Canadian whisky. In these states, brandy brands such as E&J, Paul Masson, Christian Brothers and Korbel continue to hold market share. At a time when most domestic and imported brandies are losing shelf space in bars and restaurants, this region is a notable exception.
The Midwest is traditionally a strong brandy market; Wisconsin and Minnesota are the second and third largest per capita markets for brandy and Cognacs, following Washington, DC. But outside of the states in the upper Midwest, cocktails that traditionally have called for brandy, like the Sidecar, are being made these days with VS Cognac in most bars.
Ironically, while contemporary serving styles such as Hennessy and Coke are frequently decried by old fashioned drinkers who prefer their brandy in a snifter (in actuality, a serving style method frowned upon in Cognac), one of the category’s strengths is its mixability. In the Cognac region itself, a common bar offering is Cognac and tonic. And while most imported non-Cognac brandies are down, bartenders these days are looking more often to the lush Spanish brandies, often aged in sherry barrels, for flavor inspiration.
A World of Brandy
While French Cognac and American brandy are the two major grape-based spirit categories in the U.S., others have strong niches and offer restaurateurs the opportunity to stand out.
Pisco is one of the emerging spirit sub-categories, bolstered by the buzz among bartenders in Las Vegas and other top drink markets about Peruvian brands including BarSol and Macchu Pisco. Chilean Pisco, especially Pisco Capel, also are building sales quickly. The two nations bitterly dispute the spirit’s origin and have different production rules—in Peru, all Pisco must be bottled at the proof the spirit comes off the still, with no water added, for instance—and use different grape varietals. For U.S. barkeeps, the drama and differences create great opportunities to present comparative tastings to curious customers.
While the Pisco Sour has returned to the repertoire of standard classic cocktails, new drinks are emerging and are more likely to attract contemporary customers. One such creation is the Sideways Sour, made from Pisco, fresh sour, Cointreau, white grape juice and pinot noir wine, which is served at the Baccarat Bar at the Bellagio Las Vegas.
Grappa, of course, has long been a major product in Italian restaurants. Distilled from grape pomace, the residue of wine making that includes whole grape skins and seeds, grappa usually is aged briefly in a combination of barrels, glass and stainless steel containers. Bar 888 at the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco is among the new wave of grappa bars, offering six contemporary grappa cocktails such as the Chamomile Crush—made from Morolo Chamomile Grappa, lemon juice, agave nectar and orange blossom water—and a wide selection of the leading Italian brands, notably Nonino, Nardini and the famed Jacopo Poli, among others.
Mexican brandy, unfortunately, shows little sign of growth anywhere in the U.S., on-premise or off. Spanish brandy, on the other hand, is liked by many of the new wave of bartenders for the characteristics it provides in cocktails. A sweet and earthy spirit, Spanish brandy derives much of its character from its sherry barrel aging.