the art of drinking cognac
how does one drink cognac "properly"? warm, room temperature, over ice? with or without water? is there indeed such a thing as the "proper" way?? see this article, written by Gary Regan, Special to San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, July 21, 2005 Americans tend to sip their Cognac neat, at room temperature, or warmed slightly by cupping the glass in the palm of the hand. It's an elegant postprandial potion. And those with a passion for classic cocktails take their Cognac with Cointreau and fresh lemon juice in the form of a sidecar, one of the world's most sophisticated mixed drinks. In France, though, where style is always the name of the game, those in the know drink their Cognac over ice in tall, slender glasses, mixed with all manner of juices and sodas. Are we missing out on something? You'd better believe we are. On a recent trip through the Cognac region of France, I visited most of the major Cognac houses and expected to be told that nothing should be added to the treasured elixir lest it become contaminated beyond recognition. I was gravely mistaken. I was treated to Cognac mixed with tonic water, ginger ale, club soda and even cranberry juice. The fact is that Cognac has so much character and flavor that it holds its own no matter what you add to it. In order to be called Cognac, this brandy must be made in a delimited area of France surrounding the Charente River, and the grapes used to make Cognac must be grown there, too. So although it can be said that "all Cognac is brandy," it's akin to blasphemy to say that all brandy is Cognac. The youngest Cognacs are labeled as V.S. -- Very Special -- and can legally be retrieved from the barrel after just 30 months of aging. But it's far more likely that the lion's share of Cognac in any given V.S. bottling has rested in barrels for around five years. These are the Cognacs the French recommend for use in tall drinks -- they sing "La Marseillaise" loud enough to be heard over the din of clinking ice and multiple blenders. V.S.O.P. bottlings must be aged for a minimum of 4 1/2 years, and Cognacs bearing the designations X.O. or Napoleon are guaranteed to be at least 6 years old, though it's good to bear in mind that the legal ages define only the youngest Cognacs used in the mix. The French wouldn't be happy to see any of these older Cognacs in tall drinks, though, so save them for the snifter, lest you offend. Colin Peter Field, head barman at the celebrated Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Paris hotel, and a transplanted Englishman, sells lots of variations on the classic Horse's Neck, which uses Cognac and ginger ale, yet he favors spirals of orange or Mandarin peel instead of the traditional garnish of a spiral of lemon zest. When he uses Hennessy Cognac and adds Angostura bitters to the mix, the drink becomes a Lutteur III Horse's Neck, named for a horse, owned by a member of the Hennessy family, which won Great Britain's Grand National race in 1909. Stephane Ciroux, bartender at the Scribe Hotel in Paris, marries Remy Martin with fresh lemonade for his guests. "It's my favorite long drink made with Cognac," says Jean-Baptiste Prot, a spokeperson for Remy Martin. Long drinks made with a Cognac base are not new creations by any stretch. Harry Johnson's "Bartenders' Manual," published in 1888, offers some very specific instructions as to how to make a seemingly simple brandy and ginger ale. A fan of Martell Cognac, Johnson wrote, "Mix well together; particular attention must be paid when pouring the ginger ale into the (Cognac), not to let the foam run over the glass, and it is proper to ask the customer whether he desires imported or domestic (ginger) ale." When spirits expert Cyril Ray published his book, "Cognac," in 1973, he, too, was a proponent of drinking this austere spirit over ice, suggesting that soda water or even orange juice made excellent companions in the glass. "(This) makes a fine aperitif," he wrote, "being made from the grape, it is not going to quarrel with one's dinner wine as whisky or gin or vodka can." Cognac and tonic water was another tall drink I was exposed to during my trip to France, but I found that this didn't work quite as well as many of the other mixtures I sampled; the tonic seemed to clash with the Cognac. However, after seeing a recipe for Courvoisier and bitter lemon soda -- a soda far more popular in Europe than here and that is, more or less, lemon-flavored tonic water -- I squeezed a couple of wedges of lemon into my glass of Cognac and tonic, and the drink suddenly came to life. I seem to have found yet another way to put Cognac into my system on a hot summer's day. On the last day of my trip I met Bernard Hine, the last surviving member of the Hine Cognac family and a wonderful, ever-so-slightly eccentric gentleman. His house, on the banks of the River Charente, was redesigned in 2002 by Russell Sage, a man touted as being "a talented designer with a very British style and ironic political sensibility." One hallway is festooned with old oil paintings of anonymous souls whose faces have been painted over with the heads of various breeds of cats and dogs. The hall led me to the salon, a room painted with what seemed to be a cross between seashells and balloons on all four walls. Hine's house may be eccentric; his Cognac is anything but. Asked why the French don't drink Cognac after dinner, Hine blamed the Allied troops who helped liberate France in 1944. "They brought whiskey with them," he said. "Now the French drink Cognac only in tall glasses filled with all sorts of mixers, and go for whiskey after dinner." Hine isn't available in a V.S. bottling -- the company concentrates more on vintages, and "early-landed Cognacs" that are distilled in France and aged in England -- so if you sample a long drink made with Hine, it's probably best that you don't let Bernard know about it. I suggest using Hine Rare V.S.O.P. here are 2 recipes.... Lutteur III Horse's Neck Adapted from a recipe created by Colin Peter Field, head barman at the Ritz Paris hotel. INGREDIENTS: 2 ounces Hennessy Cognac 4 ounces ginger ale 2-4 dashes Angostura bitters 1 orange-peel spiral, for garnish INSTRUCTIONS: Pour all of the ingredients into an ice-filled tall glass. Stir briefly, and add the garnish. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Amour Sanglant Adapted from a recipe by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel Du Cognac. INGREDIENTS: 2 ounces V.S. Cognac 1 ounce cherry brandy 1/2 ounce vanilla liqueur, such as Navan 3-4 ounces blood orange juice INSTRUCTIONS: Pour all of the ingredients into an ice-filled tall glass and stir briefly. my father is a big fan of cognac and would always have a selection of remy martins in the sitting room. on occasion he would warm up his glass over a steaming kettle, or swirl boiling water around a glass to warm it through. with him being chinese, and therefore a cognac connoisseur, i never questioned him...the chinese love their brandy. like the carrying of cash in one's shirt breast pocket, it's a cultural thing i swear.