Boasting a rich, delicate note and spicy flavour, Cognac is hailed as one of the world's most refined (read unique) spirits. However, this amber-coloured high-quality brandy doesn’t appeal to everyone's senses. Once it strikes a chord though, there's no going back. Mumbai-based mixologist Himanshu Desai gives us a primer on buying, drinking and pairing Cognac. Consider yourself enrolled in Cognac 101!
How to Buy
The first step of finding quality Cognac is to not worry, says Desai who was the first runner-up at the Rémy Martin Bartending Talent Academy Competition 2018. “There is no such thing as bad Cognac. While you’re exploring Cognac varieties, chances are you will come across one bottle that tastes better than the other.” The most important thing when picking Cognac is to understand the label, which tells you about the ageing time before it was bottled. Unlike fine wine, Cognac doesn’t age once it is bottled.
Decoding the Cognac Label: The lowest quality grades, VS (Very Special), which is at least 2 years old, and VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), 4 years old, are often deemed too young. However, they make for a great starting point, notes Desai. Quality Cognac starts at XO (Extra Old), which is at least 10 years old. This spirit requires enough ageing time to develop its complex flavours. Apart from these, there are vintage Cognacs or Millésime Cognac, which is Cognac from a single year and single harvest. Bottled without blending, some of these Cognacs are aged for dozens of years. If you’d like to give this Cognac a try, Desai recommends Louis XIII Cognac by Rémy Martin.
Recognise the Grape’s Origin: The next step is to note the region where the grapes were grown, also known as crus. Cognacs rarely come from a single grape-growing area or eau-de-vie. Instead they are made from a blend of different crus. “While there are different grape-growing regions in Cognac, the two bests are the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne crus. And Fine Champagne, a type of cognac, is made using grapes from these regions,” explains Desai.
Desai’s Must-try Cognac Picks
- If you're an adventurer and open to trying new-age Cognacs, Desai recommends Remy Martin 1738, a new entrant in the market which is not yet available in India. Neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail – this Cognac sits between VSOP and XO.
- For someone new to the world of Cognac, Hennessy, a reasonable brand, is a good place to begin. “One of the most commercial brands out there, they offer something to suit almost every budget and palate,” says Desai.
- Talking of Cognacs below Rs 5,000, Desai says Martell Blue Swift cannot be left out.
- Rémy Martin, one of the finest producers of Cognac, caters to a niche audience, notes Desai.
How to Drink
Neat or With Water: This versatile drink can be enjoyed in a variety of formats – be it straight, on the rocks or in cocktails, and by almost anyone. "While I like my Cognac neat, there are some who add a splash of water,” says Desai. “This helps release certain aromas thereby altering the taste.”
With Ice: Adding ice cubes (not more than two) is another preferred way to enjoy this spirit. Thanks to the slowly melting ice, the drink’s taste changes with every sip, explains Desai. If you’d like to get experimental, Desai suggests pairing the Cognac with some ice, ginger ale and tonic. “These too help release the Cognac’s fruity aroma and taste,” adds Desai.
In Cocktail Recipes: When it comes to making cognac-based cocktail recipes, Desai says, “Unlike vodka or other spirits, Cognac is made by twice-distilling the wine of certain white grapes and then blended and cask-aged in oak barrels,” explains Desai. “Since it is acidic in comparison to other spirits, it can sometimes feel overly rich, which is why mixing it up in a cocktail is the best way to introduce oneself to the spirit's fascinating flavours and styles.”
Frozen: Cognac can even be consumed frozen! In this form, the drink is very viscous, giving you a different kind of experience. “Though your Cognac won't freeze, it'll turn super chilled giving you a sweeter and smoother feel,” he says.
How to Serve
When it comes to serving Cognac, the most common misconception is that it's best served in a snifter or balloon glass, says Desai. "While it's true that a short-stemmed glass is one of the most popular ways to enjoy the drink, if you want to get the most out of a bottle, a tulip glass works best," suggests Desai.
Wider at the top than the bottom, a tulip glass allows you to capture the spirit's subtle aromas – rich, fruity and nutty – instead of a nose full of alcohol which can be enough to burn your nostrils. Smell plays a very important role in bringing out a Cognac’s taste, notes Desai. “If you ruin the experience of nosing your Cognac, you're probably on the road to depriving yourself of experiencing the true taste of the spirit,” he says. Cognacs also work well in rock glasses.
How to Pair with Food
Sweet and Savoury: Traditionally, Cognac has been an after-dinner drink that pairs well with desserts. However, it also pairs brilliantly with savoury dishes, thanks to its complex bold aromas.
Cheese: This spirit begins its life as grapes from the Cognac region of France, and since cheese and wine are like peanut butter and jelly, it makes perfect sense for a grape-based drink like Cognac to be enjoyed with all things cheesy.
Seafood: For a truly different experience, Desai suggests pairing Cognac with seafood, particularly oysters, lobsters and salmon. “Cognac brings out the hidden flavours and cuts through their richness,” explains Desai, who favours pairing his Cognac with oysters and grilled fish.
Foie gras: “Sinfully delicious,” says Desai on this pairing. “I chanced upon the foie gras and Cognac pairing when I was in France. It was an experience that truly stood out.”
How to Store
Unlike wine which keeps ageing, Cognac ceases to mature when bottled. “This allows you to store a bottle of Cognac for a long time, provided it hasn't been mixed with anything else,” says Desai. Storing the bottles upright in a dry and dark place helps maintain its quality. “An opened bottle can also be refrigerated. However, this depends on one's personal preference. When had at room temperature, Cognac tends to be stronger and more potent on the palate. On the other hand, a refrigerated glass works for those who like their drink truly mellow,” explains Desai.
Image: Instagram and Shutterstock
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