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In the popular imagination, Cognac is always found in bulbous snifters, amongst smoldering cigars, rich mahogany shelving and comfy leather chairs. Perhaps this perceived stodginess is why, aside from the famed Sidecar and Vieux Carré, there are so few distinctly Cognac-based cocktails in the modern mixology canon. And yet, Cognac makes a smart substitution for the base in many well-known cocktails, with the ability to elevate classics that more traditionally feature spirits like whiskey, rum, and even gin.
This versatility is the reason Cognac has become increasingly popular in cocktail bars worldwide. With an impressively complex profile, Cognac is rich and aromatic, fruity and floral, yet also spicy, which means that bartenders can play with it in a variety of interesting ways. From cocktails refreshing or robust, stirred or shaken, over ice or served up, Cognac is the quintessential cocktail companion. It’s time you start integrating it into your favorite drinks.
Keeping it classic: The Sidecar
Like many old-time cocktails, the origins are a little murky, but most historians place the Sidecar’s birth in big city Europe around World War II. Paris, would obviously, make the most sense as this is a quintessential Cognac cocktail. Rémy Martin 1738 makes a unique addition as its aged in toasted oak barrels giving it an aroma of plum and fig marmalade which integrates perfectly with the citrusy notes of lemon juice and triple sec, an orange liqueur. The rich, butterscotch and baked spices on the palate, however, keep the cocktail in check, giving a smooth and mellow finish.
Like the Sazerac. Yes, it’s a bit of a cheat, but the easiest cocktail to rebuild with Cognac is this New Orleans staple. That’s because, historically, it is believed to have originally used Cognac (as opposed to today’s rye whiskey-based recipe) until the phylloxera plague hit France in the late-1800s, making the brandy hard to come by. (Admittedly, Cocktail historian David Wondrich has speculated that Sazeracs once being cognac-based is an apocryphal story.)
Whereas the Sazerac is a pretty spicy cocktail when made with rye, swapping Cognac makes for a drink that’s more well-rounded, approachable, and, of course, a tad fruity. It’s a wonderful way to amplify a spirit like Rémy Martin’s 1738 Accord Royal. The Cognac’s key flavors of toffee, butterscotch, and baking spices contrast well with the licorice notes of the absinthe in the Sazerac, while the Cognac’s creaminess is bolstered by the sugar cube.
The Old Fashioned
In the same vein of stripped-down and stirred cocktails, the Old Fashioned is another great way to showcase Cognac. Something like Rémy Martin XO plays well with the drink’s minimalism: the simple syrup highlights the sweetness of candied oranges and juicy plums on the palate, the citrus peel garnish amplifies the Cognac’s summer-fruit fragrances, and the Angostura bitters allow tannic notes from the barrel to move to the forefront on the finish. It makes for a terrific dessert pairing with dark chocolate truffles or chocolate mousse.
Remy Martin Cognac Fine Champagne is so masterfully crafted at each step of the way that it also functions just as well in more baroque cocktails. Take the Manhattan where it also subs in for American whiskey, and plays well with the sweet vermouth and bitters. Rémy Martin’s 1738 integrates beautifully, adding opulence and lengthening the cocktail’s finish. Opt for a citrus garnish to highlight the Cognac’s brighter notes or go for a more traditional brandied cherry to amplify the dark fruits on the palate. Let this be your dessert all by itself.
The Mint Julep or Mojito
Because of its herbal notes, Cognac is also able to work in lighter, brighter drinks like the Mint Julep or Mojito. Rémy Martin’s VSOP is an interesting way to replace bourbon or aged rum. Due to cask-aging, the heavy notes of vanilla (from aging in French Limousin oak barrels), ripe fruit, and even fresh-cut flowers are apparent. That enables the Cognac to play nice with a variety of citrusy and minty cocktails, ones long and refreshing too.
Soda or Tonic Highballs
Instead of a scotch & soda, how about a Cognac & soda? Instead of a gin & tonic, try a Cognac & tonic. A cognac & ginger ale, in fact, has become a go-to drink for the French. The highball’s bubbles bring out notes of fresh fruit and even some underlying licorice in the spirit, making a seemingly no-brainer cocktail feel very complex.
The French 75
And finally, if we started with a bit of a cheat, let’s end with one, too. Though it originally appeared as a gin cocktail as early as 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book, French 75 recipes would come to use Cognac throughout the mid-20th century. While gin-based French 75s are the norm today, many bartenders are starting to favor Cognac once again—it just screams elegance and a sort of old school sophistication. When implementing Rémy Martin’s 1738 Royal Accord, its fruity notes are amplified by the brightness of the lemon juice, while the sweet fizz of Champagne elevates the aromas of toffee, baking spices, nuts, and dark chocolate. In adding a grape-based sparkling wine to a grape-based spirit, the harmony is immediately apparent.
So forget those snifters and reach for a rocks glass or coupe instead. Ditch the leather-bound study chair and hop onto a bar stool. And snub out your cigar so you can handle a cocktail shaker instead—this is Cognac today.
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Published: September 24, 2020