Just mention the word “brandy,” and it conjures up various images, from the luxury, “bling” affiliation of Cognac and its promotion by sports stars and entertainers to the quaint image of a grandfather-type enjoying a snifter and a cigar in front of the fire. These perceptions of the venerable, grape-based spirit can be a blessing or a curse.
“I think it’s been tough to shake that predisposed vision of an old man from an old world, sipping an even older spirit after dinner in his smoking jacket,” says Bob McCoy, bartender and beverage programs liaison for the Boston restaurants Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne.
But the recent rebirth and availability of quality spirits, and the rise of the classic cocktail movement, have both breathed new life into brandy, he says.
Lockwood Restaurant at The Palmer House in Chicagoserves two brandies ($10 and $12), 12 Cognacs priced $12 to $70, and one Armagnac ($15). Nine out of 10 times these are ordered straight up, in a snifter or over ice, says Patrick Coyne, beverage manager for the 1,639-room Hilton hotel.
The smoothness and round mouth feel of brandy, Cognac, Armagnac and pisco make them more approachable for newbies than other spirits, not to mention a welcome addition to cocktails. The bar at the 233-seat American brasserie Eastern Standard offers more than 20 types of brandy and its brethren, ranging in price from $10 to $25.
Cocktails comprise a large part of Eastern Standard’s brandy program, and they help draw in a younger demographic. In addition to the classic Cognac-based Sidecar ($10) and apple brandy-based Jack Rose ($10), the restaurant offers the Vélo ($11), with Cognac, pastis, elderflower, tarragon and lemon, and the sparkling Belle du Jour ($12), with Cognac, lemon, Bénédictine and house-made grenadine.
Michael David Murphy has also seen an interest in younger guests—those aged 21 to 25—willing to try brandy and Cognac in cocktails. The beverage director for the six concepts of the New York-based Craft Restaurants Ltd. offers up several contemporary brandy sips at the 55-seat St. Louis restaurant Taste by Niche. The Old Flame ($10), for one, is a Sidecar variant and made with Camus VS Cognac, Rittenhouse rye, Cocchi Rosé, Dolin dry vermouth, Solerno blood orange liqueur and absinthe; the Sidewards ($10) mixes Camus VS Cognac with Yellow Chartreuse, Cointreau, lemon and absinthe.
“We are definitely seeing a guest interest in exploring the spirit,” says Murphy. Taste by Niche offers eight options in the brandy category, priced $6 to $20.
“When it looks more difficult to push [brandy], the cocktail or ‘mixit’ is the way to go,” says Flavien Desoblin, a member of the international society Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac and owner of the Brandy Library in New York.
The 80-seat, small-bites spot boasts a staggering selection of about 350 brandies, Cognacs, Armagnacs and piscos. “Cocktails would not have gotten started in the first place without brandies,” he points out.
Brandy Library’s menu describes its mixits as “Not Just Spirits, Almost Cocktails, Sort Of Mixed Drinks: Where Mixology And Spirits Meet.” Mixits ($16) combine 2 oz. of a spirit with a bar spoon of a Monin flavored syrup, served over ice. The Armagnac Mixit uses hazelnut syrup, while the version with Cognac adds jasmine to play up the spirit’s floral notes.
Brandy Library also offers a variety of brandy-based libations, both classic and modern, which sell for about $15. The Jarnac Ginger mixes Cognac, lime juice, cane syrup and ginger beer; the Sun of Normandy uses Calvados, fresh-pressed orange juice and grenadine; and Mississippi Punch combines Cognac with rum, Bourbon, bitters, lemon and sugar.
Most brandy drinkers prefer to sip it as or with dessert, which is where it’s often listed on the menu. Hilton locations actively promote brandy, Cognac and Armagnac with their entire dessert menus, and most of it is sold along with dessert.
The same goes for 30 locations of The Palm steakhouse, where national director of wine and spirits Angelica Sbai likes to pair the Larressingle VSOP Armagnac with the steakhouse’s Big Chocolate Layer Cake, a seven-layer, dark-chocolate cake with chocolate ganache.
The Palm offers nine mandated Cognacs and Armagnacs ranging in price from $12 to $84; each location has the flexibility to also serve regional preferences.
At Brandy Library, staff suggests a variety of dessert pairings, depending on the spirit. Cognac is positioned as a great partner for delicate macarons and madeleines, while Armagnac goes nicely with chocolate cake, a cheese plate or foie gras.
Brandy and its kin can also be enjoyed throughout an entire meal. Jesse Hiney, wine director for the 160-seat American brasserie NoPa in Washington, D.C., likes to pair brandy with rich, fatty meats, as you would a big, tannic red wine. “The food softens the spirit, while the spirit cuts through the richness of the dish,” he says, citing the example of how the ingredients in a brandy cream sauce temper one another. NoPa has 14 options in the brandy category, priced $12 to $60.
At Eastern Standard, McCoy recommends foie gras terrine, glazed pigtails, charcuterie, pork porterhouse and quail as brandy accompaniments.
Even though many guests don’t view it in the same category as their amber-hued counterparts, pisco is a grape-based spirit and technically a brandy. The South American spirit has been gaining traction in the U.S. in recent years.
The staff at Brandy Library works to educate guests about pisco and get them to understand that it has more applications than the Pisco Sour—though the operator does offer the classic cocktail for $15. Desoblin believes that few customers order it as a sipping beverage because most pisco isn’t aged. Brandy Library serves three piscos, all priced at $12.
“Pisco is much better perceived [than other brandies],” says The Palmer Houses’ Coyne. “I think it has a lot to do with its versatility, and many bars finding unique ways to offer pisco,” he says. Lockwood has included several eclectic pisco potables on the menu like the Pineapple Pisco Punch ($13.50), with Barsol pisco, muddled pineapple, pineapple juice and fresh lemon juice.
McCoy has noticed that pisco awareness has greatly increased, and there are now more bottles available from both Chile and Peru. (The two countries have been fighting over who invented pisco for centuries).
While pisco primarily used at Eastern Standard in the Pisco Sour ($10), the operator also offers it in other drinks like a riff on the Pisco Punch ($10) with pineapple syrup, lemon and Peychaud’s Bitters, and the Manhattan variant El Capitan ($12), with Carpano Antica and their house-made infusion of Fernet Branca, Cynar and Créole Shrubb.
FOR MATURE AUDIENCES
Cocktail drinkers aside, most brandy fans—especially Cognac drinkers—still skew towards an older demographic. “It is definitely a more mature crowd drinking Cognac,” age 40 and older, says Coyne. “The younger generation does not have too much knowledge or experience with Cognac.”
Coyne attributes this partly to an overemphasis on marketing and advertising flavored vodkas to younger consumers.
The Palm’s Sbai believes “the category still needs to be discovered by the millennials, but the baby boomers and established Gen Xers seem to have a handle on it.”
Some guests who typically do not gravitate towards the brandy category may be swayed, but NoPa’s Hiney thinks for the most part, interest is fixed. “Guests are either brandy drinkers or they’re not. It’s not really something we suggest someone order if they are new to the spirit.”
But as with many spirits, promotion and education go a long way in terms of customer perception and understanding of the brandy/Cognac category. To make brandy more approachable for the uninitiated or unfamiliar, Taste by Niche offers a flight for $11.
And with the ongoing interest in classic spirits and craft cocktails, plus the trendiness and increased availability of pisco, the category stands to gain many more converts. ·
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.
THE APPEAL OF ARMAGNAC
Like Cognac, Armagnac is a French brandy, distilled from grapes in the Gascony region of the southwestern part of France. Armagnac is the oldest spirit in France, with a long history and tradition. But there are differences between it and its more famous cousin. May Matta-Aliah, president of the New York-based wine education and consulting organization In the Grape, and an Armagnac ambassador, points out that Armagnac is more artisanal than Cognac, and possesses fruitier notes, as opposed to Cognac’s floral ones.
“Armagnac is a deeply flavorful and rich brandy, with flavors ranging from patisserie to vanilla, plums and butterscotch in the younger blends, to prunes, spice and leather in the older blends,” says Matta-Aliah. She believes most who try Armagnac love it. But lack of awareness, coupled with the limited financial resources and advertising budget of the small region, keep Armagnac under the radar, and out of many guests’ glasses.
“Bold, rustic, manly, obscure, deep, complex, difficult, enchanting, austere, fragrant. It’s a love-or-hate relationship,” says Flavien Desoblin about Armagnac. A member of the Mousquetaire d’Armagnac and owner of Brandy Library in New York, Desoblin says the lack of marketing power means fewer guests get to sample Armagnac. Brandy Library offers about 90 Armagnacs; it’s also featured in cocktails like The Paradox ($15), with Armagnac, orange liqueur and Amarula cream liqueur; and The Musket ($15), with Armagnac, muddled fig, honey and lemon juice.
Michael David Murphy, beverage director for the six concepts of Craft Restaurants Ltd., also positions Armagnac as more masculine, with hints of spice, as opposed to Cognac’s more feminine, softer palate. Craft’s Taste by Niche restaurant in St. Louis serves the Tariquet 12 Year Folle Blanche Armagnac for $12.
Blanche was an AOC established in 2005 for unaged Armagnac, and Matta-Aliah says this sector of the category is attracting the most attention. But Armagnac in general is worth seeking out, and a welcome addition to a back bar or restaurant, she says. “It is an artisanal, authentic, historic and hand-crafted product, even today.” —KAM