4 June 2020

Vive la révolution! Cognac reinvents itself

The image of Cognac is being transformed, from the most traditional of spirits to mixologists' favourite. On World Cognac Day, Joel Harrison shelves his balloon glass and suggests three Cognac cocktails

Words by Joel Harrison

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The traditional image of Cognac, consumed from a brandy balloon while sitting in a wing-back armchair flanked by shelves of leather-bound books, grandfather clock tick-tocking in the background, is changing.

Cognac, a brandy produced from the vineyards around the town of the same name, 100km north of Bordeaux, is the second largest wine region in France. Divided into six main zones by soil type, it is a place dripping with history, legacy and provenance.

The drink itself has become a luxury item around the world by keeping to strict rules and regulations; crafty marketing and clever packaging has helped. A Cognac from 1762 – pre-dating the French Revolution – was sold by auction house Sotheby’s for £118,580 ($144,525) last month.

Yet a revolution is underway in the category. Cognac is rediscovering its image as a spirit that works as well in cocktails as it does swirled and sipped from a balloon-shaped glass.

It was always a drink that was mixed. One only has to look at the favoured medicine of Bertie Wooster, whose nightly ‘B and S’ (brandy and soda) was Cognac lengthened with sparkling water. He liked his to be made ‘stiffish’; there are dozens of classic cocktails that show how versatile Cognac is, appearing as the star of many of the earliest cocktail books. In fact, nearly a third of the recipes featured in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bar-Tender’s Guide: How To Mix Drinks, the first ever cocktail book to be published, call for brandy as the main spirit.

The cellar master and blenders of the region talk openly about how the grape taste of good Cognac should always be front and centre for the drinker, and how too much oak maturation masks the spirit’s origin. With a sweet and fruity profile, Cognac was always a drink suited to mixed drinks and cocktails.

And so it is that today’s cellar masters have gone back to their roots, to rediscover Cognac as a versatile, mixable spirit balancing the luxury market with a more grounded approach. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, indeed.

Dawn Davies MW, IWSC judge and organiser of the annual Cognac Show in London, said Cognac is certainly undergoing a makeover.

“In the past Cognac was seen as a post-dinner sipping drink, or at best in a French 75, but over the past five years we have seen a shift to Cognac becoming a sexier ingredient for bartenders.”

This has partly been the result of brands creating more cocktail-friendly expressions, Davies adds. “Every year we have seen an increase in the number of bartenders coming to our Cognac show, and more Cognac-based cocktails appearing on bar menus.”

Hine, Frapin and Martell are three Cognac producers leading the charge

Hine, which is renowned for its vintage Cognacs, now produces H, which it describes as “a young Cognac”. It has been designed to work best in Bertie Wooster’s chosen serve, with ice and soda water or tonic, or to be mixed into cocktails.

Another long-established producer, Frapin Cognac was founded in 1270, and grows its own grapes on 240ha of vineyards in Grande Champagne. Launched in 2018, its ‘1270’ edition (from highly sought-after Grand Champagne grapes) has been especially blended for use in mixed drinks.

The bigger players are at it too. Hennessy accounts for over 50% of all global Cognac sales, with the VS expression leading its cocktail range, while household name Martell developed Blue Swift which, while it can’t be called a Cognac due to a finish in American oak casks, is extra-matured VSOP Cognac designed to be the base in classics such as the Sazerac.

If you are keen to try your hand at some Cognac cocktails at home, and want to think a little bit beyond the ‘B and S’, then here are three classics.

Champagne Cocktail

An utter winner that sees two French classics come together, and the only two appellations globally allowed to use the term ‘Champagne’.

Take a Champagne flute and drop in a brown sugar cube. Flavour the sugar cube with two dashes of Angostura bitters. Add 30ml Frapin 1270 and top up with around 100ml of Champagne. This is Champagne squared, with the grapes from Cognac’s Grande Champagne regions meeting the grapes from the sparking wine region of the same name.

Sidecar

When the Sidecar first appeared in print in 1919, the measures were all equal. It has since been adjusted, and this is the approved formula that features in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book.

Put 50ml of H by Hine, 25ml of Cointreau and 25ml of lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Load with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe. Rimming the glass with sugar for additional sweetness is optional.

Sazerac

The Sazerac is one of the most famous and enduring of all cocktails. It’s said that it was traditionally made with Cognac, until supplies of the spirit were cut short by phylloxera in the latter part of the 1800s.

Chill a glass down, and pour in 5ml of absinthe. Roll it around the glass and discard. Then add 60ml of Martell Blue Swift, 5ml of sugar syrup, 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and a large block of ice. Stir for around 3 mins, until chilled and well diluted. Garnish with a cocktail cherry or slice of orange.

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