By Carey Jones and John D. McCarthy
Updated October 06, 2014
© Carey Jones

Everyone's heard of cognac, and heard of the big brands like Hennessy and Courvousier. But even in today's cocktail-crazy culture, plenty of drinkers don't quite know what it is. So let's start with a little Cognac 101.

All cognac is brandy—meaning, a spirit distilled from wine and aged in barrels—but only brandy made in a certain region of France, and to certain specifications, is cognac. (It's the area surrounding a small city called—wait for it—Cognac.) And while we might think cognac is always sipped from snifters, it has a long history in the cocktail world. In fact, many pre-Prohibition cocktails were traditionally made with cognac, from juleps to the Sidecar. (Which is, perhaps, the best cognac cocktail of them all; check out our recipe here.)

Cognac prices range from the affordable to the extravagant; when you're intending to make cocktails, consider a bottle specifically designed for the purpose. H by Hine is a high-quality cognac with the VSOP ("Very Special Old Pale") designation; it's a blend of more than 20 different cognacs, all aged at least four years. Floral and lively, but incredibly smooth, it's a perfect base for any cocktail you'd care to make, and at a price where you won't feel guilty about it. (We're not saying it wouldn't be delicious, but shaking up a drink with a $300 XO seems unwise.)

Easy: Cognac and GInger

Yes, you might feel like a high-class throwback sipping your cognac neat, but we are of the opinion that one of the best ways to enjoy it is as a highball, poured over ice and topped with ginger ale or tonic. We're partial to the ginger. Use something with clean and distinct flavors, like Fever Tree Ginger Ale, rather than something from a 2-liter bottle.

Instructions: In a tall glass with ice, combine 1 ½ of cognac and 4 ounces of ginger ale. Garnish with a wheel or a few half-moons of lime; whatever strikes your fancy.

Intermediate: The Summit

This cocktail was invented by a group of bartenders at the International Cognac Summit in 2008, and it's become something of a modern classic, a favorite in the Cognac region ever since. While the original recipe calls for lemonade, we're swapping in real lemon and sugar. The result is a bright, ultra-refreshing cocktail that shows cognac's affinity for lighter flavors.

Instructions: Take a thumb-sized slice of ginger, about ¼ inch thick, and drop it in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add one lime wedge and muddle two together. Add 1½ ounces of cognac, an ounce of lemon juice, and ¾ ounce simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water). Shake that all up well, strain into a fresh glass with ice, and top with an ounce of club soda. Garnish with a thin cucumber slice.

Advanced: Jarnac Sour

We like our whiskey sours with bourbon, which has a distinct sweetness to it, thanks to its primarily corn base. Also a barrel-aged spirit with its own sort of sweetness, cognac swaps in perfectly. Egg white is a classic addition to a sour— not adding an eggy taste, just a little lift and silkiness—and a splash of dry vermouth is an intriguing addition that balances the whole thing out.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker without ice, combine 2 ounces of cognac, ¾ ounce dry vermouth, ½ an ounce of lemon juice, ½ an ounce of simple syrup (that's equal parts sugar dissolved in hot water), and one egg white. If you have them, add two dashes of orange bitters. Shake that all up hard, with no ice—that's called a dry shake, and helps fluff up the egg white. Now add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail coupe and garnish with a lemon wheel.