Despite its highfalutin reputation, cognac is actually a very drinkable spirit with a long connection to humble hard-working farmers. And, perhaps once people know the real stories of some of these producers, more brown-spirit drinkers will try the French classic.
What we understand today as cognac, which is grape brandy, has its origins in the 17th-century, when the demand for French wine picked up thanks to the Dutch. Merchants realized that distilling wine before shipping it, and then adding water back in later, reduced the likelihood of spoilage. Storing the wine in oak casks also gave it a unique flavor.
Today, cognac production isn’t drastically different from a few centuries ago. Small-scale farmers in the western Cognac region of France grow the grapes, mostly Ugni blanc, and turn them into wine. The wine is then distilled and aged in oak barrels on the very spot it was grown, completing a cycle that demands a range of highly specific skills from the farmers.
The result is a spirit that’s light on its feet. In cognacs five to 15 years old, which have taken on some of the bright French oak, notes of ripe orchard fruit shine through, with hints of citrus and even floral. As the spirit evolves with age, a richer and bold flavor emerges, including dried fruit, leather and cigars.
While a few big houses dominate the market, like Hennessy, Courvoisier and Remy Martin, there’s still a passionate community of micro-producers looking to grow the reputation of the spirit with their smaller batches. It’s similar to the micro-distilling movement that has taken off in the U.S. – but not a story we hear typically of spirit producers abroad. Why? According to Nicolas Palazzi, a New York-based importer at PM Spirits, the farmers are so busy producing the spirits they don’t have time to market themselves internationally. Also, many of the farmers don’t speak English.
“I want to try to get people to understand that cognac is not fancy,” says Palazzi. “You don’t need a snifter – or a $900 room at the St. Regis in Aspen – to drink this stuff.” (Apparently Kanye didn’t get the memo.) Palazzi brings “spirits made by real people” to the U.S. “They grow their own fruits and distill themselves – six-, seven-, nine-generation farmers who are in love with the product.”
A cognac must be aged two years, the same as bourbon, but some are aged as long as 80 or much longer. One bottle, over 200-years-old, recently sold at auction for some $77,000, which didn’t help dilute cognac’s bourgeoisie reputation as the spirit of choice from French royalty to American rappers. Still, given the immense popularity of brown spirits these days, it’s not hard to imagine a new cognac renaissance.
Here in the U.S., so many drinkers have recently made the jump from clear to brown spirits and that move has driven a surge in bourbon sales domestically, while interest also grows abroad. Palazzi is hoping that a few of these imbibers will awaken to the world of cognac, where they can expect to find a spirit with, well, a little more balance.
So what makes a good cognac?
“Cognac has a finesse to it, an elegance, that other spirits may not necessarily have,” he tells me. “To my palate, whiskeys tend to be dominated by one big flavor.” Think smoke and fire, while cognac is a bit more subtle. Palazzi compares drinking these spirits to taking an erratic cab ride with a herky-jerky driver. “One thing I’m looking for when drinking any spirit is balance. A layered, smooth, evolution,” he says. “You don’t want to be like, ‘Wow! That’s really hot. Then, wow! That’s really sweet. Then wow! That’s burning.’”
Sound familiar, bourbon drinkers? Our national spirit can be a bit, well, abrasive. Perhaps even reflecting our own cultural identity. Cognac is a bit more… reserved.
Whether U.S. younger drinkers embrace cognac, only time will tell. “There’s this romantic mysterious idea about what cognac is that prevents younger people from drinking it,” says Palazzi. No matter your age, give cognac a try. Grab a bottle and pour a couple ounces into a rock glass, or whatever you have lying around. Palazzi won’t judge.
Nicolas Palazzi’s Top Five Cognacs to Try:
Paul Beau VS Grande Champagne Cognac
This six-year-old blend is good entry-level stuff for mixing or sipping neat. No additives.
Guillon Painturaud VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac
Next step up is a 15-year VSOP, also from the Grande Champagne region. Only two people are responsible for this product.
Grateaud Bouquet des Borderies
To move away from the “first growth” of the Cognac region that is Grande Champagne, this is from the Borderies, which is the smallest of the six appellations in Cognac, France.
Dudognon Heritage Grande Champagne Cognac
Like XO? What about something that is actually old (40 years) and and not just dark because a bunch of caramel coloring has been added. Nice dry and spicy flavor.
Gourry de Chadeville Single Cask Grande Champagne Cognac
Think cognac is boring? Do you drink full-proof whiskies? Here’s a take on cognac you’ve most likely never tried before: a 16-year single-cask full-proof (64.3%) distilled in the last wood-fired pot still in operation in Grande Champagne.