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Put down those Martinis and set aside the Daiquiris, there’s more to cocktails than just gin, whiskey, and rum. While best known as a classy sipper, Cognac is finally being rediscovered as the versatile cocktail base that bartenders have always known it to be.
Made primarily from the Ugni Blanc grape, in the French region of the same name, Cognac begins as a light white wine that’s double-distilled in copper pots before going into French oak barrels to age for at least two years.
While the two best-known Cognac cocktails, the Sidecar and the Vieux-Carre, are classics with good reason, Cognac can work in a whole slew of different applications. Either shaken or stirred, with coffee or in an after-dinner drink, Cognac’s nuanced flavors offer something for even the most discerning cocktail aficionados.
We talked with bartenders about their favorite ways to put Rémy Martin Cognac to use.
Pete Stanton, head bartender at New York’s Ai Fiori at The Langham Place Hotel, believes the iconic Cognac Sazerac, is a great place to start, describing the drink as a “crossover introduction for American whiskey drinkers.” The substitution makes sense; while modern versions of the Sazerac call for rye whiskey, Cognac is thought by some drinks historians to have been the cocktail’s original base spirit.
Stanton touts the Sazerac as having the “familiar spice and richness of an Old Fashioned with the broad, dynamic undertones of Cognac” that whiskey lovers will appreciate. The Sazerac’s enduring appeal lies in its simplicity of ingredients: Cognac, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, with a lemon peel to garnish. Try the Sazerac with Rémy Martin’s 1738 Accord Royal.
“The brightness of the Peychaud’s bitters and citrus help lift the floral aromas of Cognac while the body provides length and richness to make this a perfect fall sipper,” Stanton adds.
The French 75
Also of an uncertain past is the French 75, which, depending on whom you ask, is either historically a Cognac drink or historically a gin drink. Both involve lemon juice, simple syrup, and a good glug of Champagne, but Christopher Longoria, the bar director at San Francisco’s Che Fico, believes the Cognac French 75 is the superior iteration. “The Cognac gives it so much more depth and roundness,” he says.
Keeping with the theme of storied drinks, Jeremy Fowler, the wine and beverage director at Zuma in New York turns to a warm Cognac cocktail for the cooler weather ahead. Café Brûlot, a coffee-based drink, combines Rémy Martin V.S.O.P., Cointreau, vanilla sugar, and allspice dram. As Fowler tells it, this sipper also comes with a charming, but possibly tall tale. As the story goes, French country farmers were looking to warm the chilled morning coffee left over in their thermoses. They’d pour a cup, set it on a saucer and sprinkle Cognac-spiked sugar around the saucer. Then they’d set it alight, melting the sugar while simultaneously reheating the coffee inside the cup. “They would then pour the contents of the saucer and cup back into their thermos.” Fowler explains.
Café Brûlot has found its biggest fans in New Orleans where its flambéed preparation gives it a dramatic tableside flair in restaurants. At home, Fowler keeps it simple by just using hot coffee (instead of a pyrotechnic show), and hails the drink as the “absolute perfect end to any evening.”
Those searching for an after-dinner drink should consider the Stinger. Made with just Rémy Martin V.S.O.P. Cognac and white crème de menthe, a mint-flavored liqueur, the Stinger’s powerful flavors offer a bolder choice than the typical dessert cordial.
David A. Roth, former head bartender of the recently shuttered New York-based Covina, believes the Stinger is an often and unfairly overlooked classic worthy of more attention. “Those wonderful oaky, caramel, vanilla, fruitcake notes of the Cognac pair really well with the mint.” Roth says. With the potent mint in the Stinger making it a hard act to follow, Roth quoted his former instructor and “King of Cocktails” Dale DeGroff in noting that the best drink to follow a Stinger is, of course, another Stinger.
The Brandy Crusta and Brandy Alexander
Proving that Cognac can elevate even the most iconic brandy cocktails, Crystal Chasse, a mixologist at Talk Story Rooftop at the McCarren Hotel in Brooklyn, relies on Cognac’s richer flavors in her updates on the old-school Brandy Crusta and Brandy Alexander. Combining Cognac (we recommend Rémy Martin 1738), lemon juice, curaçao, Maraschino liqueur, and Angostura bitters, Chasse’s Crusta “fulfills all your garnish dreams” with her signature vanilla sugar rim and long, twisted lemon peel. Shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass, the Crusta is the perfect respite from hot temperatures, especially when consumed on a rooftop overlooking the city.
Whereas the Brandy Crusta is great in the summer, the Brandy Alexander, featuring Cognac, dark crème de cacao, and cream, is an ideal holiday season drink that can be easily batched out for parties. “A whole punch bowl of these can be made in minutes and your guests will instantly have that holiday feel. Make sure to garnish with nutmeg to add an extra layer of aromatics,” says Chasse.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Sidecar. Considered by drink historians to be the more famous relative of the aforementioned Brandy Crusta, the Sidecar’s enduring appeal lies in its simplicity and balance of sweet and sour. Made with just three ingredients — Cognac, lemon juice, and orange liqueur — the Sidecar is essentially a take on the classic sour. While modern bartenders have their own variations on the perfect ratio, the early recipe was likely an equal pour of all three ingredients. Though already recognized as one of the great brandy cocktails, the Sidecar is elevated even further by the use of a high-quality Cognac, like Rémy Martin 1738.
For many, a bottle of Cognac is underused, turned to only for special occasions or given as a gift, but as these five bartenders have shown, its versatility makes it the perfect base spirit for an impressive range of cocktails. There’s never been a better time to grab your shaker and dust off that bottle of Cognac from your bar.
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