Brandy and cognac are the most prestigious spirits on the shelf. Few products so ably illustrate the concept of affordable luxury as do as these traditional heavyweights. Their appeal transcends age and demographics, and although belt-tightening has reduced our discretionary income, cognacs and brandies offer people a lot of indulgence for the buck.
The Dean of American Brandy and Co-founder of acclaimed Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale has for 30 years watched with interest this reversal of fortune. “The 21-to-35-year-old demographic—Millennial and Echo Boomers—are in particular responsible for reenergizing the category’s dynamic. Yet the most significant growth factor though, especially in a down economy, brandies and cognacs widely perceived as affordable luxuries.”
Another evolving sales driver is their extraordinary mixability. In fact, many of the vintage cocktails being reintroduced into the American mainstream are prepared on a foundation of these grape spirits. For those times when an ordinary cocktail won’t do, savvy mixologists invariably enlist the talents of brandy or cognac.
Before forging off on your own, consider first auditioning a few of the classic brandy cocktails. They’re field-tested and guaranteed to impress the locals.
First is the inimitable Stinger Cocktail, a classic born in the 1890s that rose to prominence after the Repeal and remained popular throughout the ‘50s. It’s made with brandy and white crème de menthe. Now more often requested served over ice, the original version remains unsurpassed.
The satiny textured Sidecar debuted at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris during World War I. It’s traditionally made with cognac, Cointreau and lemon sour mix and served with a rim of sugar. The cocktail is at its best when shaken with vigor.
The same can’t be said about the Brandy Manhattan, which by all accounts requires gentle stirring. The cocktail is made with sweet vermouth, a few dashes of bitters and a dry yet charismatic brandy or cognac. While vermouth may be inexpensive, it’s a complex aperitif wine difficult to make well. Suffice to say, the better the vermouth, the better the resulting Manhattan.
Like basic black with pearls, enjoying a sumptuous Brandy Alexander after dinner is always appropriate. This timeless classic is prepared with brandy, crème de cacao and cream with a dash of nutmeg on top. However, there’s not a more satisfying dessert than a Brandy Alexander made with ice cream.
Java enthusiasts are certain to gravitate to the unpretentious Café Royale (brandy, simple syrup and hot coffee) and the Caffé Correcto (cognac and espresso). Both of their fates rest on selecting a brandy sufficiently robust to perform in tune with high-octane coffee. Finish either drink with whipped cream or a layer of frothed milk.
Perhaps the most elegant classic on the roster is the French 125, an effervescent cocktail so delicious it’ll even improve your feng shui. The French 125 is concocted with cognac, sweetened lemon juice and a fill with champagne. For the best results, use premium brut Champagne and rely only on fresh lemon sour mix. If you’re looking to wow a guest, here’s your chance.
A popular favorite since the ‘60s, the Keoki Coffee is made with brandy, Kahlúa, crème de cacao, coffee and a topping of whipped cream. The Dirty Mother is another hit from the ‘60s. Admittedly an odd name for a delectable drink, it features brandy, Kahlúa and a dash of cream. Consider substituting an Irish cream liqueur for the half & half.
Now if you’re in the market for something more romantic, look no further than the French Connection, a libido-reviving blend of cognac and Grand Marnier swirled together in a heated snifter. Each elicits the best attributes out of the other.
Hip New Brandies
Where once showcasing XO Cognac in a Sidecar or French 125 was considered sacrilege, it’s now viewed as an evolutionary imperative, the irrepressible drive to improve ones lot. One thing is certain, the better the brandy, the better the cocktail.
That said a down economy is a challenging time to debut a pricy collection of ultra-premium cocktails. To add fuel to the trend, suppliers have been introducing new labels of cognacs and brandies featuring lower price points and vibrant personas tailor-made for drink making.
If you happened to miss the hoopla surrounding their release, here’s our all-star lineup of new cocktail-friendly brandies and cognacs.
Cardenal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva — A world-class Spanish Brandy de Jerez priced in the low-$40s and comprised of a blend of 17 different brandies aged in both ex-sherry casks and Sanchez Romate’s solera.
Christian Brothers XO Rare Reserve — Made in the San Joaquin Valley, this American brandy is distilled from Thompson seedless grapes because of their flavor and high acidity. Prior to blending, the brandies are aged 4 to 6 years in American white oak barrels.
Courvoisier Exclusif Cognac —Courvoisier Exclusif is a distinctively flavorful cognac created specifically for use in cocktails. The cognac is a blend of Borderies and Fin Bois eaux-de-vie selected for their individual depth and complexity.
Hennessy Black Cognac — Hennessy Black is a light-bodied blend of up to 45 eaux-de-vie aged in French oak barrels for at least 5 years. Priced under $50, the cognac is being marketed on its drink-making prowess.
Jacques Cardin Cognac VSOP — An enticing and unexpectedly affordable cognac, the VSOP is assembled from brandies aged in oak for 4 years. The range also features made-for-mixing Jacques Cardin Apple Flavored Cognac VSOP and Jasmin Flavored Cognac VSOP.
Maison Surrenne Ancienne Distillerie Cognac — Imported by Craft Distillers of Ukiah, Ancienne Distillerie is a 100% Petite Champagne cognac comprised of eaux-de-vie aged for 10 years in the cellars of the family-owned distillery. Maison Surrenne is a franchise player wholesaling around $40.
Martell Noblige Cognac — Considered a step above their VSOP, Martell Noblige contains a high percentage of barrel-aged eaux-de-vie from the Borderies. The smallest of the crus, its brandies are soft, round and highly valued for use in blending.
Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac — Priced at a value-laden $45, Ambre is a sophisticated assemblage of 100% Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie with a tasting profile of 10 years. Among its singular features is that the brandies are distilled on the lees to produce more depth of flavor.
Rémy Martin Grand Cru Cognac — Marketed as a higher standard in V.S, Grand Cru is a blend of 100% Petite Champagne cognacs barrel-aged between 3 and 10 years. The mahogany hued cognac is moderately priced and loaded with floral and fruit notes.