Understanding cognac and its growing cool factor

Is cognac having its moment?

At a recent cocktail competition in New York City sponsored by the 158-year-old cognac company Louis Royer, master selector and fifth generation producer Jérôme Royer happily wriggled his dark mustache as he sipped a concoction made with one of his newer releases: Force 53, a high-proof cognac created especially for bartenders.

Watching the birth of new creations with Royer's old spirit, it was easy to wonder if his ancestors could have predicted that this cognac -- made in the tiny French town of Jarnac (population 5,000)  -- would be all the rage in a thumping metropolis thousands of miles away?

Maybe not.  Things have changed quite a bit since the 1850s.

Today, cognac is in such demand that France exports 97 percent of the stuff to other countries.  The U.S. is the largest importer, consuming 3.9 million 9-liter cases of the brown-hued spirit in 2012 alone, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That's followed by China and Russia --two countries snapping up a host of high-priced luxury items.

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While Americans drink more wine and beer, cognac's perceived exclusiveness has helped instill it as a drink for the rich and fabulous. Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy’s sang about it in their hit song, “Pass the Courvoisier” --and Ludacris, Snoop Lion, and Jay Z have their own cognac brands.

But while you may equate cognac with a certain high mark of quality, slid into silvery gift bags around the holiday season, have you ever found yourself asking: What is it, exactly?

First off, cognac is always brandy – but brandy is not always cognac. Far from a Sphinx-like riddle, this is just a simple fact of geography, among other particulars that must be adhered to when producing the slow-sipping spirit.

To be called cognac, the brandy – a spirit distilled from fermented grapes -- must be made within one of the six spots of the Cognac region: Bols Ordinaire, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne, and Grande Champagne. (The latter should not to be confused with the bubbly stuff further north. Think of it like Brooklyn, N.Y. and Brooklyn, Miss. – same name, totally different place.)

Similar to the concept of Scotch whisky, cognac is also a blend of many eau du vie (or water of life, as brandy is sometimes referred).

And have you ever noticed all those myriad letters on the bottles: VS, VSOP, for example? That’s another key to cognac – age. Cognac must be matured in oak barrels for at least two years, but in all likelihood much longer than that.  The longer it ages, the more it’s worth. So VS (e.g., “Very Special”) means the youngest spirit in the mix was by law a minimum of two-years old, although it quite possibly may be older; VSOP (“Very Superior Old Pale) means the youngest spirit was lingering in a barrel for four years; XO (“Extra Old”) indicates a minimum of six. The label Napoleon is simply a designation created by cognac maker Courvoisier, as a nod to the general who was so fond of its spirit, and will in all likelihood be a minimum of four years for the youngest brandy in the mix.

Prices vary, depending on the quality.  Some start as low as $30, while bottles of some super-premium cognac, like Louis XIII from Remy Martin -- that spend decades in barrel -- can fetch in the tens of thousands of dollars.

However, you don’t need to take out a second mortgage on your home to enjoy a really nice glass of cognac. Many of the VSOPs clock in at around $40 and up, and are deliciously decadent sipped neat or with an ice cube or two.

And thanks to its rise in hip-hop culture, cognac is more accessible than ever with products like Chateau du Cognac’s D’Usse, Courvoisier’s Exclusif, Hennessy VS or Martell’s Noblige or the newly released Caratèrea.

The night of Royer’s Manhattan gathering, Jérôme Royer passed out prizes for cocktails created by local bars.  There was a two-way tie for the Grand Prize winners:  Amor y Amargo's bartender Sother Teague and his drink called Orchard and The Wayside by the Dead Rabbit’s Pamela Winznitzer.

“We need to like life when we work in our business,” laughed Royer, as he shook hands with the winners and sampled one of the winning quaffs. With work like this, it’s not such a difficult task to endure.

Cognac Cocktail Recipes

The Wayside

Amor y Amargo