Whether you're a bar, hotel or restaurant, there are dozens of innovative ways of using cognac that have nothing to do with cigars or armchairs. Peace out, says Michelle Brachet
Hold the front page: cognac isn't just about sipping from the safety of an armchair. Drinking cognac neat after dinner as a digestif will, of course, always be important. But in fact, it's always been drunk in a variety of different ways and social situations all over the globe – and there are lessons to be learned here for the on-trade.
The after-dinner tradition stems from the end of the 19th century, when the middle and upper classes drank a digestif as a social ritual. This way of drinking became so entrenched that soon it was considered the only socially acceptable way to consume cognac.
There was, admittedly, a trend in pre-war France to drink cognac and water – called cognac fine à l'eau – but this tradition died out in 1944, when the Americans brought Scotch whisky to Europe.
Courvoisier countered this benign foreign invasion by creating Courvoisier Gala, a cognac designed to be consumed as a long drink with a mixer – its advert showed the cognac next to a bottle of Perrier. Despite this, drinking preferences gradually shifted to the glamorous rival spirit.
younger cognacs marry well with stone fruit flavours and citrus
Today, however, many cognac houses are making a concerted effort to return to these traditional ways of drinking the spirit, and are trying to persuade consumers that they can drink younger cognacs with a mixer and in cocktails.
Demography, as much as geography plays a part in dictating consumption patterns. For instance, while westerners aged 50 years and over are very traditional in their habits, younger people are quite happy to mix it in cocktails.
From the Mint Julep (created at the end of the 18th century and one of the oldest recorded cocktails) to the two cognac cocktails that recently won Imbibe and the BNIC's Cognac Cocktail Competition – Grape Connection from Duck & Waffle's Terrile Massimiliano and Trois Règles by Martin Zemanovic at Oblix – cognac is starting to see an outpouring of creative energy from bartenders.
This makes sense. Cognac is especially suitable for mixing, as the quality of even the youngest VS cognacs is reliable, while the grape base adds a richness, smoothness and density that are not readily available when mixing cocktails with other spirits. Cognac also has a wide range of styles and flavours that can be used in a variety of ways by mixologists.
It's widely accepted that younger cognacs lend themselves perfectly to cocktails: Courvoisier VS, Hennessy VS, H by Hine, Frapin VS, Pierre Lecat VS Instinct, and Godet No.1 to name but a few. Bar Manager Dav Eames from The Gilbert Scott explains why: 'Younger cognac tend to express lighter, brighter notes and lends itself well to a broad range of other ingredients that complement it across the seasons.
'It is perfect as a base for a large number of different styles of drinks including punches, Sidecars or classic champagne cocktails. I find that younger cognacs marry well with stone fruit flavours as well as citrus notes and fresh berries.'
However, some houses, Rémy Martin for example, are now working with the world’s top bartenders to create luxurious, unique, and sensational cocktails using the XO category.
After-dinner cocktails are also increasingly on-trend: Marcus Spohr from the Ellington Bar in Düsseldorf commemorated the launch of the new Frapin VIP XO decanter last year by using it to create VIP One. The carefully balanced combination of Frapin VIP XO, St Germain elderflower liqueur, orange curacao and chocolate bitters work together in perfect harmony with the aroma and flavour profile of the cognac.
'Older cognac can be intense in flavour and complex, which brings an awful lot to the party,' says Eames. 'The added complexity makes it the star of the show, which often means only adding small amounts of other ingredients that complement the cognac, a gentle stir and a straight-up serve. I like to make short drinks meant to be savoured, adding only two or three subtle elements to enhance what's already there in the cognac.'
Of course, the price point has to be right for customers too, as Mickael Perron, Library Bar manager at The Lanesborough points out. 'Offering cognac cocktails will of course drive volumes of sales if thought through properly, but just because you add a cognac cocktail to the list doesn’t mean it will sell if your customers can’t afford it.
'They don't have to be complicated either, and they should pay homage to the rules and historic aspects of this noble spirit. Recipes that respect the cognac are the best. Personally, I prefer traditional drinks, such as the Sazerac, Old Fashioned and Brandy Alexander. Cognac would also work very well in an Espresso Martini.'
Ice, ice maybe
This growth of cognac mixology is an exciting area for cognac houses, but the drink's renaissance doesn’t begin and end with cocktails. Some producers are playing with serving temperature to create exciting taste adventures for consumers.
Camus, for instance, suggests drinking Ile de Ré straight from the freezer (at -20°C) or placing the bottle inside a cube of ice that can then be served at the table. Both work fantastically as an aperitif.
One of Camus' USPs is its use of fruit from the Borderies region. Indeed, its VSOP Borderies and XO Borderies are 100% single-cru Borderies. Camus suggests consuming the VSOP – limited to 15,000 bottles – as an aperitif by serving it over ice in a tumbler.
Crucially, it's no mere marketing gimmick. The Borderies cognacs are typically mineral and floral and serving the drink this way enhances these characteristics: ice develops the mineral side of the cognac while also bringing to life the drink's freshness and floral tones.
Camus has designed its own glass to encourage this way of consumption everywhere; it is a habit that is gaining momentum in key markets.
Pairing cognac with food is also a growing trend and a number of houses have joined forces with top chefs. Martell, for instance, works closely with Michelin-starred Raymond Blanc OBE, while Philippe Saint Romas, the chef of Rémy Martin’s club, works daily on developing food pairings.
Cognac can work from appetiser to dessert, but certain pairings could become classics, according to the BNIC: VS with Parma ham; frozen VS with scallops, salmon or foie gras; VSOP with blue cheese; XO with lobster, venison, pigeon chocolate, tiramisu, white chocolate, cherries… These are combinations that all sommeliers should experiment with.
Nick Galer, chef-owner of The Miller of Mansfield is a fan of food and cognac pairings, revelling in the drink's 'diversity in ages, styles and flavour profiles'. He created a four-course menu, which included sliced raw scallop and pickled pear matched with frozen VSOP, and loin and pie of local muntjac, sweet and sour savoy cabbage, roasted turnip puree and Guanaja chocolate paired with XO.
'It was such a success that more cognac dinners and food pairing events are very much on the agenda here,' he says.
Meanwhile Hine's Cooking Distilled programme saw them work with young Swedish chefs to create left-field pairings such as frozen H by Hine with oysters, scallop carpaccio or pata negra ham. Other discoveries include cognac-infused eggs: soaked in H by Hine for around 36-hours, and then eaten soft-boiled or poached.
Cognac with food is an accepted idea in the Far East, where it works well with Asian cuisine. When cognac reached China, the European style of drinking it neat didn’t translate into the local culture, and the Chinese are also perfectly happy to mix it with soft drinks, take it neat and even mix some of the older blends.
'Classic Cantonese food, such as siu mei and sweet and sour pork with fat, works well with cognac,' says Laurence Xie, spirits expert and co-owner of Moonshine Whiskey and Cocktail Bar in Beijing. 'In general, I would say the dressing sauces applied to the meal are the key.'
Some contemporary Chinese dishes, such as Beijing roast duck and sweet and sour spare ribs (a Sichuan dish) work well, too, as do some traditional Chinese desserts, which have related flavour profiles of fruit and spice.
And if you want a funky match, try it with fish fillets in hot chilli oil. 'The sweetness and nutty notes from cognac will magically soften the spicy flavours from the fish,' says Xie.
Iced glasses? Chilli-oil fish? Pairing Menus? Twists on classic cocktails? Do you really think that cognac still belongs in the drawing room with a cigar?