I prefer grape-based spirits to grain-based. Back in the 19th century, so did many American drinkers, until a late century Phylloxera outbreak wiped out much of France’s grapes and essentially cut off the flow of wine, brandy and cognac. That’s when drinkers in the U.S. had to turn to domestic spirits like whiskey and bourbon in their tipples. It’s time to go back to cognac.
Cognac is basically blended brandy aged in French oak — its flavor rich and complex, with a deep bouquet, that retains lively fruit notes and loads of vanilla, caramel and even coconut. It was originally made for export and transported in oak barrels to Holland, and later, the U.S.
These days, bartenders love to mix cocktails with cognac as the base spirit. Many bars, like Vol. 39 in Chicago’s Gray Hotel, serve cognac Old-Fashioneds in addition to whiskey-based ones, perhaps as a nod to Wisconsin’s unofficial state drink, the brandy Old-Fashioned, but more likely to show off the elegant spirit.
“While cognac is a beautiful year-round spirit, there is something essentially autumnal about it and other aged fruit brandies,” says Seth Sempere, a bartender at Zig Zag in Seattle. “They have depth and heft but are also sprightly and playful.” He created a drink called the Midnight Society, which includes cognac, gin, amaro, aromatized cider and a dash of bitters. “I wanted to make a cocktail that captures the aromas of the season: wood smoke, resinous pine, sweet apples, the earthy pungency of kicking through fallen leaves.”
At Chicago’s Violet Hour, Abe Vucekovich created the “It’s not you,” with cognac, saffron-flavored liqueur, lemon, fresh ginger, toasted coconut and Angostura bitters. A riff on the classic cognac sidecar, it’s served up, and the addition of saffron makes it glow from within. Revival Cafe Bar in the downtown Chicago food hall of the same name, features the Marquette cocktail, a New York sour riff using cognac as the base, plus saffron amaro, lemon juice, a house cherry/ginger cordial and a float of dry lambrusco. The result is a tart, effervescent and very pretty cocktail.
“We like working with cognac because the neutral oak aging and grape base allow for a leaner, more nuanced flavor profile when compared to other aged spirits made from grain and matured in charred barrels,” says Mark Phelan, bar manager.
You don’t need a $150 bottle of XO cognac to make a fantastic drink. Pick up a bottle of VS or VSOP cognac, or something like the Pierre Ferrand 1840 or Hardy Legend 1863, any of which are delightful (and decadent) in cocktails.
Then start with any of these:
• Make a classic sidecar. (I like 1 1/2 parts cognac, 1 part orange liqueur, 1/2 part fresh lemon juice, shaken and served up with a sugared rim.)
• Try a Boulevardier with cognac instead of gin, or do the same with a French 75.
• Experiment with the original cognac-based formula for a Sazerac in place of the usual spicy rye for a more fruity, flowery version. Or try the professionally mixed versions in Chicago at Z Bar in the Peninsula Hotel, Bavette’s, or The Hyde.
• Make a highball, like cognac locals do in France, with ginger ale, or like the bartenders at Good Measure do for highball happy hour.
• Try cognac in any brandy cocktail — imagine a cognac Alexander as a creamy dessert drink.
• Mix up a Metropolitan, the grape lover’s Manhattan (recipe below.)
Makes: 1 cocktail
2 ounces cognac
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Dash simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters (or another flavor)
1 to 2 brandied cherries, such as Luxardo
Combine all the ingredients except the cherries in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir until very cold, about 1 minute. Strain into a chilled coupe glass; garnish with cherries.