Cognac's On the Rise in the Cocktail World

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Cognac is coming to a cocktail near you. [Photos: Carey Jones except where noted]

We all know that cognac is something "fancy," something high rollers sip after dinner, perhaps from a snifter (whether or not we know what a "snifter" is). Odds are, most folks know that it's French. But what kind of spirit it actually is? (Brandy.) What distinguishes it from relatives like Armagnac? (Location, but there's a lot more.) What all those XOs and VSes and VSOPs mean? (It's all about age; yes, it's complicated.)

And while cognac has a reputation as something particularly desirable—and generally, sipped neat—few drinkers know of its long history in classic cocktails. In pre-Prohibition days, the smooth, eminently mixable grape-based spirit was the base of choice for many punches, for sours, even for mint juleps—any number of drinks where you'd more likely see whiskey today.

Smooth and gently sweet, cognac is a dream to mix with—though brandies are less visible on cocktail lists than in decades past. The high price of cognac is one factor; the spirit's relative unfamiliarity to most customers, despite its proud history, is another.

But today's drinking world embraces cocktail history and celebrates obscurity; many bars love featuring spirits a little outside the spotlight, those that haven't already been mixed in any way imaginable. To bartenders looking for an unsung hero that's rooted in tradition, brandy can seem an appealing choice.

And new cognac brands, specifically formulated (and priced) for mixing, are making cognac cocktails an easier proposition. Only a short time ago, the notion of Scotch cocktails seemed a bit absurd to many drinkers—isn't Scotch supposed to be served neat?. But as bartenders became acquainted with more affordable blended Scotches marketed for mixing, Scotch cocktails started popping up at bars across the country. Cognac is, in many ways, a similar case: a generally pricey spirit whose higher-end bottles are indeed best enjoyed straight, but whose more affordable brethren can shine when mixed. As we're seeing mixology-focused cognacs hit the market, perhaps the cognac cocktail is on the verge of a comeback.

What is Cognac, Anyway?

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Ugni blanc just before harvest.

First, a few definitions. Cognac is a grape brandy, a spirit distilled from wine. All cognac is brandy, however, not all brandy is cognac. Protected by designation of origin, it must be made within a specific region (unsurprisingly, surrounding the town of Cognac), whose borders encompass the Charente-Maritime department and most of the Charente in the southwest of France.

This region is further divided into six growing areas, whose grapes tend to exhibit different characteristics. Of the six, Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne, near the center of the region, are the most highly prized. "These districts are on either side of the Charente River," says Catherine Valet, of the sixth-generation family-owned cognac house Chateau de Montifaud, "and the soil is chalkiest, which helps build fruity, floral aromas."

While several grapes can be used to make cognac, today the vast majority are Ugni Blanc, a fruity, high-acid variety (which you may know as Trebbiano when it's grown in Italy).

How It's Made

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Pot still at Chateau de Montifaud.

To make cognac, you first make wine. The cognac region generally harvests in early October, and winemaking begins immediately. The grapes are fermented—traditionally with wild yeast, though some of the bigger houses add yeast—until reaching around 8 to 10% ABV, resulting in wine high in both acid and sugar, not particularly suited to drinking but optimal for cognac production.

By law, cognac must be twice distilled through a copper pot still, first bringing the brandy up to approximately 30% ABV, then with a second distillation, 70+%. Regulations stipulate that all wine made from a given year's fall harvest must be distilled before March 31st of the next year, leaving about six months for the process to unfold.

The high-proof brandy is then used to fill French oak casks, where it will age for at least a few years—and often far, far more. Cognac rests in barrels for longer periods than almost any other spirit out there; while a 40-year-old Scotch is a true rarity, 40-year-old cognacs aren't unusual at all. And that long aging period is one clear factor in cognac's high price. It's said that time is money, and nowhere is that as true as in spirits. All the cost (grapes, wood, labor) is upfront, with no profit until the spirits are sold decades later. Keeping those barrels around requires space, which is expensive, as well as labor. (It's not as if the cognac is put away for 20 years and never looked at again; barrels are monitored and sampled throughout the process.) And increased time means increased risk—product that can be lost through leakage, or fire, or human error.

What's more, the longer spirits age, the more that's lost to evaporation. All aged liquors creep down in alcohol as they age, letting go the "angel's share" that floats into the ether. But whereas nearly all whiskeys still emerge from the barrel at well over the 80-or-so proof they'll be bottled at, cognac can come down to 40% ABV simply through aging, after fifty-plus years.

Blending—the act of combining spirits from different barrels, to achieve the desired final product—is critical to any aged spirit, but few place quite so much importance on blending as cognac. Whereas most spirits companies will refer to their "master distiller," who's responsible for supervising the entire arc of production, cognac houses are more likely to celebrate their "master blender"—reflecting the key role that blending plays. In fact, many houses don't produce their own wine, or even distill their own spirits. "Most famous cognac houses buy tons and tons of brandy from grower-producers, and focus all their energies on blending and aging," says Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco. The emphasis tends to be on consistency, evening out the taste year over year, perhaps adding caramel coloring to achieve the desired color.

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Michel and Catherine Valet of Chateau de Montifaud.

That said, some cognac producers still control the entire process themselves. Of the 250-odd cognac houses in France, Chateau de Montifaud, a sixth-generation family-run operation, is one of only 12 that create their cognac from start to finish: growing the grapes, harvesting, winemaking, distilling, aging, blending, bottling. "Instead of buying up grapes when we wanted to expand production," says Catherine Valet of Chateau de Montifaud, whose husband is the fifth master distiller, "we bought up vineyards instead."

Every step of cognac production plays a role in the final spirit— from their orderly vine pruning, to their winemaking process (controlling temperature to manage fermentation rate, which according to Valet, many similar operations don't do), to the distillation (keeping the lees in with the distillate, which requires a slower distillation but preserves more of the fruity and floral aromas). For the Valets, it's essential to control the process themselves, in order to create the cognac they're after.

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The "Paradis" cellar at Chateau de Montifaud, where some barrels date back nearly a century.

That said, sourcing from other distillers doesn't necessarily mean that a cognac house isn't involved in the growing or distilling process. Cognac house Hine, for instance, does outsource parts of the process, but their cellar master Eric Forget works closely with contracted distillers, some of whom are themselves multi-generation family businesses.

What Makes Cognac Different?

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Eric Forget, cellar master at Hine, looking out over vineyards managed by his cognac house.

What defines cognac, beyond its reputation as a luxury product, is that it's made in a certain region of southwest France. But this, in itself, plays a critical role in determining the brandy's style. "French brandies are spirits that pay real attention to the base material," says Thad Vogler. "They're true agricultural products. The fruit has to be grown in a certain area, up to a certain standard. We [at Vogler's two bars] love the kind of production where you can see everything, from the planting of the base material to the bottling of the spirit."

This may sound like a relatively simple point, because we're so accustomed to terroir's role in winemaking. Of course climate and soil are crucial factors in determining a wine's characteristics.

But cognac is a spirit—and most spirits aren't primarily shaped by the nuances of their base ingredients. Most whiskey-makers, for instance, aren't growing their own corn and rye; they might pay some attention to the provenance, sourcing Grade 1 corn rather than Grade 2, but at the end of the day, they're working with commodity crops. Gin is all about the botanicals; the liquor just a neutral spirit base purchased in bulk.

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White, chalky soil typical of the region.

Cognac, on the other hand, can strongly reflect the grapes it's made from. The chalky soils of the Grande and Petit Champagne sub-regions produce a floral, fruity spirit that many consider the best in the region; the photo above shows just how light the earth can be. (While the grapes have no relation to the sparkling wine, the region producing Champagne bubbly sports a similar soil, thus the shared name.) Double distillation further contributes to cognac's character, generally smoother and more evened out than its more rustic, idiosyncratic relation Armagnac.

And while aging and blending are crucial to cognac, many producers are concerned primarily with the expression of the grape. "We use as little wood as possible," says Hine's cellar master Eric Forget. "For us, it's about the characteristics of the grape; growing and sourcing is of the most importance." Too much barrel character can overpower. "We're looking for a delicate, elegant spirit, with just a gentle touch of wood."

Cognac in Cocktails

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A classic Sidecar: cognac, orange liqueur, lemon.

Despite cognac's proud history in cocktails, there are barriers keeping it from behind the bar. "Historically, cost has been the main barrier toward using cognac in cockails," says Vogler. A 750ml bottle of even lower-end cognac prices much higher than most ryes or bourbons, say. "So plenty of bars can only use the mass-produced stuff."

Volger is in a position to source out his own preferred brandies, which figure heavily at his two bars: Bar Agricole, featuring the sort of "agricultural product" spirits he gravitates toward; and Trou Normand, whose cocktail menu is based around French brandies, including Armagnac and calvados along with cognac. Given his purchasing power and obvious investment in unique, quality spirits, Volger buys by the barrel when possible. "We go to France every year and buy some barrels from smaller distillers. For the economy of scale, but also because with the smaller producers, there's not this mentality that all brandy should taste the same, all the time. We're interested in the natural diversity of agriculturally-driven spirits."

But the vast, vast majority of bar folks aren't prioritizing brandy to the extent of buying barrels. So how can it find its way back into heavy cocktail rotation?

Several brands, most notably Hine and Pierre Ferrand, have made overtures toward the bar world with value-minded bottles intended for mixing. "HINE's cellar master Eric Forget created H by HINE VSOP in response to growing demand for a cocktail-friendly cognac," says Per Even Allaire, Hine's global brand ambassador. To Kenny McCoy of Ward III and The Rum House in NYC, it was H by Hine's price that first looked attractive. "Cognacs aren't cheap, and at times, you'll look at a bottle and think: In order to get this into a cocktail, that's going to bring up the price of the drink more than I want. With H by Hine, my immediate thought was: That could be our go-to." Cognacs range from delicate and floral to fruity and spicy, but in developing H by Hine, the distillery aimed for balance and brightness, rather than subtlety: a vibrant spirit that won't be drowned out when made into a cocktail. It's intended to play well with flavors across the spectrum, whether citrus, liqueurs, or other spirits.

Even the bottle design is geared toward bartenders: While many cognacs are sold in wide or rounded bottles, whose striking designs call attention to themselves on the top shelf, H by Hine's straight-sided 750ml fits right into the well. "Having a bottle that you can put in the well is a great thing for any spirit geared toward making cocktails," says McCoy.

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The "Cognac Old Fashioned" at Trou Normand [photo: Mitchell Maher].

Vogler's Cognac Old Fashioned, pictured above, reflects his desire to showcase the spirit in any cocktail. "When you have a beautiful grower-producer cognac [here, Cognac Dudognon], "at a price where we can make a cocktail out of it, you don't want to do much to it," he says. "Stir it with some bitters and a lemon peel and it's really nice." At both bars, he features the Harvard Cocktail, essentially a cognac Manhattan that operates by the same principle: keep it simple.

Kenny McCoy is partial toward exploring the classics, from the Vieux Carré (made with rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, bitters) to the original Sazerac (with cognac, rather than rye, as the base spirit) to the Sidecar; the last, in particular, "is one of those drinks that comes and goes, but it's always in fashion, just not always at the forefront." He's equally fond of lesser-known drinks like the Japanese Cocktail, which dates back to the 1850s: stirred cognac, orgeat, and Angostura. In the midst of a classic cocktail revival, cognac drinks—many of them the ancestors of the classics we know and love today—are a rich area for bartenders to mine.

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Brandy Old Fashioned at Gaspar Brasserie [photo courtesy Gaspar Brasserie].

"I've definitely seen more Armagnac, calvados, and cognac on menus recently," says Kevin Diedrich of Gaspar Brasserie in San Francisco—who sees the category as ripe for expansion. "I love these because they're probably the weakest link in a bartender's book. It still hasn't been tapped yet, but it offers so many different flavor combinations for a bartender to work with." Diedrich increasingly makes his Sazeracs with cognac, rather than rye; an Old Fashioned with both cognac and Armagnac ("You get a little funk from the Armagnac and then that deep cognac profile from the H by Hine"); and even throwbacks like the Brandy Crusta, with a touch of orgeat and bitters.

And while classics inspire many bartenders, smooth, easy-to-mix cognac is equally suited to experimentation. Diedrich features a swizzle-style drink called "Napoleon's Own" with Jamaican rum, maraschino, pineapple, and lemon atop a base of H by Hine; McCoy's "Code Napoleon" uses the same cognac, stirring it with Amaro Montenegro, poured into a glass lined with blackstrap rum, the finished cocktail spritzed with herbal Green Chartreuse.

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Michel Valet of Chateau de Montifaud in his aging cellar.

In some ways, cognac can be likened to the whiskey world, where certain high-end spirits—chief among them, Scotch—are generally thought best served neat. "Some cognac for sipping is unbelievable," says McCoy; "like Hine XO, Martell's Cordon Bleu; you can sit there and have a glass of either and need nothing else." But just as Scotch has recently come into the cocktail forefront—bartenders not working with the Macallan 18s of the world, but rather blended Scotches particularly suited to mixing —cognac is starting to do the same.

"You can sit around and say, 'We'll use this pricey Louis Royer and make a great cocktail,' but that's really going to be affecting the prices you can charge. Getting a reputable cognac at a reasonable price makes a huge difference," says McCoy. And with cocktail-focused brands increasingly on the market, the prospect of putting cognac cocktails on the menu is more appealing than ever.