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The Reinvention of Cognac

The spirit is experiencing a grand resurgence and cocktail connoisseurs are taking notice

On the classic Saturday Night Live skit “The Continental,” Christopher Walken portrays a suave bachelor who sits beside the fireplace in a smoking jacket, sipping cognac. The French brandy was a natural choice for SNL writers to complete the caricature. But the stodgy stereotypes have given way to a modern reappreciation. As with bourbon, tequila and other spirits that have seen a renaissance thanks to cocktail connoisseurs and mixologists, cognac is now undergoing a welcome reinvention.

Snifters are optional. Sipping is too. Adding ice? Totally acceptable, and mixers too—cognac is enlivening a variety of craft cocktails, including the rediscovered Vieux Carré and Sidecar, and is being used in lieu of gin in the French 75.

Some things about the brandy named after Cognac, France, haven’t changed. All cognacs start with a base of eau-de-vie, or “water of life,” a clear brandy made from grapes, which is then twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged in French oak barrels. Except for use in cocktails, you may somtimes bypass VS (Very Special) and VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) varieties and stick to those with the XO or Extra Old designation, which have been barrel-aged a minimum of eight years.

Just as with collectable spirits, cognac is also available in some great affordable drinking vintages. In addition, there are some very rare and highly sought-after labels, ones that have been aged and packaged with a very educated and discerning imbiber in mind. And with price points at well over the $1,200 mark, you can only imagine how wonderful these are in color, aroma and taste.

D’ussé XO ($230)

Made for more than 200 years at France’s renowned Chateau de Cognac by passionate cellar master Michel Casavecchia who set out to create his own legacy, D’Ussé XO—the brand’s ultra-premium expression—delivers complex, layered flavors and a smooth, balanced finish. Each batch is aged a minimum of 10 years and bottled in modern bottles designed with the “Cross of Lorraine,” a symbol used by the French resistance during World War II.

Hennessy XO ($150)

The brand may be mass, but this rare high-end cognac, which Maurice Hennessy started making in 1870 for a group of friends, is anything but. It regularly tops imbibers wish lists, thanks to its smooth signature blend of flavors—cocoa, pepper, candied fruits and myriad spices that culminate in an almost velvety finish.

Rémy XO ($150)

The blending of up to 400 varieties of eau-de-vie gives this cognac a complex, exciting array of aromatics that linger and open up with each successive sip. With an abundance of fruit, the smoothness and balance come forward in this very enjoyable cognac, from your first sip to your last.

1888 Frapin ($5000)

This beautifully packaged cognac—presented in a gift box with a decanter and a reproduction of an 1888 pocket watch—is one which sniffing is unavoidable. When you open the watch, a special perfume is released to prepare your nose and palate for what’s to come: a complex spirit, with numerous notes—dried fruits, nuts, cacao, coffee, pepper, honey, vanilla and leather—that combine into something sublime in each sip.

Louis XIII  ($3500)

One of the most recognizable of the luxury brands, this cognac’s Baccarat crystal decanter is an iconic symbol of style, taste and wealth. Elegant and smooth, with a long oaky wood flavor, it delivers layered tasting notes—figs, dates, prunes, dried apricot and vanilla—that come alive midway. Although it satisfies discerning fans of cognac, this flavor is accessible
and sure to turn any neophyte into a convert in a few sips.

Cocktail Recipe: The Sinatra Sidecar

Superfine brown sugar
Lemon wedge
2 oz D’Ussé VSOP Cognac
.75 oz of Grand Marnier
2 oz freshly squeezed blood orange juice
.25 07 freshly squeezed lemon juice
.50 oz of simple syrup
2–3 drops of homemade orange bitters
1 bar spoon of smoked buckwheat honey

Spread your superfine brown sugar on a small plate. Rub lemon wedge around rim of chilled coupe glass. Dip top of the glass in sugar to lightly coat outside rim. Set aside. In cocktail shaker, combine D’Ussé Cognac, Grand Marnier, blood orange juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, one barspoon of smoked buckwheat honey and 2–3 dashes of bitters. Add ice and shake vigorously until well chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into prepared coupe glass and serve.

Image credits: D’ussé XO: Jeffrey Westbrook. All other images: William Pelkey