Cognac is not just for sipping around the fireplace in winter anymore. The iconic French brandy is surprisingly excellent in cocktails and quite versatile to pair with food as well. In warm weather, try it with ginger ale or with champagne and angostura bitters. Since the mid-19th century, cognac was the spirit of choice for those who could afford a mixed cocktail. Some of the classic recipes made using cognac include the French 75, Sidecar, and Sazerac.
In Chicago, Lowcountry in the South Loop and Lakeview serves an easy-drinking cognac highball to pair with their seafood boils, deep-fried shrimp, soft-shell crab, and Cajun waffle fries. Buddy Guy’s Legends serves a French negroni — just the sophisticated sipper to nurse through a few sets of the best blues in the city.
Liz Pearce at The Drifter and the new Flora Fauna pairs cognac with meats and desserts. “Typically I think of it going best in a sweet and salty setting,” she says. “Such as a cheese and meat board with nuts and dried figs, but it could certainly stand up to pork belly and other meats.”
Benoît De Sutter, master distiller at Courvoisier, also loves cognac for dessert. “I love Courvoisier XO neat paired with a dessert that will remind me some of the XO flavors,” he says. “Candied orange, vanilla hint, apricot, cinnamon, and dried figs.”
Of the larger cognac houses, Courvoisier has the longest and most authentic French heritage, being the imperial supplier to Napoleon’s court and serving at the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Curiously, the French don’t actually drink much cognac themselves these days — 99 percent of cognac is exported.
“I love mixing with cognac because it adds a certain nuance and depth of flavor that American whiskey can sometimes lack,” Pearce explains. “Specifically, cognac can have some beautiful baking spice and tannic notes from extended aging that whiskey lacks in many younger bottlings. It also works great with citrus, in sidecar riffs, and French 75s. I find that people often forget about it, but are usually pleasantly surprised.” At The Drifter, one of Pearce’s most popular cocktails is the Creel Deal, a stirred split base cognac and rye cocktail with apricot and amaro that’s her riff on a Vieux Carre.
For a lighter and unexpected alternative, Brent Braun mixes cognac with sparkling rosé at OK Omens in Portland. “Sparkling rosé in general is one of the most versatile food beverages, and mixing it with cognac gives it this nice big rich base to prop it up,” he says. “In some ways, you end up mirroring the weight and flavors of super high-quality aged champagne. It’s actually the perfect thing to drink with a burger and fries because the bubbles help cleanse the fat of your palate while the underlying caramelization of the cognac matches with beef fat and caramelized onions.”
If you’re planning travels to France, Cognac is a beautiful region to visit, just a couple hours north of Bordeaux near the coast. From Paris, it’s just a two-hour train ride and you’ll be in a bucolic landscape home to more vines than people. The new Hôtel Chais Monnet opened less than a year ago and is the only five-star hotel in the Cognac region. The 92-room hotel is a member of Leading Hotels of the World, with a beautiful spa and great jazz bar serving a comprehensive selection of cognac from houses large and small.
Although summer is peak tourist season, the cognac experience in winter can be more intimate and exclusive since you can see the distilleries in action. By law, distilling only occurs from November through March in order to retain the quality of the grape juice since cognac cannot be distilled from wine that contains added sulfites. Courvoisier even allows visitors to bottle their own eau-de-vie straight from the barrel to take home, a priceless experience involving strong but precious juice that hasn’t yet been blended.
Here are a couple simple cognac cocktail recipes to try at home:
Midnight in Paris
- 2.5 parts Courvoisier® VSOP cognac
- Ginger ale
- Orange slice
Method: Fill a high ball glass with ice, add Courvoisier VSOP, and top with ginger ale. Give a gentle stir and garnish with a thin orange slice.
Glass: High ball
- 2.5 parts Courvoisier® VSOP cognac
- 1 brown sugar cube
- 1-2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- Pol Roger Champagne
Method: Chill glass beforehand; add a small brown sugar cube to glass and sprinkle with a few drops of bitters, add Courvoisier VSOP, and top with cold Champagne.
Glass: Coupette or flute
Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.