While most of the consumption remains as an aperitif, with very loyal drinkers, a new audience of young cocktail enthusiasts is experimenting with brandy and cognac. Part of the reason is the classic cocktail revival; modern mixologists are also getting more creative in using the spirits.
Another factor: Cognac has the reputation of being more “high-brow,” which has some guests choosing it over other aperitifs. “Historically, the upper classes would never drink American whiskey—they would only drink Cognac,” says Max Seaman, general manager of The Varnish, a classic cocktail bar in Los Angeles. “Truly classic Mint Juleps and Sazeracs were made with Cognac.”
Indeed, “Cognac is one of the more sophisticated spirits,” says Kevin Langmack, bartender at Knee High Stocking Company, a Prohibition-themed bar in Seattle. “People will grab it over Scotch just for the air of sophistication.”
Mixologists and bar managers are the catalysts in most drinking trends—often pushing consumers beyond their comfort zones through education and experimentation.
Britten, for instance, takes an artisanal approach to his spirit choices, including Cognac. “We work at getting people things they may not have tried before,” he explains. Maison Premiere also uses a lesser-known Cognac in the well—Bache-Gabrielsen VSOP, he notes.
Britten offers seven Cognacs, priced from $12 for Dudognon Reserve to $95 for the Maison Surrenne “Lot 1946/137.” A popular cocktail at Maison Premiere is Arnaud’s French 75 ($13), made with Fin Bois Cognac, lemon, sugar and Champagne.
Andre’s Restaurant & Lounge in the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino in Las Vegas is seeing “an increased interest in the world of Cognac/brandy, as it makes for a great digestif,” says general manager Marc Boutiron. “We encounter many occasions where a guest has not gravitated towards Cognac or brandy, yet is eager to try one of our many selections or simply try a new brand.”
For example, he explains that women are drawn to Belle de Brillet from Jacques Hardy ($20). “This a unique Cognac infused with the Poire Williams from Switzerland,” he explains. “It has 20 pounds of pears per bottle—a very sweet, decadent digestif.”
Calling it straight
Despite the cocktail craze, Cognac and brandy are still big call drinks, with many consumers asking for specific brands. According to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, the top five brands for 2012 are E&J, Hennessy, Paul Masson Brandy, Christian Brothers and Remy Martin.
“Neat is the way we recommend in drinking this spirit,” says Boutiron. “We offer a large snifter with a large area of breathing space to amplify the various nuances of flavors. We are very open to any demand a guest may want or require.”
Boutiron offers 80 Cognacs ($14 to $830), with top sellers coming from Chef Andre’s Private Labels. “We offer the Andre’s Cognac, a blend of 50- to 100-year-old eau de vie ($225) and the 20-year Andre’s Armagnac ($28),” he says.
Andre’s also offers flights of Cognac to help with experimentation, Boutiron says. A top seller is the “Blended Cognac Flight” for $39, which features Leopold Brugerolle VSOP, Comte G de Lagrange Prestige and Leyrat Domaine de Chez Maillard, Napoleon.
“Cognac is still something that older people with money like to enjoy,” says Langmack. “It’s meant to be enjoyed straight out of the bottle as it is.” He offers three Cognacs, including the bestseller Remy Martin XO.
Not that all guests shun ice: “Recently, I’ve noticed a lot more people calling for Cognac on the rocks,” says Seaman. “We do have two Cognacs just for sipping.”
A popular call is Hennessey, but since The Varnish doesn’t carry the brand, he offers them the house Cognac—Paul Giraud VSOP Grand Champagne ($14). “It’s a lighter, family-run Cognac,” he says. The other sipping Cognac is Le Reviseur XO Petite Champagne ($16).
The retro cocktail scene and the related bars that have popped up during the past few years have played a key role in increasing the popularity of Cognac and brandy.
Knee High Stocking’s Prohibition theme bar lends itself to a variety of handcrafted drinks. Langmack says the venue’s popular calls include the Hennessy Sidecar ($10), made with Hennessy, Cointreau and lemon juice, and the Old Fashioned French Italian ($11), which has orange peel and bitters mixed with Remy Martin VSOP, Fernet Branca and simple syrup, with a cherry on top.
At The Varnish, Seaman uses Cognac in various executions of classic drinks. Most people don’t come into The Varnish looking specifically for Cognac, he notes, “but for people who are interested in traditional cocktails, we end up getting them a Cognac cocktail.”
The Varnish features just five cocktails on its menu. “Everything else is a customer call or we make a bartenders’ choice” that often will include Cognac, he says.
For example, Harry’s Pick-Me-Up is a drink from the UKBG Approved Cocktails book from 1937, Seaman says. It’s made with Pierre Ferrand Ambre 1er Cru Cognac, fresh lemon juice, house-made grenadine and Champagne, and priced at $13.
The Varnish also offers various punches, which are popular with customers, he says. The Fish House Punch can be pre-ordered in a punch bowl for $100 or served as a cocktail for $13. It’s made with Pierre Ferrand Ambre 1er Cru Cognac, Jamaican rum, peach liqueur and fresh lemon juice.
The traditional Brandy Alexander ($14) is a bestseller at Andre’s Restaurant and Lounge. Boutiron also features a specialty Cognac cocktail called The Golden Rooster ($18), made with Belle De Brillet and diced pears, topped with brut Champagne.
With consumers more open to experimentation at the bar and the continued strength of classic cocktails, bar managers should be able to further expand the reach—and sales—of the category. Brandy/Cognac “is not the last category to explore,” says Maison Premiere’s Britten, “but it’s the next.”