Cognac Cocktails Beyond the Sidecar
Favorite recipes from a favorite bartender in the city of Cognac
There’s been a lot of talk about expensive brandies in our little newsletter. And talk about pricey booze can get pretty intense, as we’ve experienced in recent weeks. This week, I want to take a break from the chatter about collector Armagnac, barrel picks, and rare fruit schnapps. Today, we’re talking about mixin’ cocktails with affordable ’gnac.
When it comes to cocktails, brandy really doesn’t have that one marquee drink—the so-called “delivery vehicle”—that some spirits have in the popular imagination. There’s no Margarita or Manhattan or Old Fashioned or Martini. Yes, I know the Vieux Carré contains Cognac, but there’s just as much rye in the mix. And yes, a Horse’s Neck is nice, but how many know it? Sure, specific brandies have well-known cocktails: Jack Rose for apple brandy; Pisco Sour for pisco. And yes, among cocktail nerds we can talk about how, historically, the Sazerac was *actually* made with Cognac.
Yet if brandy has any iconic cocktail, it’s probably the Sidecar—brandy, orange liqueur (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, dry curaçao, whatever) and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Like all classics, we can argue all day about measurements, ratios, and brands to use. My preferred recipe: 2 ounces VSOP Cognac, 3/4 ounce Cointreau, 3/4 lemon juice; shake and garnish with an orange peel twist. Personally, I hate the sugared rim that so many use for the Sidecar. Without the sugared rim, and more booze forward, the Sidecar can rival the Margarita.
Over the years, in the Washington Post and elsewhere, I’ve published a number of Sidecar variations, some of which I like better than the original. For instance, this trio:
• Champs-Elysees. Yellow Chartreuse replaces the orange liqueur for a delicious herbal variation.
• Hoopla. This brings Lillet Blanc, the white-wine-and-citrus aperitif, into the mix, for a brighter than the orginal Sidecar.
• Calvados Sidecar. Sometimes called an “Applecar,” this variation calls for apple brandy. (I don’t know what sort of garnishing pressures I was under in 2010, but please skip the sugar/cinnamon rim on this one).
But maybe let’s move beyond the Sidecar, shall we? In fact, let’s talk to someone making Cognac cocktails…in Cognac.
Bar Louise is one of Cognac’s prime cocktail spots, and my friend Océane Périé is one of its top bartenders. After my last visit, Océane and I started a conversation about Cognac cocktails. “The people in Cognac love the Cognac but they don't only drink this,” she told me. In fact, Bar Louise’s menu runs the gamut, from rum to gin to amaro to many other surprises.
But obviously, in Cognac, there is a special affection for the local stuff. “Almost any cocktail works with Cognac, even exotic ones,” she says. “The most surprising for me is young people drinking Cognac in a night club.” To that end, Océane sent me three contemporary recipes that speak to how versatile Cognac can be.
The big question, of course, is what sort of Cognac to mix with. The common wisdom is: Don’t pour your really expensive XO or Hors d’Age or Extra Extra or vintage bottles in a cocktail. Personally, I don’t always subscribe to that. Live a little, I say, and I’ve been known to use some long-aged Cognac in, say, an Old Fashioned or a Sazerac—gilding the lily, as they say. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend anything less than VSOP. But Océane insists that the younger, stronger Cognacs work best in most cocktails. She calls for VS in her recipes.
Three New Wave Cognac Cocktails
Note: Océane sent me all her ingredient measurements in milliliters, like any civilized person would. But since America is still a barbaric country that shuns the metric system, I have done my best to translate the ratios and measurements in ounces.
Cognac Espresso Martini
As you may have heard, the Espresso Martini is back. Océane makes her variation with Cognac, as well as a hazelnut syrup (you can make this at home by infusing your typical simple syrup with a handful of chopped up hazelnuts as you heat it).
1.5 ounces Cognac
3/4 ounce Kalhua
2 ounces fresh coffee (preferably espresso)
1/4 ounce hazelnut syrup
Pour all ingredients into a shaker, fill with ice, and shake hard. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a three coffee beans (always three, for good luck).
The mix of pear and nuttiness is lovely in this cocktail, and it’s a relatively flexible recipe. Océane calls for homemade pear syrup (excellent), but I’m lazy and I used Mathilde pear liqueur, which was also great. Verjus is the elegant choice for acidity here, but you can also use lemon juice (just be sure to shake instead of stir). Walnut bitters are relatively common in cocktail circles, and worked best, but I also had a little Nocello laying around and used a bit of it to nice effect.
1.5 ounces Cognac
3/4 ounce pear liqueur or pear syrup
1/2 ounce verjus or fresh lemon juice
4 dashes of walnut bitters (or 1/4 ounce of Nocello walnut liqueur)
If you make this with verjus, pour all ingredients into a mixing glass, fill with ice, and stir. If you make it with lemon juice, pour everything into a shaker, fill with ice and shake. Strain into a rocks glass with ice cubes (or one nice big ice cube).
This is a great twist on the traditional French 75 (which frankly always works best with Cognac. But the Fake Love cocktail also has a bittersweet, poetic back story, according to Océane: “I created this cocktail for the guy who made me stay in Cognac. Basically it's not the type of cocktail that I like but this one was an emotional one based on his tastes and on where he works. We were not in a relationship but I really loved him. He was my breath of fresh air.”
1.5 ounces Cognac
3/4 ounce raspberry juice (or 1/2 ounce raspberry syrup)
1/2 ounce rosemary syrup (infuse rosemary in your normal simple syrup)
3/4 ounce lemon juice
2 dashes lemon bitters
Sparking wine (preferably méthode traditionnelle)
Pour all ingredients except sparkling wine into a shaker, fill with ice, and shake well. Strain into a coupe or champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine (2-3 ounces). Garnish with…ennui.