Not So Serious

While many mixologists are dead-set on using Cognac or brandy only in classic cocktails,  Kim Haasarud, known as the Liquid Chef and author of several “101” cocktailing books for John Wiley & Sons (101 Margaritas, 101 Martinis, 101 Sangrias and Pitcher Drinks, 101 Champagne Cocktails) and a James Beard honored mixologist for 2009, thinks there’s room for more fun and adventure. In her newest book, 101 Blended Drinks, to be released in 2010, Haasarud gives both brandy and Cognac a whirl to make off-the-wall yet tasty cocktails such as the Frozen Peach Melba, with grilled peaches, sugar, condensed milk and Cognac, and The French Cow, a grown-up root beer float involving Cognac and ice cream. We spoke with Haasarud to get the low-down on her nothing-staid-about-them brandy and Cognac cocktails.

NCB: These Cognac and brandy cocktails go pretty far off the trodden path. Why?
Haasarud: I think a lot of people are afraid of Cognac and brandy when it comes to mixing cocktails. But I say, “Don’t be afraid!”

Any time you want a cocktail to have a hint of spice of warmth, or even add another layer of depth, try using a Cognac — next time you make a Piña Colada, for example.

Cognac and brandy also work surprisingly well in frozen drinks. I’ve created some pretty off-the-wall but delicious cocktails of that sort for my next book, 101 Blended Drinks. There’s the French Cow — basically an adult root beer float — and Bananas Foster, made with Cognac, roasted bananas, raw brown sugar, crème de banana and vanilla ice cream.

NCB: What qualities draw you to using brandy or Cognac?
Haasarud: Their warmth and soft flavors on the palate. Also, the variety of spice flavors — vanilla, candied fruits, nutmeg, cinnamon — makes these spirits nice to work with for an especially aromatic cocktail. I do a Sangria with Hennessy, cinnamon sticks, sangiovese and oranges. The Cognac really adds depth that accents the spice and red wine really nicely. Also, I make a Pineapple Noir cocktail with brewed English Breakfast tea, muddled pineapple and Cognac. The Cognac adds a nice spice and brings together the tea and sweetness and acidity of the pineapple.

NCB: Cognac vs. brandy; which one should you use when?
Haasarud: Cognac is like the wealthy grandfather of brandy — richer, older and has more depth that comes with age. You can really use either, but Cognac will add a little more depth of flavor than a traditional brandy. So those notes of vanilla, nutmeg, oak, cinnamon, etc. are amplified in Cognac compared to brandy.
Brandy, on the other hand, has similar flavors, but is lighter and “cleaner.” As a result, in a Sidecar or a Brandy Alexander, brandy is pretty easy to work with; you can fudge a little bit on the amount and not totally throw it off. But when using Cognac rather than brandy in those same cocktails, the resulting flavors will be more intense, so you need to really pay particular attention to the measurements.
Beyond the basic brandy, there is a world of fruit brandies to use, not to mention regional brandies such as Armagnac, grappa or Piscoare, which are wonderful spirits.

NCB: And what are you doing with regional brandies?
Haasarud: My Venezia Martini is made with Gioiello Nonino, a grappa distilled from a citrus honey, muddled lemon quarters, white grapes and simple syrup. And Laird’s AppleJack brandy is making a big comeback on the cocktail scene, and it puts a great twist on the Manhattan.

NCB: Flavoring elements and modifiers — what works best with brandy and Cognac?
Haasarud: Definitely citrus. Stone fruits such as peaches, apricots, plums and cherries — as fresh fruits or liqueurs — are also great.

NCB: What sweeteners complement brandy and Cognac?
Haasarud: When using a sweetener, instead of simple syrup, I like Demerara syrup, agave nectar and honeys. They complement the warm flavors of the spirits very well.

NCB: Are there any classic cocktails you’ve been updating with Cognac or brandy as an ingredient?
Haasarud: I’ve been playing around with the Smash recipe. I did a 5-Spice Smash for P.F. Chang’s using Hennessy, fresh lemon, mint and a dash of Chinese five-spice [powder]. I’ve also helped develop some Smash programs incorporating seasonal ingredients such as a Strawberry Basil Smash for summer, Pumpkin Spice Smash for fall, Cranberry Apple Smash for winter.

NCB: Any Cognac caveats?
Haasarud: When using Cognac in a cocktail, don’t add too many ingredients. Because it can be sipped alone, you don’t need much to make a great cocktail.

Also, cost. Cognac can be quite expensive, so use it wisely. And there are differences between Cognac brands — some are drier, some are sweeter. So a classic Sidecar recipe, for example, may taste different if you use one brand of Cognac than a different brand. Also, you may need to tweak the amount of lemon used.

Looking at brandy, remember, all brandies are not created equal. Taste them before using them. NCB

Updating a Classic 

Liquid Chef Kim Haasarud put her spin on the Smash by using Cognac, broadening its appeal to a contemporary audience.

Bob Marley Smash
4 lemon quarters
1 ounce tobacco-infused simple syrup (pipe tobacco recommended)
4-5 mint leaves
1 ½ ounces Cognac

Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice and set aside. In a mixing glass, muddle the lemon quarters with the mint leaves and tobacco-infused simple syrup. Add the Cognac. Top with ice and shake vigorously for a good 10 seconds. Strain into the iced rocks glass. Garnish with mint sprig and lemon peel.

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