It’s a craft product that can be imitated, but not replicated anywhere else in the world.
Put that whiskey down. I’ve got something better.
For years, I, too, was a huge whiskey drinker – first bourbon, then rye, followed by Scotch. But my stiff beverage of choice would be replaced after the death of my teetotaling grandfather.
As the family boozer, I was tasked with assessing Grandpa’s liquor cabinet, largely untouched for the last 30 years. Soon, I was unceremoniously dumping dozens of corroded, half-drunk bottles of ancient gin, cheap blackberry brandy, and oddly colored wine down the sink. All that remained after the Great Liquor Massacre of ‘16 was some Michter’s rye from the ‘80s, a bit of fancy-looking Bordeaux (that turned out to be about as valuable as a jug of Drano), and a modest bottle of Cognac.
Judging by its faded, unassuming label, my cousins and I had assumed that the Cognac – like most bottles sampled before it — would taste like hot ass. For laughs, I cracked it open anyway to facetiously savor a long, comical sip. But…it was good. Really good. Incredible, in fact.
When poured, aromas of dried figs, vanilla, and leather practically burst out of the glass. It was even more intense on the palate: rich and sweet, with a smooth, elegant finish that seemed to last forever. Within moments, we had tracked down a duplicate bottle of this 1970s Martell VSOP Cognac…selling on an auction site for over $400.
I choked a little, inhaling a few drops of my future child’s college fund. What was this delicious spirit, and why was it so expensive? Wasn’t this the stuff that Fetty Wap had named his squad after? How the hell did it get into my Grandpa’s hands?
Distilled from wine, Cognac is a French product invented by foreigners; to this day, far more Cognac is exported than enjoyed in France. To get French wine back to the Netherlands without spoiling, visiting Dutch merchants would double-distill it into “brandewijn” (or “burnt wine”), and transport it home in oak barrels. It is this maturation process that would transform “brandy” into something truly extraordinary, infusing it with vanilla, caramel, and “rancio” flavors from the oak that can best be described as nutty, earthy, or even funky.
Cognac, of course, is brandy specifically from the Cognac region of France. Like Scotch whisky or tequila (a type of mezcal), it comes from the actual place for which its named. But unlike Scotch, made from malted barley, Cognac is made from a much more delicate, seasonal raw material: grapes. And unlike tequila, Cognac is barrel-aged for a much, much longer time. Thus, Cognac isn’t just expensive to entice status symbol seekers – its high price is justified by its extremely limited production (Cognac makes up less than 1% of the world's spirits by volume!).
I fell in love with Cognac not only for its similarities to barrel-aged whiskey, but also for the importance its provenance contributes to its identity. It’s a craft product that can be imitated, but not replicated anywhere else in the world.
If you’re now as intrigued as I was, check out the following tips – and product suggestions – for enjoying your Cognac like a well-informed pro.
Don’t Obsess Over Price
“Life is about pleasure,” says Patrice Piveteau, Cellar Master for Cognac Frapin. Whereas Americans tend to chase money, the French chase pleasure itself. (Case in point: the word “gourmand” doesn’t carry such negative connotations in French.) I think we can learn a thing or two from the French by prioritizing enjoyment over bragging rights. Though some Cognacs may be worth thousands of dollars, they won’t necessarily bring you any more pleasure than those going for a tenth of the price (trust me – I’ve had many in both categories). Don’t drink Cognac for any other reason than to revel in the liquid itself.
Take Your Damned Time With It
While today’s smartphone culture values instant gratification above all else, Cognac is and always has been all about patience: it takes time to produce, and time to appreciate. Slow down! Pour yourself a glass of “XO” (Extra Old) Cognac and take your time with it. Think about what it smells and tastes like, and what went into making it. When sipped meditatively, Cognac can bring us some much needed peace and sanity in a far-too-fast-paced world.
Try It In Cocktails
However, cocktails – generally made with younger “VS” and “VSOP” Cognacs – undoubtedly provide the smoothest point of entry. Germain Canto, founder of cocktail consultancy Konoisseur, created the menu for Bar Louise in Cognac, France. Among his best Cognac-based creations are the “Copper” (cacao, orange, and umeshu liqueur), “Mint Oaked” (like a French mojito — made with lime juice, sugar, egg whites, and ginger ale), and “Jasmine Collins” (with jasmine tea, lime juice, soda water, and ginger ale). No fancy ingredients on hand? Simply fill a glass of iced Cognac with ginger ale to taste, as most locals enjoy the spirit.
Seek Out These Smaller Craft Producers
The biggest Cognac brands – endorsed by musicians, actors, and athletes – have inundated us with commercials over the last decade. Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Martell account for over 80 percent of sales in the United States (Hennessy alone is more than 50 percent!). But beyond these Big Four are smaller houses that are only known in the U.S. amongst connoisseurs and bartenders – and to many of these educated few, their stuff is even better than the big guys’! Here are five to get to know:
Cognac Frapin has 240 of the 13,000 hectares of vines in Grande Champagne. Their Chateau Fontpinot XO is amongst the best of what they have to offer, a Cognac aged only in dry cellars, where more water evaporates, and the spirit becomes focused, fine, and elegant over the course of decades. Contrast this with Frapin’s equally awesome Cigar Blend XO, made from eaux-de-vie aged only in damp cellars, where the spirit becomes round, supple, and luscious.
Bisquit’s specialty is a long distillation ("time is what you make it," as the slogan goes), which gives it its signature flavor. Adding an extra hour or so of distillation time allows Bisquit to extract heavier molecules from the distillate, for a heavier spirit with more body. Their VSOP is one of the richest and most flavorful, with white flowers on the nose, and well integrated wood on the palate.
Ferrand’s passionate owner and master blender Alexandre Gabriel is equally invested in respecting Cognac’s heritage and history as he is in innovating. This is evident in products like his Renegade series, including eaux-de-vie aged in Sauternes or chestnut wood barrels no longer common or (gasp!) even legally permitted by AOC regulations. You also can’t go wrong with Ferrand’s 1840 Original Formula, perfect for cocktails like juleps, punches, or crustas (ask your 19th century friends).
The seventh generation of a winemaker family dating back to 1805, François Bouju is the current proprietor of Cognac Bouju. With only 30 hectares of 100 percent Ugni Blanc in Grande Champagne, Bouju carries on the style upheld by his ancestors with rustic eau-de-vies that pick up more complexity through extended aging. In fact, Bouju keeps his Cognac in new oak for much longer than many distilleries, with plenty of complex, deeply colored (nearly black!) spirits like the intensely woody, spicy, (and appropriately named) Très Vieux Cognac.
The Cognac-native Philbert brothers come from a lineage that has produced solely for the big houses for centuries. Now, Pierre Olivier distills in Touzac (Grande Champagne), while Xavier distills in Etriac (Petit Champagne) under the family name. Like Ferrand, the Philberts are innovators, playing with small vintage batches and experimenting with finishing Cognac in different types of barrels: notably, Xavier’s Rare Cask Petite Champagne aged in Sauternes casks, and Pierre Olivier’s Rare Cask Grande Champagne aged in Sherry Oloroso barrels.