Cognac has been around since the dawn of cocktails, yet it rarely receives the attention it deserves. Clinton Cawood joins a crack team of bartenders as they put a selection of ‘mixing cognacs’ to the test in two very different classics
No one’s saying that cognac is without its virtues. The classic French grape spirit has plenty going for it, of course, but adventurous and cutting-edge, on the whole, it ain’t.
But are the products up to the task? We called in a team of bartenders that were willing to roll up their sleeves and road-test a selection of cognacs in a pair of very distinct drinks, the Sidecar and the Sazerac.What it does have is heritage, history, tradition and a firm place in cocktail lore. Hell, it’s the base for what many consider to be the first American cocktail, the Sazerac. Which is why it was gratifying to see producers start to create more expressions with this in mind a few years ago, releasing cognacs that they think will work well in drinks, often with the on-trade’s bottom line in mind too.
How it works
AE Dor VS Selection
A blend of Fins Bois and Borderies eaux de vies, this five-year-old VS was our panel’s joint favourite in the neat tasting, alongside Hine’s offering. They heaped praise on its unique character with its ‘toasty and perfumed aromas, with great oak notes’ and ‘longer finish than most’. Dry at first, some sweetness developed on the palate.
This all made for a pair of very capable if unremarkable cocktails. The Sidecar leaned towards the dry side, with an almost-savoury note and with some wood and spice showing through. The Sazerac, meanwhile, was somewhat dominated by the absinthe, but the combination was complementary. There was potential in both drinks and they would both undoubtedly benefit from slightly modified specs.
40% abv, £40.50, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
Augier is an old name in Cognac, recently revived by Pernod Ricard. For L’Oceanique, grapes are sourced from Bois Ordinaires terroir on the Island of Oléron that’s said to benefit from some ocean influence. It was also the lightest-coloured cognac in this flight, which suited its light, delicate nose, with ‘fresh, zippy citrus notes’ in abundance.
Unsurprising, then, that it ticked all the boxes when it came to the Sidecar, resulting in a fresh, vibrant and well-balanced drink with some dominant orange notes. All of this Sidecar aptitude unfortunately meant that it failed with the Sazerac. Can’t win ‘em all…
40.1% abv, £45, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
This one’s brand new, having only launched in March this year, and like many of the others here has been created with mixing in mind. Although lacking in a formal age classification, Frapin says it receives a long period of ageing in old casks, after an initial six months in newer casks. Our panel was divided on tasting this neat, with some finding its wood notes to be too dominant, while others found it balanced and elegant, and a bargain too.
Those wood notes disappeared in the Sidecar, but were replaced by abundant fruit – too abundant for some, who thought the cognac got lost. The Sazerac had fewer fans on the panel, with the fruit notes not really in keeping with what panellists expected from this classic. It’s perhaps better suited to other styles of cocktail.
40% abv, £40, Louis Latour Agencies, 020 7409 7276
H by Hine VSOP
A veteran of the cognac-for-cocktails sub-genre, H by Hine was first launched in 2004, but
as of 2017 sports a contemporary new look. It’s designed to be fruit-forward, though our panellists more frequently commented on its sweet caramel, butterscotch and vanilla flavours, with some identifying appealing floral notes too.
This all made for a cognac much better suited to the stirred-down Sazerac than the citrus-forward Sidecar. The latter had its proponents, but the majority of the panel felt that the addition of citrus didn’t allow for much of the cognac to shine through, while the flavours of the Sazerac turned out to be complementary. ‘Very easy to drink. The cognac works well with the citrus from the lemon zest, as well as with the absinthe,’ said one taster.
40% abv, £39, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
Martell Blue Swift
Controversially, the newest cognac in this flight isn’t actually a cognac, thanks to some renegade use of Kentucky bourbon barrels that excludes it from the category. This spirit drink, made from VSOP cognac, was definitely showing the influence of those barrels, with tasters speaking of vanilla, maple syrup and cocoa nibs, although the palate was lighter and drier than the nose led our tasters to believe.
Cognac or not, when it came to the Sazerac, Blue Swift smashed it out the park. Panellists waxed lyrical about richness and stone fruit, with most appreciating the way the cognac notes interacted with both the bitters and the anise in the absinthe. The Sidecar, while passable, was less of a hit, with some thinking the cognac too dominant, resulting in a drink that lacked the freshness of the classic.
40% abv, £45, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘Cognac character might not have been very prevalent among the Sidecars, but the eight examples of that cocktail all varied significantly, so the spirit was clearly still having a major impact. These cognacs generally varied a lot in flavour profile, so it’s important to know what each one brings to the table.’
Sean Fennelly, Fitz’s at the Principal Hotel
‘All of the cognacs were improved in the Sazerac, but were often worse in the Sidecars. Overall, I thought the differences between the cognacs were too often about fiddling with oak. They could do with being more bold in the eaux de vies.’
Alastair Fraser, B&H Buildings
‘Usually two different drinks like this would require two completely different spirits. If they were rum cocktails you wouldn’t use the same kind of rum. For a Sidecar you’re maybe better off with VS, whereas for Sazeracs you need more character.’
Josh Joyce, Bassoon Bar
‘There was usually a correlation between those cognacs I liked neat, and then mixed, although I was surprised to find that some didn’t stand up to the citrus in the Sidecar. Being shaken in a drink is a pretty traumatic event for it, so it needs to be something punchier.’
Walter Pintus, The Mandrake Hotel – Waeska Bar
‘You associate the Sidecar with fresh citrus notes, so you’d pick those cognacs with those notes, but often it was notes of complexity that delivered in that drink, rather than citrus. For the Sazerac, you were looking for herbaceous notes and good mouthfeel instead.’
Nicole Sykes, Satan’s Whiskers
‘This tasting really showed you have to adjust the spec for the cognac you’re pouring, especially when it came to the Sidecar. One of them tasted like a Daiquiri. I think some cognacs aren’t meant to be in those sorts of drinks at all and are better served neat.’
Merlet Brothers Blend
A textbook example of the modern style of cognac created with mixing in mind, this has at least four years of age on it, with the majority of its grapes sourced from Fins Bois, with one fifth from Grande Champagne. It was relatively popular with our panel when served neat, receiving compliments for its
complex herbal and spicy notes.
This was nothing compared to the praise it received when mixed, producing our tasters’ joint favourite Sazerac, as well as their second favourite Sidecar. For most, the cognac stood up well to the citrus in the Sidecar, producing a balanced, fresh example of the classic. All of the elements were there in the Sazerac, with spice and well-placed oak notes shining through, ‘not competing, but complementing’ as one panellist put it. ‘The cognac is very dry, which means that it mixes more like a rye whiskey,’ added another.
40% abv, £40, Cask Liquid Marketing, 07970 515 584
Pierre Ferrand 10 Generations
Commanding the highest price point in this line up, 20% of the spirit used to create this Grande Champagne cognac is aged in former Sauternes casks. For some, that influence was evident, with tasters describing sweet fruit like apricot, as well as some vanilla and caramel, but the dominant note for most was spice.
Some predicted that this would make it a better candidate for a Sidecar than a Sazerac, and they were right. In the Sazerac some of its best characteristics were lost, although some tasters liked its balance and freshness. That freshness proved even more of a positive in the Sidecar, with one taster appreciating the way the spirit’s spicy notes came through. But neither drink wowed our panel. You’d need to make some adjustments to the specs of these classics if you were set on making them with this cognac.
46% abv, £37.50/50cl (equivalent to £52.50/70cl), Identity Drinks Brands, 07890 277024
Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal
Taking a place in its portfolio between its VSOP and XO cognacs, 1738 is the cognac that Rémy Martin recommends for cocktails, the Sidecar and Sazerac in particular. But before our panellists got that far, they were singing the praises of this neat. Rich and full-bodied, it had notes of caramel, candied fruit, Jamaican cake, vanilla and leather.
If you’re thinking, like many of our panellists, that this sounds like it would made a good candidate for a stirred-down drink like the Sazarac, you’d be correct. All of the complexity of the neat spirit followed through, with the oak notes working particularly well. The Sidecar, while not as remarkable, was capable, with plenty of cognac character, but perhaps not fresh enough for some of our panellists.
40% abv, £44.75, Rémy Cointreau, 020 7580 6180
Many thanks to the team at Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.
- While in some cases it was easy to spot when a certain characteristic meant a cognac would work well in one of the two cocktails, such as citrus notes for the Sidecar, this wasn’t always the case. There are clearly many factors to consider, even in the Sazerac where there are few additional ingredients.
- There was much more variation among the Sazeracs – when they were good, they were very good, but they could also be decidedly not-good. Opinions on the Sidecars were much more middle of the road. Citrus can clearly be a great leveller, but also has a tendency to overpower the character of the more reserved cognacs.
- With some tweaking, tasters thought that many of the cognacs in this line-up had what it took to do good service in these classics.