Steadily increasing sales of top-shelf spirits confirm that we as a nation have developed a taste for the good stuff. This heightened appreciation has brought about profound changes in how bartenders approach their art. For those times when an ordinary cocktail won’t do, savvy mixologists are now reaching for the nearest bottle of cognac. Its dynamic personality and skillfully cultivated flavors imbue cocktails with lip-smacking refinement.
“We’re seeing a lot more interest in using cognac in drinks,” observes Ansley Coale, co-founder of acclaimed Germain-Robin and importer of Maison Surrenne Cognac. “A good bartender doesn’t want to use something that doesn’t do justice to the other ingredients. A classy, upper echelon brandy makes cleaner, subtler and more authentically flavorful cocktails that complement things like real fruit juices or hand-made bitters.”
The prevailing wisdom is that the better the spirit, the better the cocktail. Where once using XO cognac in a Sidecar or French 75 was considered sacrilege, it’s now viewed as an evolutionary imperative, the irrepressible drive to improve ones lot. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, offering guests impeccably prepared cocktails has become a commercial necessity.
Mixologist and beverage consultant Ryan Magerian is a staunch advocate of marketing cognac-based cocktails. “What is cognac anyway but barrel-aged grape eau de vie? And is it that more sanctified then barrel-aged malt or agave distillate? No, of course not. Cognac offers an elegant, beautifully flavored canvas on which to paint liquid masterpieces.”
There’s simply nothing blasé about the spirit. When mixed, cognac contributes an alluring bouquet and exuberant, fruit-induced flavor. Add a modifier or two and you’ve got the making of something truly spectacular. In fact, many of the vintage cocktails being reintroduced into the American mainstream are prepared on a foundation of French brandies.
“I regularly promote cognac-based cocktails on drink menus around the country,” says Tad Carducci, beverage consultant and partner in the Mercadito Restaurant Group “Depending on the style of the joint and season, I'll feature anything from a cooler-style drink made with V.S. cognac, cucumbers, lemon and honey to something prepared with fig jam, almonds and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Of late, I’ve been promoting a few cognac-based punches.”
When it comes to menu engineering, Magerian advises offering a balanced line-up, one that will appeal to both the casual cocktail drinker and the hardcore enthusiast. Recent favorites include the Blackberry Pineapple Sidecar, a cocktail made with Hennessy V.S. Cognac, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice and freshly extracted pineapple juice, and the Parisian Roof Garden, which is prepared with muddled Thai basil, Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac, homemade clover honey syrup and fresh grapefruit juice.
“I think cognac adds a glorious richness and depth of character to a cocktail that no other spirit can quite match,” contends Kim Haasarud, a James Beard honored mixologist and owner of Phoenix-based Liquid Architecture. “I often use cognac in cocktails that are usually prepared with vodka. For example, I’ll promote a variation of the peach Martini called the VS Peach Cocktail, which is made with cognac, fresh peach puree, crème de peche and bitters served in a cinnamon-sugar rimmed glass. It’s fabulous and extremely well-received.”
Ansley Coale thinks showcasing cognacs in upscale cocktails may well be the best thing for the spirit category. “Why the mystique and pretense? Today it’s all about sitting at a bar and enjoying what some talented individual has made for you, not about political correctness. Cognac is unsurpassed in great cocktails. And just for the record, they also taste great mixed with Coca-Cola.”