It used to be that cognac was made pretty much all the same by big-named négociants—Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin—that blended the products of vineyard distilleries all over the French region. Not anymore. While all cognac remains a spirit made by twice-distilling the wine of certain white grapes and then cask-aging and blending the resulting eau de vies, the commonality stops there.
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.