Odds are, if you’re a drinker, you enjoy a stiff pour of something dark and neat now and again. Especially after dinner, and especially during winter. Not to paint too vivid a picture, but the kind of drink you savor by the roaring fireplace in a worn leather chair under a taxidermied head of some sort, if you’re into that sort of thing.
A good bourbon or Scotch is hardy and fortifying, a glass you want to linger over. Increasingly we’re starting to appreciate dark rum and aged tequilas as worthy sipping spirits, too.
And yet somehow, in 2019, Cognac is rarely mentioned in the same breath. The king of all after-dinner drinks is due for a comeback. If you’re a fan of dark spirits, you owe it to yourself to get to know Cognac.
If you like the vanilla and caramel notes of bourbon, you’ll love the gentle sweetness of Cognac. If you appreciate the subtlety and refinement of Scotch, you’ll find them, albeit in a different guise, in Cognac. If the subtle agricultural nuance of añejo tequila appeals? Cognac has that, too.
Like all dark spirits, Cognac spends time in a barrel. But whereas whiskeys are made from grain, Cognac is a brandy. (Brandy, in the broadest sense, is any spirit distilled from fruit.) To create Cognac, grapes from a geographically protected region of Southwestern France are fermented into wine. It’s then distilled twice, to create what’s known as an eau-de-vie, or “water of life,” the poetic French term for an unaged brandy. Cognac territory is divided into six distinct appellations; of these, Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne are most highly prized, due to the chalkiness of their soil and the fruity, floral aromas that result from it.
Most Cognac houses, as producers are known, source externally, buying already-distilled eaux-de-vie; the art, so goes tradition, is in the aging and blending. But these houses tend to work with the same growers and distillers over years—if not generations.
Cognac houses bring together these eaux-de-vie and lay them to rest in oak barrels, where they might spend anywhere from years to decades. There are government-mandated distinctions for the classification of Cognac—all brandies use in the blend of a V.S. (“Very Special’) must be at least two years old; V.S.O.P. (“Very Superior Old Pale”), at least four; XO, ten. But that’s a minimum age. Rémy Martin V.S.O.P., for instance, blends 200 eaux-de-vie, includes brandies with up to 12 years on oak.
A long-aged Cognac is likely to be among the oldest things you’ll ever drink. A bourbon on the older end spends, say, 10-12 years in the barrel. An older rum, less time. It’s rare, if not unheard of, to see a Scotch much older than 18 years. Cognac? Sky’s the limit. Rémy’s XO blends eaux-de-vie up to 37 years of age, averaging 25 years. Dudognon’s line of “Heritage” Cognacs have a minimum of 40 years.
Of course, that’s not what you’ll find in a standard-issue bottle. But what you will find in virtually any good Cognac is an initial burst of fruit, due to its grape base; a round, supple smoothness, as wood transforms the brandy; and true nuance, thanks to the careful art of blending the refined spirit.
Why hasn’t Cognac really caught on with a generation so well-versed in craft spirits? Perhaps it’s that the name Cognac smacks of luxury, even inaccessibility. Perhaps it’s that brandy sipping was a habit of generations past. And while whiskey’s astronomic rise in popularity is largely connected to the emergence of the craft cocktail world—once we get hooked on Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, an interest in American whiskey isn’t far behind—Cognac hasn’t had a breakout cocktail in quite the same way. (We’re still waiting for the year of the Sidecar.)
These brandies are pricey, to be sure, but no more so than other high-end spirits. The time Cognac spends in a barrel inevitably entails a higher price tag. But if you spend $40 on Woodford Reserve or Basil Hayden’s, or $70 on Macallan 12 or Oban 14, Cognac isn’t necessarily a stretch. Especially when you’re thinking about holiday gifts. When better to splurge a little?
While Cognac is all about tradition, producers are still innovating, increasingly introducing bottles that pride themselves on a particular style rather than abiding by the classic age statements. Pierre Ferrand, among the most esteemed Cognac houses, honors their history with the recently released Ferrand 10 Generations Cognac ($60). Made exclusively from the Ugni Blanc grape, it starts out fresh and fruity, but ends with a distinct spice, almost in the manner of a rye; this is a whiskey-lover’s brandy, but with the fruit-tinged delicacy we love from Cognac.
In creating Rémy Martin Tercet ($110), launched earlier this year, cellar master Baptiste Loiseau identified eaux-de-vie from one of Rémy’s partner vineyards that were particularly fruit-forward. He worked in collaboration with one of Rémy’s longtime wine masters and one of the house’s master distillers to shape their newest brandy from grape to bottle. As a finished Cognac, it’s bold on the palate with fruit and spice, bright and vivid throughout, a bit higher-proof than Rémy’s standard line. This is one to sip slowly and savor on its own merits. (Try serving it on ice, in a wine glass.)
And if you’re looking to explore the world of Cognac cocktails? Pick up a bottle of H by Hine ($40). Moderately priced and nicely balanced, it’s developed for bartenders, and hits every note we love from a good Cognac—fresh and fruity initially, bold and rounded on the palate. A perfect entry-level sipper, but it really shines in a classic cocktail. Pick up a bottle, along with a bottle of quality orange liqueur, and embrace the Sidecar as your drink of the holiday season.
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