Cigar Aficionado

The color is rich amber. The texture is almost viscous as the liquid coats the side of the glass and ever so slowly gives up its legs to gravity.

You tip glass to nose and, hardly inhaling, you're greeted with whiffs of succulent honey and meaty nuts. You flirt with the aroma a bit, prolonging the sweet anticipation and then put spirit to tongue. First comes the mellifluous sweetness suggested by the nose, followed by nips of spicy licorice. Then you sense the slightest bite of a sharp English cheese before the sweetness returns almost as a hard candy, but much deeper than that. You marvel at the myriad flavors trapped in one sip as it makes its way across your palate and you continue to taste in contemplation after it's gone.

This is the L'or de Jean Martell, the latest expression to join the exclusive ranks of hyperpremium brandies that combine the complexities of age and region that only Cognac is capable of. They blow past the bar that XO sets. Courvoisier has its Initiale, Hennessy its Ricard Hennessy, Remy its Louis XIII. They command your attention as well as ethereal prices (in L'or's case $3,600) as the maker parades the possibilities that hundreds of years making and collecting eaux de vie suggest. You taste them and the thought occurs, "I may never drink anything else again." But your wallet contradicts your taste, even as the heralded Louis XIII is offered in a 100-milliliter format that makes it possible to experience it—once—for the price of $200 as opposed to the $3,000 you'd have to pony up for a the entire bottle.

Do not despair. Great Cognac exists on more approachable planes. Back off to the level of Hennessey Paradis ($400) or Martell Creation ($300), for instance, and you enjoy experiences that are far above even their XO designations. Neither should you think that the major houses are the only one capable of Cognac greatness. Consider Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges that achieves finesse, complexity and sophistication for the (comparatively) modest price of $130.

Of course, if sipping (while possibly pairing with cigars) is not your intention, you can pare back pricing much more by looking into the new breed that is meant to be mixed. Such Cognacs include the spicy Courvoisier Exclusif, the floral sweet Hennessy Black and the Remy Martin 1789. All offer affordable Cognac experiences that outshine the plebian levels of VS, but are priced more in keeping with the current economy.