11 Excellent New-Wave Cognacs You Should Know About
Today, cognac has diversified, as producers large and small experiment with production methods, yielding a multiplicity of fascinating flavors and styles. Single-cru, bourbon-barrel-aged, estate-bottled, made with rare grapes and from unique terroirs, eschewing the traditional additives—you name it.
Half a dozen years ago, mixology helped usher in cognac’s new, eclectic phase here in the States, with producers reintroducing bartenders to cognac-based classics: the brandy crusta, the improved brandy cocktail, even the early mint julep. These revived elixirs paved the way for playfulness in cognac, as cocktailians began to crave new expressions of the spirit to try in their drinks. But it also renewed the public's interest in consuming cognac neat—so long as it remains interesting.
“The younger generation likes to try new stuff,” says Flavien Desoblin of Manhattan’s Brandy Library—particularly if that stuff has pedigree. “They realize there is a great deal of history and heritage in cognac, and they’re curious.” But, given the variety in other spirit categories, in order to compete, “cognac producers decided to be bold and experiment. They know that their future lies in diversity.”
The eclecticism, as it turns out, is a return to cognac’s history. Before the establishment of the AOC in 1936, when the standards were put in place to ensure the spirit’s quality and origins, farmstead producers made cognac however they wanted, with whatever barrels were on hand. The AOC codified certain techniques: the grapes and growing areas, a 30-month minimum aging, French oak barrels, copper pot stills, the winter distillation period. And these became staunch traditions.
Though the watchdog group for cognac, the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), continues to enforce standards, there is a new understanding that tradition and innovation can coexist. One happy development is that family operations that used to sell everything they made to the negociants are holding back product to bottle themselves. These small-batch cognacs give drinkers a taste of the spirit’s roots.
So break out the tulip glasses. There’s some wild cognac out there nowadays, and much of it is downright delicious.
Paul Beau V.S. Cognac (Canal’s Bottlestop; $34)
From a large farmstead producer in Cognac’s top growing region—the Grande Champagne cru—this single-estate spirit is aged for six years, three times longer than required for Very Special cognac. That time in the barrel yields a pale-hued yet smooth sip with a touch of spice and ample fruit, especially banana. It makes a great mixer. At Tom Colicchio’s Temple Court in New York, it’s used with Suze, Benedictine and dry vermouth in a John McComb cocktail.
Gourry de Chadeville Overproof (Astor Wines; $60)
Dating to 1619, Cognac’s oldest house is still one of the smallest, and their methods are among the most rustic. The 15th-generation distiller Pierre Goursat Gourry stokes the wood-fired still to make this potent spirit, which is bottled unfiltered at a high 55-percent alcohol. It’s got notes of butterscotch, grass and a big bouquet of wildflowers, and at Brooklyn’s Sauvage, they’ve found it works awfully well in a classic Stinger.
Cognac Park Fins Bois Single Cru Organic (ShopWineDirect; $50)
Though several of the small guys are practicing organic, some of the bigger cognac houses have been starting to certify their spirits. This cognac, made from grapes grown in the mixed clay-and-limestone soils of the Fins Bois cru has a wonderfully silky mouthfeel and a dried-fruit nose, with rich flavors of prunes, dates, and apricots.
Augier Oceanique (Saratoga Wine Exchange; $60)
The Cognac designation extends out into the Atlantic Ocean, and this light-colored spirit made from grapes grown in vineyards on the island of Oléron is the most tequila-like cognac you’re ever going to sample. It’s briny and spicy and wonderfully unique, from a revived cognac house that is 375 years old.
Augier Le Singulier (Saratoga Wine Exchange; $70)
Folle blanche used to be the most common cognac grape. When phylloxera ravaged vineyards in the late 1800s, the fruit was highly susceptible to the pest. Today, less than 5 percent of Cognac’s vineyards are planted in folle blanche, so this cognac made exclusively with the grape is a rarity. Its terrifically round mouthfeel, bold mid-palate and pleasingly bitter finish makes it cognac for Highland scotch lovers.
Martell Blue Swift (Shop Wine Direct; $50)
Labeled an eau de vie de vin, rather than a cognac, this spirit made by finishing V.S.O.P. cognac in Kentucky bourbon barrels is nearly cola-dark in color with a notably soft mouthfeel. It has the baked stone fruit–and-vanilla palate to appeal to an American sweet tooth.
HINE Homage (International Wine Shop; $130)
A tribute to founder Thomas HINE, this bottling recalls a nearly bygone time when much of cognac was “early-landed.” Barrels were shipped across the English Channel to be aged in cooler, damper England, where the slower maturation yielded a nuanced spirit. Here, three early-landed, Grande Champagne cognacs from the 1980s are blended with XO (very old) cognac aged in France for a super-smooth libation rich in tobacco, cedar, and coconut flavors.
Hardy Organic V.S.O.P. (Total Wine; $53)
Less than three percent of Cognac is planted in certified vineyards, so organic production is a commitment. But Hardy took it a step further, garnering not only European but USDA certification. Aged for seven years, this cognac is darker, richer and smoother than you’d expect from a V.S.O.P., but with a clean, bright finish and a compelling cake-spice nose.
Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask (Wine Globe; $70)
Recalling the days when cognac was aged in diverse barrels, this spirit spends ten years in traditional Limousine oak casks but is finished in barrels that formerly held fortified Banyuls wine. Salty on the nose and a bit spicy, with a mid-palate of figs and dates, it has a bittersweet finish with a touch of umami that recalls a sherry-cask Highland scotch.
Camus XO Borderies (Total Wine; $190)
Here is a cognac perfect for Christmas, with a taste of nuts and figgy pudding, balanced by a bright, floral nose. Unlike other big-name cognacs, which are commonly a blend of several appellations, this is made from grapes grown entirely within Camus’ tiny but lauded Borderies cru.
Sophie & Max Sélection No. 1 X.O. Cognac (Cognac Expert; $134)
The launch of a limited-edition series by the siblings behind the Cognac Expert blog, this bottling by small producer Jacques Petit contains eau de vies up to a quarter-century old from three growing areas—Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Bons Bois. Its lemon-and-maple nose moves on to flavors of apricot and roasted nuts with a decidedly savory finish. A few drops of water open it up. Get it now; only 150 were made.