What better place to drink Cognac than in Cognac.
Cognac is meant to be sipped. Savored. Perhaps enjoyed in a cocktail. And while it’s been said that cognac is God’s great gift to sophisticated spirit lovers, I’m also fairly sure he never meant for one man to visit the four biggest cognac makers in the world over two days. Jesus, I feel like a Rolling Stones song.
But if the world’s booze-soaked scribes have taught us anything it’s that there is no rest for the wicked. Especially when the wicked are on deadline. Nothing for it but to crank Exile on Main Street (which was recorded in France, let’s not forget), get a hold of some coffee and some woozy observations about cognac.
Making The Stuff Let’s start with the grapes, by far the most confusing part of the cognac equation. You wouldn’t want to drink the bitter, acidic white wine they make in the Charente region of France, but it’s nonetheless the foundation of the world’s most popular brandy. The wine, made from the ugni blanc grape, is distilled twice, taking it to 80 proof. At this point it’s an eau-de-vie, and that’s what goes into barrels to age and ultimately get blended with other eaux-de-vie to produce cognac. By law, in order to be called cognac the brandy wine must be made from grapes sourced from one of six contiguous growing areas—or crus—surrounding the Charente River. The most desirable of these crus are the grande champagne, petit champagne and Borderies. If you’re befuddled, you’re not alone. These people are making a wine no one wants to drink, distilling it and calling the best of it champagne, even though it bears no relation to the bubbly stuff you pop on New Year’s Eve. It’s enough to make anyone want to curl up with a bottle. Turns out champagne means “chalky soil” in French, a description that fits the soil in the Cognac region. Still, way to confuse the rest of the world, guys.
Eighty percent of all the cognac consumed in the world is produced by just four brands: Hennessy, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin and Martell. Since I go big or don’t go at all, those were the distilleries I checked out during my brief time in Cognac. At each stop along the way I learned something about this most noble of spirits. And I got good and drunk as per my contract.
Hennessy Founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765, this French institution today sells more hootch than any other Cognac house. And it shows. The company headquarters along the banks of the Charente River are mammoth and luxuriant. And their nearby country estate, Chateaux De Bagnolet, where a few journalists and I dined with head honcho Morris Hennessy ain’t exactly what you’d call a fixer-upper either. While sipping traditional Sidecars (a jigger of Hennessy mixed with a half-ounce each of Cointreau and fresh lemon juice, shaken over ice and strained into a sugar-rimmed cocktail glass) my buddy Mo-Hen told me something interesting—that Cognac heats up a little when a few drops of room temperature water are added, a result of the water breaking down the links between the molecules in the eaux-de-vie and causing an exothermic chemical reaction. Feel free to file that bit of information under “Shit You Can Use To Get Laid At A Cocktail Party.” For my money, the Hennessy Privilège VSOP is a great deal at around $50 a bottle. If I’m on someone else’s dime, though, I’ll go with the Richard Hennessy blend. Stuff sells for around $2000 to $2500 per. I owe you one, Mo-Hen.
Rémy Martin This 285-year-old brand prides itself on producing what’s known as Fine Champagne, which the French pronounce “feen chom-pon-ya.” They’re adorable with that pronunciation business aren’t they? Rémy uses only grapes sourced from the grande champagne or petit champagne crus, where the chalky soil yields higher quality fruit and, the conventional wisdom goes, a more complex and textured eau-de-vie. Now, Rémy isn’t the only house to make Fine Champagne, but they’re certainly churning out the bulk of it. Roughly 15 percent of all cognac produced is designated fine champagne, and 80% of that comes courtesy of Rémy. Rémy’s VSOP runs around $50 a bottle and is highly respectable, doubly so when served using the latest in modern drinking tech.
Remy's most prestigious bottling is its Louis XIII, made from a blend of eaux-de-vie dating back more than 100 years. If you have to ask what it costs, you can’t afford it. As a side note, if you happen to ask for Rémy in China chances are they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Over there they call it the “man-headed horse” in reference to the brand’s distinctive centaur logo (file that under “Shit You Can Use To Get Laid At A Cocktail Party In Japan”).
Martell Look closely during the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, and you’ll notice a bottle of Martell Cordon Bleu in Captain Willard’s hotel room in Saigon, where the bullshit piled up so fast you needed wings to stay above it. Of course, Martell was producing Cognac long before Hollywood started producing movies about the second-biggest military debacle in U.S. history. In fact they’ve been at it since 1715, making them the oldest producer we visited. And it was on that visit that I enjoyed my most favorite Cognac-based libation– an East India Cocktail. The recipe—which can be found in Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff’s latest tome, The Essential Cocktail Book—it calls for 1 1/2 ounces Martell VSOP, 1 ounce orange Curaçao, 1 1/2 ounces fresh pineapple juice, a dash of Angostura bitters, a flamed orange peel for garnish and grated nutmeg. Shake and strain, baby.
Courvoisier They say Napoleon Bonaparte drank the stuff these guys produced on a regular basis, and look how much that little sonofabitch accomplished. Hell, if it weren’t for Napoleon, there’d be no metric system. Can you imagine a world without the hectometers and deciliters? Not the kind of world this booze writer want to live in. As you’ve no doubt figured out by now, these major Cognac producers make it a point to remind everyone that they’re the “only” something or other. In Courvoisier’s case, they’re the sole brand to be awarded France’s highest honor for excellence—the Prestige de la France. That means it is a Grade-A certifiably good grog. Of course if you drink their lower-end offerings you run the risk of coming off like Tim Meadows' Ladies Man character, so proceed with caution, and don't buy below the Exclusif, which goes for about $50.
And with that, mes amis, I bid you adieu from La France. Time to drag my beleaguered ass and liver to bed for a few days. Because right about now I’m feeling like Jagger in Exile’s opening track, “Rocks Off.” "Headed for the overload. Splattered on the dirty road. Kick me like you've kicked before. I can't even feel the pain no more." Then again, I figure that's why God gave us cognac.