In celebrating "National Cognac Day", here is a Cognac primer. Cognac is synonymous with "fancy," something rich folks sip after dinner in a snifter. Do most people know its French? What kind of spirit is it actually? Brandy, perhaps. What do all those acronyms XO and VSOP mean? Yes, it refers to the age of the cognac, but a little more complicated.
Cognac is a spirit, specifically a grape brandy distilled from wine. All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. Protected by designation of origin, cognac must be made within a specific region in France (namely the town of Cognac and its surrounding area), encompassing most of the Charente area in the southwest of France. While several grapes can be used to make cognac, today the vast majority are made Ugni Blanc, a fruity, high-acid variety (which is known as the Trebbiano grape grown in Italy).
And while cognac has a reputation of being sipped neat after dinner or among the elite, few drinkers know of its long history in classic cocktails. In pre-Prohibition days, the smooth, surprisingly mixable grape-based spirit was the spirit of choice for many punches, sours, and many whiskey drinks served today.
As the cocktail theorist David Embury wrote in 1948, "To mix this nectar of the gods with any other substance whatsoever-even a single drop of water—would be sacrilege, pure and simple." Putting a very small amount of sugar and water in a tall glass, stir, and lightly muddle five or six fresh mint leaves, like a Mint Julep or with bitters and lemon peel can give you a lovely sensory experience, like a Cognac Manhattan. Very old cognacs do something for a drink that no other spirit can. They possess all the leathery, chocolaty richness and layered complexity that prolonged rests in older, mellower oak can bring, without the overpowering woodiness that American whiskeys so often develop in their new wood casks
Smooth and gently sweet, cognac can be an ideal mixer. The high price of cognac and the spirit's relative unfamiliarity to people, despite its proud history, are some of the reasons for its lack of usage. Cognacs can range from delicate and floral to fruity and spicy with distillers trying to achieve balance and brightness, rather than subtlety with their cognacs. Something that won’t overwhelm the other ingredients in a cocktail, but rather complement flavors, whether citrus, liqueurs, or other spirits.
The drinking public today has come full circle and now embraces cocktail history and celebrates obscurity. Many news bars love featuring spirits a little outside the box. To bartenders looking for an unsung hero that's rooted in tradition, cognac or brandy can be an appealing choice. Despite cognac's proud history in cocktails, there are barriers keeping it from behind the bar. Cost is the main deterrent toward using cognac in cocktails. A 750ml bottle of even lower-end cognac prices much higher than most whiskies so plenty of bars can only use the mass-produced stuff."
With newer cognac brands created for the cocktail guru in mind, like the ones imported by Heavenly Spirits based in Massachusetts and featured in this post, it has become much easier to make cognac cocktails. Only a short time ago, the idea of Scotch cocktails seemed a bit absurd to many drinkers, especially when considering its price tag. Cognac is, in many ways, a similar case - a generally pricey spirit whose higher-end bottles are best enjoyed straight up/neat, but whose more affordable nuances can thrive when mixed. As mixology-focused cognacs hit the market, maybe the cognac cocktail is on the verge of a comeback. And with cocktail-focused brands increasingly on the market, the prospect of putting cognac cocktails on the menu is more appealing than ever.
Why not celebrate some wonderful, “under the radar”, French cognac imported by Heavenly Spirits. The "Heavenly Spirits" name is derived from “the angel’s share,” which refers to the portion of the distillation that is lost to evaporation while being aged in oak barrels. The word “heavenly” is also a translation from the French word “paradise”, which sometimes refers to the oldest aging cellar of the distiller. For Heavenly Spirits, the name represents years of research and passion for the art of French distillation. The results of their work are a collection of exceptional French spirits that are high in quality and taste.
Heavenly Spirits, based out of Massachusetts, has become a leading importer of artisanal French spirits, such as Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac, French Single Malt Whisky, Rum, aperitifs and liqueurs. Heavenly Spirits boasts a diverse and outstanding portfolio of spirits and aperitifs.
For the past three years, the company has been recognized as the number one importer of Armagnac in the U.S., accounting for 20% of all Armagnac sold each year. The Heavenly spirit portfolio is represented in 26 U.S. states and includes an impressive list of iconic brands.
In this post, I will be highlighting some of their fine cognacs in cocktails, which include a rare, but prestigious single distillery organic cognac, Cognac Du Peyrat, the first of its kind. These “heavenly” cocktails will illuminate and elevate classic cognac cocktails and modern ones too using fine French spirits. Try their Cassis Jacquiot creme de cassis cordial in a classic Kir with champagne or their Artez Arvani vanilla liqueur in an Espresso or Armorik Breton Single Malt Whisky in a Rob Roy. Check out their full portfolio of spirits and liqueurs. See images of bottles below and check out their oustanding reviews from the international community on their website.
Cognac du Peyrat
Cognac Dupeyrat, distilling fine cognacs since the 1700s and the first to focus on organic cognac. This organic Cognac Selection has been specially distilled to make it pleasingly round yet lively with white flowers aromas, flavors of pear and light vanilla. Cognac du Peyrat with its organic features is an exceptional mixing cognac in French cocktails and modern-day cocktails. Cognac du Peyrat is certified organic by the USDA, and the strict European organization, Ecocert. The distillery has also committed to choosing “green” electricity produced by sustainable methods, installing photovoltaic solar panels, and adopting the use of recycled paper.
Organic Selection: a blend of young and lively cognacs.
Rare Prestige: a minimum of 7 years old; vanilla, plum, apricot aromas - refined, light, mellow and round on the palate.
XO: a minimum of 15 years old; “...this is a beauty, rich in Sherry and birch beer-like notes, dappled with cinnamon and allspice. The dry finish suggests accents of cocoa and leather.” - Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Blending of 12 years old Cognac at least (most of them are from Petite Champagne).
Cognac Jean Fillioux
Cognac Jean Fillioux, a wonderful family owned producer from the heart of heart of the Grand Champagne area.
Coq: a young, light and pleasantly fresh Grande Chanpagne with floral notes and vine blossoms, perfect for cocktails.
La Pouyade, 8 years old: perfectly well-balanced for a rather young Grande Champagne, an interesting personality with floral notes of spring flowers, fruit aromas, apricot and grape, with notes of almond. Perfect with smoked salmon, blue cheese, pates and prosciutto, it is also the whisky lovers favorite.
Cep d’Or, 12 years old: vivacious aromas of lilac and jasmine give way to some notes of ripe fruit, dried fruit and walnut. This delicious Grande Champagne has a spicy finish that will be perfect for Provencal, Italian or even Mexican cooking.
Tres Vieux, 25 years old: the House’s flagship, a very powerful, elegant and noble cognac with some notes of jammy fruit, orange marmalade, quince, pear and loads of vanilla. A sipping Cognac for the Connoisseurs.
XO Grande Reserve, 32 years old: a scrumptious cognac offering deep aromas of vanilla, honey, cinnamon and exotic fruits, ending with rich and spicy hot chocolate flavors.
Reserve Familiale, 50 years old: this exceptional cognac is in itself a journey in the infinite world of aromas and flavors; everything is there incessantly tickling your taste buds: dried, candied fruit, rich rancio, leather, cigar box, toasted cocoa bean, vanilla and toffee. The finish is silky, with notes of honeyed and peppery spices.
Cognac Normandin Mercier, famed for aged cognacs in the port city of La Rochelle.
VSOP Petite Champagne: 7 years minimum: Brilliant, clear, beautiful and luminous golden amber color and look. Subtle floral nose, honeysuckle and violet. Subtly spicy with a touch of liqorice. Lively cognac perfect for long drink and cocktails.
Prestige Fine Champagne: 15 years minimum: Blend of Grande Champagne (brings sharpness and length) and Petite Champagne (subtlety, delicacy and sweetness). Flavors of fruits, almond and plum with a rich and fat but clean finish. Aged 2 years in 350L new barrels, then moved a 600L barrels.
XO Grande Champagne: 30 years minimum. Ample and round, with notes of dried fruits and spices, rancio, and chocolate. The finish is long, honeyed and port-like.
Heavenly Spirits Cocktails
(cover photo courtesy of Serious Eats)
- 1.5 oz Cognac Jean Filloux Coq
- superfine sugar
- 3/4 oz Cointreau
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Prep - Coat the rim of a cocktail glass with sugar and set aside (Do this a few minutes ahead of time so the sugar can dry and adhere well to the glass.). Add the remaining ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into the chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a piece of orange peel.
New York Sour
(photo courtesy of Liquor.com)
- 2 oz Cognac Normandin Mercier VSOP Petite Champagne
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz orange juice
- 2 tsp sugar (superfine)
- 1/2 oz dry red wine
- Garnish lemon twist
Prep - In a mixing glass, add all ingredients except wine. Add ice. Shake and strain into a chilled coupe. Float wine. Garnish
(photo courtesy of CHOW)
Named for the French Quarter in New Orleans (a.k.a. the Vieux Carré), this sophisticated, spirits-driven cocktail is a lot like the Big Easy itself: a fun and potent blend of diverse elements. Benedictine, a gold-colored liqueur first produced by Benedictine monks in the 16th century, adds a sweet, aromatic flavor to cocktails. Peychaud's bitters were created in New Orleans around 1830 by the Haitian apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud. They’re lighter, sweeter, and have a more floral aroma than Angostura.
- 3/4 oz Armorik Classic Breton Single Malt Whisky
- 3/4 oz Cognac Jean Fillioux La Pouyade
- 3/4 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 tsp Bénédictine liqueur
- 1 dash Peychaud’s Bitters
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- Garnish lemon twist
Prep - Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice. Shake lightly. Strain into a large old-fashioned or rocks glass without ice. Garnish lemon twist.
The French Connection
(photo courtesy of MacKenzie Smith)
Cognac, fresh raspberries, and sparkling wine combine to make this fizzy, romantic cocktail, based on Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. This recipe was developed by Nighthawk Cinema's Beverage Director Jen Marshall.
- 2 oz Cognac Jean Filloux Coq
- 1⁄4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1⁄4 oz Simple syrup
- 4 fresh raspberries or 2 peach slices
- Sparkling wine to top
Prep - Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, and shake well to break down the raspberries and/or peaches. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve or strainer into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice. Top with a splash of sparkling wine.
Cognac du Peyrat Cocktail
(photo courtesy of Liquor.com)
- 1 lime peel
- 4 slices fresh ginger
- 1.5 oz Cognac du Peyrat Organic Selection, divided
- 2 oz Lemon-flavored soda (San Pellegrino)
- 1 slice cucumber peel
Prep - Place the lime peel and ginger slices in a short tumbler. Add half of the cognac. Lightly press the lime and ginger 2 or 3 times using a muddler or the back of a spoon. Fill the glass halfway with ice. Stir for 5 seconds. Add the remaining cognac, club soda and cucumber peel. Stir for another 5 seconds.
Le Sang et Sable
(photo courtesy of Liquor.com)
- 1/2 oz Dubonnet Rouge
- 1.5 oz Cognac du Peyrat Rare Prestige
- 1/2 oz Cherry Herring
- 3/4 oz fresh blood orange juice
- 1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
- Garnish 2 cherries and lemon twist
Prep - Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled stemmed cordial glass. Garnish with 2 cocktail cherries and lemon twist on a skewer.