High proof Cognacs return the spirit to cocktails
By Francine Cohen

Photo courtesy of Pierre Ferrand

Every year, without fail, the spirits world experiences two phenomena; one a little disheartening and the other REALLY exciting. The disheartening one (let’s get it out of the way) is that numerous new brands flood an already crowded marketplace and either are totally indistinguishable or so god awful that they stand out for their appalling packaging or wretched juice (or both). The good thing that happens every year is that we see another spirit category slide into the spotlight. As this happens we are gifted with the luxury of shifting our attention to rediscovering exquisite spirits and exploring new ways to use them.

Cognac has proven itself a spirit worth considering this year (and in years to come); particularly as high proof expressions are being made readily available — a boon for cocktail creation. The presence of high proof Cognacs on the shelves just may be what the category needs to revitalize its image and move away from its “Cognac is just for the hip-hop crowd and rich old people’s sipping enjoyment ” reputation. High proof Cognac makes for a great cocktail ingredient.

Not to mention an historically accurate one. Philippe Pichetto of Louis Royer Cognac, the producer of Force 53 a high proof Cognac bottled at 53% ABV (www.louis-royer.com), explains, “Historian Dave Wondrich has eloquently traced the history of Cognac cocktails.” Pichetto points to Wondrich’s writings on www.experiencecognac.com where Wondrich documented that brandy-based drinks, with Cognac often specified as (in Wondrich’s words) ‘the best of the best,’ have long been part of the libations pantheon. According to his Cognac cocktail research Wondrich unearths evidence that Cognac has been a cocktail staple dating back to punches favored by the English and juleps and sours embraced by their American counterparts, as well as in seminal cocktails like the Sazerac from New Orleans, the Crusta, the Brandy Cocktail and the Coffee Cocktail. Though Prohibition and its after effects froze the development of cocktails for many years thankfully that time is well behind us. Wondrich remarks, “We truly have entered a new Golden Age of the Cocktail and Cognac continues to play a large role in today’s modern cocktails!”

Modern day mixologist Chad Solomon, one half of drinks consultancy Cuffs & Buttons operated with his partner Christy Pope (www.cuffsandbuttons.com), is pleased to see this resurrection of the powerful spirit. He recognizes, “Cognac has been a little late coming to the table in the craft cocktail revival where gin and rye were the first embraced and revived. Cognac lagged behind. In the last two years that tide has turned and Cognac has moved to take its place shoulder to shoulder.”

Solomon attributes Cognac’s slow re-starting role to history, concurring with Pichetto. He comments, “If you compare the way Cognac has been viewed and its role in 19th century – it was a pre-eminent cocktail spirit. But then we had the philoxera epidemic, world wars, and Prohibition – all those things emerge from that time peior and during the last part of 20th century it’s been pushed to a sipping spirit. That’s been to its detriment.”

Its return to its natural place in cocktail development pleases Pierre Ferrand’s president, Alexandre Gabriel (www.pierreferrandcognac.com) , “Cognac was there at the birth of the unique cocktail culture here in the USA. Cognac works so well for cocktail because it is a grape (fruit) based spirit and because it’s distilled in small copper pot stills on an open flame (like good food !). It is a component that has a “gastronomic” dimension. It’s complex, multilayered, and intense yet it’s not overwhelming. I think that more and more of the best bartenders are understanding the importance of Cognac for cocktails. Nowadays bartenders are often very smart very creative and very curious. These are great attributes to understand and appreciate fully Cognac.”

Pichetto agrees that Cognac’s base creates a natural place for it in cocktails and says about his brand, “A “Fine Champagne” spirit, it is distilled from wines made from grapes harvested in the Petite and Grande Champagne growing areas. Marrying strength with nobility, it is a Cognac perfectly suited for mixing in a cocktail.”

Solomon is one who, for a long time, been aching to have access to a Cognac that worked well in a cocktail and felt it was time to change the sentiment that’s been hanging around since the 1970s – that Cognac was something you should only sip and never mix. He says, “It absolutely belongs. It’s a very mixable spirit. You have the fruitiness of the brandy, and the French oak backbone.”

Morgan Schick, co-founder of Jupiter Olympus, a consulting and events company based in Oakland, CA, sees things much the same way as he remarks, “I’ve always been surprised that you don’t see more Cognac on cocktail menus. It can be such a wonderful spirit with complex flavors and a rich storied history that it seems a natural fit for the cocktail renaissance. I like using Cognac since it has the dark tones of whiskey but marries with fruit tones more seamlessly.”

While high proof Cognacs like Louis Royer Force 53 and Pierre Ferrand’s 1840 are on the shelves and serve as well crafted tools for historically accurate cocktails, it wasn’t always this way. Until now, according to Solomon, the biggest problem facing Cognac was the proof issue. Coming across in the barrels it would have come across at 57 ABV. And an American importer would have said ‘we want it rectified’ and it would have been 90-100 proof. Solomon notes, “Several bartenders over the years have lamented that the Cognac producers they didn’t get it. They (producers) didn’t have a cocktail mentality. It was not in their wheelhouse. But slowly they’ve realized ‘we’re missing out’.”

Pichetto and a few of his spirits industry colleagues woke up to the opportunities. And talked about it some more during the Tales of the Cocktail (www.talesofthecocktail.com) seminar titled “The Rise of High-Proof Spirits.” He comments on what Louis Royer specifically brings to the mixing glass, “The concentrated aromas and flavors of Louis Royer “Force 53” VSOP Cognac makes it a standout for cocktails. It has enabled bartenders to recreate historical cocktails with greater accuracy, since its higher proof reflects levels used in the early cocktail era. Moreover, a new generation of mixologists has embraced it, unleashing innovative recipes that take advantage of its strength and finesse.

That sure makes Schick happy. He shares, “A higher proof Cognac is good for any cocktail application. I think of higher proof spirits as the unsalted butter of the cocktail world: you can always add salt to a dish later, and you’re better off if you can control it. Similarly, you can always add water later; the higher proof really allows the character of the brandy to punch through.”

Punching through with flavor and structure is the way high proof Cognac enables the Cognac category to get out of that “just a sipper” ghetto. Gabriel notes, “Let’s face it, I think that to some extent, Cognac is still seen as a ‘drink for the rich.’ It’s a rare product, not easy to make and consequently has often been associated with luxury. I think that what is happening now is that people are less and less afraid to experience the grand things of life and Cognac is definitely one of them. Until recently a lot of people still had this little voice in them that when they looked at something special said ‘it’s not for me.’ Now more and more people are saying, ‘the h…with it, it’s a great thing I should try it, I deserve it too’. And they should. You would be amazed by the tone of the letters I receive (more and more) and emails where someone tells me “I thought I did not like Cognac, I thought that Cognac was not for me, I tried Pierre Ferrand Cognac and I am never looking back.”

Schick, who recently entered the Louis Royer “Force 53” VSOP Show Me The Proof! cocktail competition which runs through August 31st (www.shakestir.com/louisroyer) adds, “I think that Cognac, like scotch, is often viewed as a spirit to be drank straight, as if mixing would sully the booze. And there are a lot of Cognacs which really do not stand up to mixing. The Royer high proof will give bartenders a chance to bring Cognac back into the cocktail world and out of the stuffy gentlemen’s club or the incredible hulks. I think that it’s nice to see the Royer folks working with the cocktail community and really embracing this role for their spirit.”

Solomon is thrilled to see this happening and expounds, “Now you can make a true pre-1873 Cognac Sazerac, a better brandy smash, a Brandy Crusta – suddently they all have an entirely new life.”

This new lease on life will be interesting to watch. And, according to Pichetto, other categories had better watch their backs with this new Cognac phenom on the shelves. He concludes, “While some Cognacs are enjoyed in a traditional snifter, Louis Royer “Force 53” VSOP Cognac proves that Cognac, which has been part of the cocktail scene since its inception, can stand up in a mixing glass against any spirit, be it tequila, whisky or gin. Its complexity, ageing and fruit-friendliness make it a must behind the bar and in today’s drinks. Cognac can rock and roll with the best of them.”

For some inspired high proof Cognac cocktail recipes, look no further:

By Morgan Schick

1 ½ oz Louis Royer “Force 53” VSOP Cognac
½ oz Batavia Arrack
¾ oz Orgeat
¾ oz Strawberry juice
¾ oz Lemon juice
Dash Angostura bitters

Shake all and double strain over crushed ice in a Collins glass.

Garnish with mint sprig and dash of bitters on top of ice. Smile.

The Chanticleer Cocktail
(Source: New York Sunday Mercury via New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1843; adapted by David Wondrich)
Put 1 barspoon/5 ml superfine or caster sugar in a small tumbler.
Add 1 barspoon/5 ml water and stir to dissolve sugar.
Add 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters or The Bitter Truth Creole Bitters
Add 1 dash absinthe
Add 2 ounces/60 ml Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula
Fill glass with cracked ice and stir. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve.

Photo by Daniel Krieger