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A World of Cognac Beyond the Big Four
My bottle picks at all price points, as well as some favorite cocktails.
In Tuesday’s newsletter, I talked about how small artisan brands exist (and thrive) in an ecosystem dominated by Cognac’s Big Four of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier. Today, I want to get more specific and highlight producers and bottles to seek out, with bottles from producers such as Jean-Luc Pasquet, Fanny Fougerat, Grosperrin, Jean Fillioux, Remi Landier, Navarre, Vallein Tercinier, Bertrand, Marancheville, and others.
I realize that Everday Drinking readers have numerous converging interests, and not everyone is looking to invest in super high-end Cognac. To that end, I’ve chosen bottles that are comparable in price to popular bourbons and tequilas that people are buying like crazy these days. I would encourage anyone who enjoys spirits to try any of the bottles below at the price point that works for you.
And if you’re the sort of person who wants to taste a spirit in a cocktail before you go straight up, I’ve got you. In fact, I am leading off with three recipes.
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 Cognac, ¾ ounce Cointreau, ¾ ounce 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 a more booze-forward ratio, the Sidecar can rival the Margarita.
But there is more to Cognac cocktails beyond the Sidear:
This cocktail, with the addition of Chartreuse, is far superior to the Sidecar in my humble opinion. Pair with Joe Dassin’s 1969 pop song “Les Champs Élysées” (which I always think sounds like the opening theme for a 1980s French sitcom). The original calls for green Chartreuse, and also a measure of simple syrup. I use yellow Chartreuse (slightly sweeter and rounder) and skip the simple syrup.
2 ounces Cognac (see recs under $60 below)
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Dash of orange bitters
Orange peel twist
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express orange peel over the top, then add as garnish.
Original French 75
These days, you usually find a French 75 cocktail made with gin. The original, however, was made with Cognac. Created in France during World War I and named for a 75-millimeter artillery gun, the name should suggest that it is not as gentle a drink as it might first appear. “Hits with remarkable precision,” writes Harry Craddock in The Savoy Cocktail Book.
1 ounce Cognac (see recs under $60 below)
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce simple syrup
4 or 5 ounces dry sparkling wine
Lemon peel twist
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Shake vigorously, then strain into a wine glass or champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine, and garnish with lemon peel.
Cognac Espresso Martini
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that the Espresso Martini has made a come back. This Cognac variation comes from my friend Océane Périé, a bartender at Bar Louise, in the city of Cognac. For more of Océane’s recipes, click here. The special ingredient here is 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).
1½ ounces Cognac (see recs under $60 below)
¾ ounce Kalhua
2 ounces fresh coffee (preferably espresso)
¼ 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).
Now, On To My Bottle Picks!
Before your eyes glaze over, I want to quickly run through a few Cognac terms you’ll see on the label. The first is the alphabet soup of Cognac blends: VS, VSOP, and XO, as well as several other nebulous designations. In VS (Very Special), the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be two years old. In VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be four years old. There aren’t many VSOP and below brandies I would recommend. So with blends, I will mostly be dealing with XO (Extra Old). As of 2018, the youngest eau-de-vie in an XO blend must be 10 years old.
But from there, it gets even more maddening with terms of art such as Réserve, Hors d’Age, Très Vieille, Napoléon, Extra, and Extra Extra Old I wrote about Cognac’s complicated classifications a few months ago (you can find that here). It’s no wonder that a number of smaller new-wave producers are moving away from this confusing system
The next set of label terms is slightly less confusing, and deals with geography and terroir. Coganc has six districts or cru, where the vineyards of the base wine are situated: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Grand Champagne has historically been considered Cognac’s grand cru, though modern enthusiasts are just as often intriqued by Borderies (smaller and rarer) and certain terroirs within Fin Bois and Petite Champagne. (By the way, “Champagne” has nothing to do with the sparkling wine region except for that the two places share a chalky soil.)
Got all that? LOL. As I keep saying: Cognac is complicated! This all might be a lot to throw at you on a Thursday afternoon, so let me jump into the bottles.
I’m dividing them into three price categories: under $60; under $100; under $200. I’d like to point out that the average price in the U.S. (on Wine Searcher) for Hennessy VSOP is $66 and Hennessy XO is $221. What’s on my list is offering great value by comparison.
Favorites for Sipping (and Cocktails) Under $60
A brilliant young expression, aged 4 to 5 years, that proves age isn’t everything in Cognac. A minimum of four years, deep gold, with an exuberant, expressive nose offering aromas of violets, acacia, pear blossom and cocoa. The fresh, swirling, expansive palate features grapefruit, spice, tobacco and chocolate. Impressive and versatile, it’s even nice on the rocks as a pre-dinner pairing with oysters. (40% abv)
Light golden. 4 years aging. Fruity, easy to drink. Fin Bois sandy soils. Yellow fruits, simple but drinkable, fresh side of Cognac. Candied ginger, citrus, bit leesy on the nose, touch of pastry. (40% abv )
Paul Beau VS ($46)
6-year-old from Grande Champagne, golden in color, with a very light nose of fresh grass and buttered herbs. On the palate, it’s so light that it just sort washes over, like rainwater with a bit of spice, a bit of banana and prune. (40% abv)
This VS from Fin Bois was created specifically for cocktails. Straw yellow with flavors and aromas of vanilla, gingerbread, and spice. It’s rather oaky and moves in a bourbon direction, with a fiery, spicy finish. Will make a great Sidecar or Brandy Old Fashioned. (45% abv) Note: We will be seeing more Rémi Landier in the U.S., as they will soon be imported by PM Spirits.
Favorites Under $100
Vintage 2010 from Petite Champagne, aged 10 years, and distilled with heavy lees. Golden in color, with notes of spice, green tobacco, leather, and a big finish full of licorice. A powerful, muscular Cognac that will appeal to whiskey drinkers. (42.4% abv)
Vintage 2006 from Borderies, aged 15 years, and distilled without lees. More delicate than Le Laurier d’Appollon. Tangerine and ruby red grapefruit, but an underlying minerality and a long stony finish. Beautifully balanced with amazing texture on the palate. (40% abv)
Rather than the traditional XO, Pasquet has chosen to put age statements on the labels of its younger bottlings. This one is a minimum of 10 years old from, all from their organic estate in Grande Champagne. The intense nose is full of alluring jasmine, smoked herbs, toffee, with an underlying aroma of Earl Grey tea. Full of juicy citrus in the mouth, balanced with notes of ginger and green tobacco. Pretty and powerful. (40% abv.)
This Fin Bois XO is aged an average of 15 years, and is a wonderful example of a dynamic younger XO and a great value. The nose is complex, lots prune and almond paste, notes of dried flowers pressed in an old book, and hints of leather and cigar box. On the palate, it’s fruity and silky smooth, with prune, dates, dried apricot, and delicately balanced by attractive spice on the lively finish. (40% abv.)
From the negociant I profiled on Tuesday. This unique 11-year-old from Borderies, Cognac’s smallest appellation, is eccentric and exquisite.
Favorites Under $200
A rich, opulent older XO, 25 to 30 years old. Copper with orange tinge, the nose has aromas of nougat, butterscotch, warm pastry, and marmalade. On the palate, complex spicy, with a hint of rancio, roasted walnuts and exotic wood at midpalate, and note of espresso on the finish. Classic after-dinner spirit. (40% abv)
Hine Bonneuil 2008, $140
This single-estate vintage, from the coveted Grande Champagne village of Bonneuil is only 10 years old, but illustrates just how transcendent a young Cognac can be. Deep golden in color, there’s a fresh flower basket on the nose, but also sunny citrus aromas and a distinctive notes of dried cranberry and plum. In the mouth, it’s full of swirling spicy, with a pinch of tobacco, but balanced by prune and cocoa. The lively back and forth between spice and fruit is thrilling, and continues on the long, dynamic finish. Only 450 bottles. (42.8% abv.)
A blend of 40- to 70-year-old brandies from Grande and Petite Champagne and Fin Bois. Light amber, with a big, complex nose, full of ripe tropical fruit, dried flowers, herbs and spices, and in the mouth salted plum, dried apricot, candied citrus, roasted nuts all framed by great structure and a long finish. Incredible value, as good as what some of the bigger brands are selling for well over $500.
Jean Grosperrin vintages, $100-200
On Tuesday, I profiled Guilhem Grosperrin, who hunts barrels all over Cognac to age and bottle. Each bottling is unique, with a short essay on the label, giving a brief history of the family, the place, and an explanation of why this batch is unique. Right now, it’s hit or miss which bottlings you can find in the U.S., but some retailers like Wine Library in New Jersey and K&L Wine Merchants in California stock numerous Grosperrin bottlings. Guilhem tells there’s more coming to the U.S. soon.
And Finally, One Splurge
Navarre Vieille Réserve, $200-250
One of the prized expressions in Grande Champagne. Aged 35 to 50 years, yet light amber in color. The incredibly complex nose is at first warm and affable, with pretty dried flowers, rose petals, and roasted walnuts, but as you return to the glass, the aromas open up with a tropical explosion of pineapple, mango, and guava. It wows the palate with so much going on at once, both profound and hedonistic. Lots of fiery spice and pepper at first, which is then balanced and rounded by more opulent tropical fruit, and some forest floor notes, and a unique chalky finish. Consider how many thousands of dollars that the blingy bottlings from the big houses fetch, and you’ll see what an incredible value this is. If you can find it. (45% abv.)