Despite increasing Cognac interest in Asia-Pacific in 2008, for the first time in more than a decade global Cognac sales fell and consumption was down nearly 9 percent in the United States (the world’s largest Cognac market) according to the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, which accounted for more than one third of total volume. The organization currently is finalizing data for 2009 and hoping for somewhat of a recovery at the end of 2009.
To generate interest and stimulate sales, Cognac producers held the 3rd International Cognac Summit in the medieval town center of Cognac in January, inviting more than two dozen creative mixologists from the United States and throughout Europe to revisit classic Cognac cocktails—the Sidecar, Mint Julep, Stinger and the Brandy Alexander, among others—and to shake them up as something new. And that they did in the form of cocktails such as Pimp My Julep, made with Cognac, brown sugar and passion fruit pulp; Aloha from Cognac, made V.S.O.P Cognac, fresh pineapple and ginger and Bénédictine; and A Sidecar Ride Through Wine Country, made with X.O. Cognac, orange pekoe tea, Sauternes and honey syrup.
The mixologists, including Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland, Ore.’s Clyde Common, Todd Appel from The Crimson Lounge in Chicago and Julie Reiner of Manhattan’s Flatiron Lounge and Brooklyn’s Clover Club, shared some ideas in common: fresh herbs and fruits, extra large fruit peels, a careful balance between sweet and sour, and complexity of flavors in a single drink. Even though they were tasked with and clearly relished putting a fresh spin on old classics, many of them emphasized the importance of keeping to the natural DNA of the originals.
Cognac is being consumed in U.S. bars and restaurants in a variety of ways—neat, on the rocks, with soda, and in cocktails, according some to the operators and mixologists who attended. “I always have one cocktail on the menu, even though lots of people say they’re afraid of brown spirits like Cognac or whiskey,” says Appel. “And then I do a lot of improvisational cocktails in which I might use Cognac.”
Out of 25 cocktails on Reiner’s menus at Flatiron and Clover Club, priced $11 to $12 at Clover and $13 at Flatiron, two or three might be Cognac based. “I tend to put it on the menu in Fall or Winter because it’s warming. I also like it with dark or light rum in a punch.”
The relatively high cost of the spirit can be an obstacle to the growth of Cognac cocktails on several of the mixologists’ menus, but all say it will always be there for people who want a gateway to drinking X.O. and V.S.O.P. straight.
“I won’t put a Sidecar on the menu because it’s going to be one of the most popular drinks and we’d break even on that. It’s not a smart choice,” says Reiner. “I hope that the cocktails made with Cognac or 12-year-old Scotch are not going to be the most popular, but sometimes they are. And then you’re not going to make any money.”
Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common, agrees. “I either take a loss, charge more than I’m comfortable with or use a lesser grade of spirit… If someone asks for Cognac and is okay with a $10 cocktail, then I will make it,” he says, adding that standard prices for menu drinks in Portland range from $7 to $9.
But at Los Angeles’ Varnish, co-owner Eric Alperin says he’s found a cost-effective way to use Cognac. “People are under the false impression that you have to use a high-end product in the mix—quite the opposite in my mind. You just need a Cognac that can stand up to the mixing components in the cocktail.
“Yes, a more expensive Cognac can extend some more personality to a creation, but with owners conscious of their margins, a lower end Cognac is fine,” Alperin says, who uses a Landy V.S. Cognac in his cocktails at $23 per liter. “Once you get people hooked on Cognac, they might start calling for higher-end products and at that point the bartender might even recommend that they enjoy it neat.”
Appel also is undaunted by Cognacs on the higher end. “I love mixing with Cognac. I’m from Wisconsin and they make all their Manhattans and Old Fashioneds with brandy. You can make a really special Manhattan with a solid mid-level Cognac, like a V.S.O.P. Sidecars are all the rage, and there are amazing variations on that theme such as passion fruit, pear and elderflower.”
Still a niche player behind the bar, Cognac nevertheless has its uses for the creative operator.
Pimp My Julep
(a variation on the Mint Julep)
This recipe comes from the Third Annual International Cognac Summit. All the cocktail recipes were team efforts. The team included Francesco Lafranconi of Southern Wine & Spirits, who presented this drinks, and Eric Alperin of Varnish.
1½ oz. V.S.O.P. Cognac
11 mint leaves
2 tbsp. brown sugar
½ passion fruit, pulp
¾ oz. Grand Marnier
Passion fruit shell for garnish
In an Old Fashioned glass, add 10 mint leaves, sugar and pulp. Muddle gently for 10 seconds. Add the Cognac and Grand Marnier. Fill glass with crushed ice and stir well. Garnish with passion fruit shell and mint.