They must be doing something right in Cognac: While individual brands may vary in their success country to country, here in the U.S. the classic French brandy continues to gather fans and followers year after year.
For bars and restaurants, the story is often about imagery, luxury and nightlife. Much of the growth in superpremium and above Cognacs comes from high-end clubs and upscale lounges, where rare pours are priced into the stratosphere.
But Cognac cocktails have come into the mix more recently. As with codials and liqueuers, part of this is the enthusiasm of bartenders to use all spirits in their tool bags. It’s also due to suppliers eager to get their VS Cognacs into cocktails.
Among Cognacs, Hennessy—which is now responsible for more than two thirds of the Cognac sold in the U.S.—grew about 17% last year. Other leading brands Remy Martin (up about 12%) and Courvoisier (up 5%) also showed solid gains.
Together the three account for more than 90% of the category, and most of the 6.9% growth last year in volume overall for Cognac. Meanwhile, non-Cognac imported brandies are mostly flat or down.
With American brandy, it’s a similar story to Cognac if with different brands. Three brands—E&J, Paul Masson and Christian Brothers—account for about 90% of volume for all domestic brandies sold here. Most U.S. brandies are considered off-premise brands, though some small and craft producers are trying to make an impact in local markets through cocktail positioning.
And there is the undiminished phenomenon of the Brandy Old-Fashioned, an upper Midwest (in particular Wisconsin) favorite, which certainly helps keep alive the idea of brandy’s mixability.
Brand Extensions For mixing
Some smaller Cognac houses have focused most of their efforts on mixology. Cognac Ferrand a few years ago developed a 90-proof Pierre Ferrand Original Formula 1840 expressively for mixing.
Louis Royer has continued to expand by focusing on Louis Royer Force 53 for its high-proof suitability in strong and stirred cocktails. Domaine Boinaud launched the A Deluze expression especially for cocktails, while Hine developed H by Hine in response to growing demand for a cocktail-friendly Cognac.
The larger brands are addressing the mixology component as well. Martell, the 300-year-old Cognac house, in October launched a new expression called Martell Blue Swift. The VSOP Cognac, which is finished in Kentucky bourbon barrels, is a good base for cocktails, the company says. And Bacardi promotes several drink recipes that complement the taste of its D’Usse Cognac.
Newer American brandies are rarer, or at least don’t get the same attention. Heaven Hill recently made an effort to change that by introducing Sacred Bond, a bottled-in-bond extension of Christian Brothers brandy. (To be bottled in bond, by law a spirit must be made by one distiller at one distillery in one season and aged four years in American white oak bourbon barrels).
New York’s Brandy Library remains one of the country’s best-known temples to brandy and Cognac. Brown spirits of all sorts, including many rare iterations, are showcased there. That now includes more than 135 Cognacs, with about 100 Armagnacs, over 45 types of Calvados, 22 American brandies, with about a dozen Spanish brandies and some international varieties.
Owner Flavien Desoblin has also expanded his drinks list with a reserve cocktail menu that included one Cognac cocktail included. The seasonal cocktail list in late summer included such brandy-based drinks as Down the Charente (Cognac, lime juice, herbal liqueur, cucumber); Peaches and Cream (Cognac, cream, crème de pêche, port wine reduction); The Musket (Armagnac, muddled fig, honey, lemon juice); Armagnito (Armagnac, mint, lemon juice, sugar, bitters, ginger ale); and Sun of Normandy (Calvados, fresh-pressed orange juice, grenadine).
That’s in addition to the nine brandy-based classics Desoblin offers, such as the Sidecar, Between the Sheets, Jack Rose, Brandy Alexander and the long-ignored Stinger.
The overall brandy market has changed considerably since the opening of the Brandy Library in 2004. For one, cheap French brandy has disappeared from the well of most bars where cocktails are served, replaced by VS Cognac.
Price has been the main factor in holding back Cognac from fully participating in the cocktail explosion, Desoblin says, a thought echoed by most operators. When American whiskeys are still such a bargain, it’s hard to justify the higher cost of using Cognacs.
“The biggest problem for Cognacs and Armagnacs is, quite frankly, there are a lot of very good options for dark spirits that aren’t that expensive to use in a cocktail,” says Benjamin Schiller, beverage director of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group in Chicago, which operates cocktail bars The Berkshire Room and The Sixth. “There’s just not the quantity of high-quality, inexpensive Cognacs out there that you can use and still be profitable.”
But those who do choose to use Cognac have good things to say about the results. Franky Marshall, beverage director at Le Boudoir in Brooklyn, opted to put the Cognac version (vs. gin) of the French 75 on the cocktail bar’s menu “because that’s the one I prefer, and I have to say it’s been very popular,” she says.
Marshall says she will add more Cognac cocktails on the menu, and not just in cold weather. “There is a Cognac for all seasons, it’s just a matter of choosing the right expression and perhaps changing up as the weather evolves.”
As with many spirits, the key to introducing guests to Cognac is “education and enlightenment,” she adds. “Many people, bartenders included, are not as familiar with Cognac, or only consider it an after-dinner sipper. It’s important to introduce guests to Cognac, have them taste, maybe sub it into their cocktail of choice.”
Thaddeus Vogler, owner/founder of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco, builds the beverage programs at both around carefully selected spirits. He travels annually to France to select Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados barrels for their private use. And once the brandies are bottled, processed and make their way to California around the time of the operation’s anniversary in late August, Bar Agricole puts on its own Brandy Fest.
“We invite people in to taste our selections, and importers and wholesalers we work with pour their stuff as well as some local producers,” says Volger. “Mostly it’s hardcore fans and followers of ours and of brandies, although it definitely reaches new people.”
Brandy still intimidates a lot of people the way wine does, he notes. “And since we show some interesting, grower-produced brandies as opposed to the upper-price, prestige bottlings, people get very curious about them.”
Now that many consumers have spent years getting into less-understood spirits, such as rye and mezcal, and paying attention to the source ingredient and regions of origin, the complexities of the various French brandies may become an entry way, Volger says. “I think brandies are gaining a little more momentum for those same reasons.”
Guests that are more familiar with the category tend to be eager to explore it. At Brandy Library, most brandy and Cognac seekers are likely to seek brands they’ve never tried, different marques or unknown iterations.
“We are seeing more smaller houses come into the U.S. market, even though it is tough for them to penetrate, given the massive spending the largest houses make,” says Desoblin. “But there is a lot to offer when they do try, and the range of quality is remarkable.”
At the Brandy Library and his low-key operation Copper and Oak, Desoblin finds customers today look to sample rather than stick with a favorite brand. “They don’t come here to drink what they know, but instead want to learn something about what they don’t know.”
At Copper and Oak, where there are no cocktails served except for highballs, Desoblin stocks nearly 1,000 spirits. These include about 75 Cognacs, 95 Armagnacs, 25 types of Calvados and 30 other brandies such as fruit-based eau de vies.
Customers can order spirits in 1-oz. and 2-oz. pours, portions that fits perfectly with the avid sampling experience Millennials are said to favor. Prices range from $6 for numerous 1-oz. pours and top out at $94 for 2-oz. of Delamains XO Tres Venerable Cognac de Grande Champagne.
Grays on Main opened in 2013 in Franklin, TN, with the specific purpose of celebrating not just the town’s history and region, but also the spirit that was most prominent in the 19th century—brandy. Owner Joni Cole says when she and her husband took over the building, they wanted to include as many brandies as made sense, and feature them in many of the rotating cocktails.
“The Burnt Brandy and Peach is one of our most versatile cocktails,” she says. “Its smooth, spirit-forward notes are balanced out by its rich and mildly sweet characteristics.” Priced at $15, it’s made with brandy, Carpano Antica, créme de pêche and chocolate bitter. The drink is mixed tableside and poured into a glass holding flaming Laird’s Apple Brandy and expressed orange oil.
“We’ve chosen brandy as the star of our bar program for good reason,” says Kala Ellis, who leads the staff-education program at Grays. “When the bricks of our building here in Franklin were laid, America’s spirit of choice was brandy.”
These days, she continues, “when I tell a guest about brandy, rustic images of cigars, old books, and old men sitting in the their study flash across their mind’s eye. I love that here at Grays, we can change that.”
The brandies Grays offers are “complex, nuanced and hugely versatile.” Ellis says. “They can be enjoyed on their own, but we love to make use of these delicious spirits in our cocktails. Brandy is much more accessible than people realize.”
Armagnac, produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, southwest France, makes interesting as a cocktail ingredient, according to Volger. Its more-rustic, single-distillation style provides hard edges to work against.
Volger uses Armagnac as the base spirit in Bar Agricole’s house Old-Fashioned ($16). “Everyone’s drinking Old Fashioneds these days, and that’s been a great way to get people on board with Armagnac. It’s basically just spirit straight, augmented with bitters and sweetness, so they get an idea of what Armagnac is like.”
Smooth and subtle Cognac can get lost in some contemporary multi-ingredient drinks, Schiller notes.
“A lot of young bartenders just fold a spirit into an existing cocktail recipe, and the ones they are more comfortable with are the strong and stirred,” he says. “But you’re in for a surprise if you expect Cognac to stand up the same way a higher-proof rye whiskey does in a drink that includes, say, an aperitif, an amaro, vermouth and bitters.”
Cognac works best when the drink is built around the flavor characteristics it already possesses, Volger says.
At The Berkshire Room and The Sixth, Schiller this summer included a lighter-style Cognac cocktail called the Poderosa (pictured atop). Priced at $12, the Poderosa mixes Cognac, dry Curaçao, masala and lime.
“I was trying to show the lighter side of what Cognac can do,” Schiller says. “A lot of people think of Cognac and heavy flavors, cocktails similar to an Old-Fashioned or Vieux Carré, and this one shows how versatile it can be, working in a sour format as a more refreshing, Tiki-like drink.”
The two biggest calls he gets, though, are for Sidecars and Wisconsin Old Fashioneds, not surprising given its proximity to Chicago. But like most consumers, he associates brandy and Cognac with certain flavors.
“I love mixing brandies with things that you would more associate with the fall,” Schiller says. “Last year I made one with clove, vanilla, cinnamon and apple with brandy as the base spirit—those are the ones that immediately make a lot of sense to customers.”
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer based in Brooklyn, NY.