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Cognac's Cocktail Comeback

Though Purists May Shudder, France's Premier Brandy Mixes with the Cocktail Crowd
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

In the wood-paneled tasting room at the headquarters of Cognac producer Rémy Martin, the amiable Patrick Quien takes a sip of the company's brilliantly clear, amber-colored X.O. Special Cognac. He closes his eyes, smiles, and looks heavenward as he savors the subtle mix of dried fruit, nuts, vanilla and oak mingled with touches of chocolate and saffron. Even after 33 years with Rémy Martin he hasn't lost any passion for this most famous of brandies. "It goes down so easily, you hardly know when it's all gone," says Quien, the company's international spokesman.

Would that Quien's countrymen were as enthusiastic. The French, however, aren't big Cognac drinkers--they make up just 7 percent of the world market. Until a few years ago, booming sales in Asian markets helped compensate for the lukewarm attitude among the French, who prefer Port and Scotch as their high-proof drinks of choice. But in recent years southward heading economies in Asia have resulted in huge losses for Cognac manufacturers in Asian markets, and in China the normally avid Cognac drinkers appear to have changed their allegiance to Bordeaux wines.

However, in the United States, Cognac has been "moving up nicely in the past three or four years," says Frank Walters of Impact, an alcoholic beverage industry publication published by Cigar Aficionado parent M. Shanken Communications Inc. According to Walters, after bottoming out in 1993, U.S. sales grew from 1.7 million cases to 2.3 million cases over the succeeding four years, thanks to the increased use of Cognac in mixed drinks (mainly for younger consumers) and the upsurge in cigar smoking.

Though some people would consider a Cognac cocktail--or long drink as it is called in Cognac--a sacrilege, like putting Coke in Château Margaux, long drinks are very traditional in Cognac. "Cognac and water, called fine a l'eau, was very common before World War II," says Claire Coates, head of communication for the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, a trade organization that monitors and promotes Cognac. According to Coates, 60 percent of Cognac is now consumed in mixed drinks. "We need to introduce young people to what Cognac is," she says. "They will be the drinkers of fine Cognac when they're in their 50s."

Indeed, the new Couvoisier Millenium was created with young drinkers in mind. "It works equally well with ginger ale, water or by itself," says Marc Birnbaum, marketing director of Domeq Importers, which imports Courvoisier.

During a visit to Cognac last fall, I had Cognac mixed, by turns, with tonic water, seltzer, ginger ale, and water, as well as on the rocks. (While long drinks are made with lower-quality VS and VSOP Cognacs, the Cognaçais often drink higher-quality XO Cognac on ice.) I found all these aperitifs delightful ways to begin a meal.

Cognac cocktails are so common that some producers, such as Maison Brillet, make Cognac specifically for mixing. Brillet's Cognac Seltz is a lighter, younger style of Cognac, which is to be mixed with seltzer. In the United States, much of Hennessy's success can be traced to the introduction of the Hennessy Martini a few years ago. (To make it, fill a shaker with ice, add two ounces of VS Cognac, half a teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon, stir gently and let settle for a few seconds. Then strain into a chilled Martini glass and garnish with a lemon peel.)

Perhaps the best Cognac drink is ready and waiting for you in a bottle. Pineau des Charentes, like Port, is made by adding brandy to pure grape juice before fermentation has been completed. Pineau des Charentes is similar to sherry, but is fruitier and less nutty. To mitigate some of its sweetness, drink Pineau des Charentes well chilled, over ice, or mixed with a good-quality gin.

Cigars and Cognac have always been natural partners, but now several producers, such as Hine, Pierre Ferrand, A. de Fussigny, Gautier and Davidoff (made by Hennessy), have specific cigar Cognacs (see box on page 307). And for those who prefer a lighter, sweeter drink with a milder cigar, Gautier has a delicious aged Pineau des Charentes called Panatela.

Unlike younger Cognacs that go into mixed drinks, Cognacs destined to be cigar companions need to be aged 15 to 20 years or more to develop that quintessential Cognac characteristic called rancio, which has been variously described as the aroma of rancid butter, nuts (especially walnuts), spices (particularly clove and cinnamon), dried fruits, well-aged cheese, worn leather and a damp basement. Old Cognac has a lot in common with cigars, says Bernard Hine of Hine Cognac: both come from plants, both are fermented, both are blended and aged.

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