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Serious Drinking: What is Cognac For?

cognac

Flickr/Espen Klemcognac

Doesn't this swanky French grape spirit reside in the beverage province of rich, white men in their private, paneled rooms? Isn't cognac what rappers grab at the neck and swig from in their bling-y cribs? Isn't it mostly for postprandial luxuriating or sultry babymaking? What, then, is it doing turning up in cocktails at Mélisse, Black Market, Pour Vous, the Varnish and elsewhere, a gold-standard libation working the trenches and wells of the city's bars?

I was wondering all this on a night out recently where I was handed a Sazerac made with the stuff -- a generous pour of Hennessy Privilege -- and I asked the guy who made it, Jordan Bushell, isn't this a waste of good cognac?

Bushell is a cocktail specialist for Hennessy, and he informed me that cognac was the original spirit in the original Sazerac, the New Orleans cocktail ostensibly named for the café in which it debuted, in about 1850. In fact, Bushell says, the Sazerac House was named for a cognac house called Sazerac de Forge et Fils, and that spirit was employed in several cocktails at its namesake establishment.

Then, in the mid-19th century, the vineyards of France were laid waste by phylloxera, a grape louse that destroyed vines from the root up and set back the grape industry for decades, putting an end to brandy production and devastating the market. American bourbon producers were only too happy to fill the cocktail void that cognac had occupied.

Cognac returned to the market, of course, but its rarity made it exclusive, not to mention expensive -- both factors in contributing to its niche as a prestige spirit. As a drinks component, however, you could say it's been clawing its way back ever since.

Not to say it can't perform double service: At Pour Vous in Hollywood both cognac and its rustic counterpart, Armagnac, figure in a number of drinks on that menu, including Le Samourai, where it's blended with Framboise, rhubarb and something they're calling "umami." Not surprisingly, it's the most expensive drink on the menu. And the bottle service features a pair of VS cognacs -- Pierre Ferrand and Bache -- for you to sling over your and your friends' snifters.

And why not? Aged for many more years in oak casks, and then often in bottle, cognac bears a natural mellow sweetness and smooth texture to enjoy on its own. But that same suavity might be a bit too elegant to squander in a cocktail, too smooth to provide that satisfying bite a cocktail often has.

My brandy Sazerac, for example, was a very polished version of one made with bourbon, but other cognac drinks I've had seem a bit simple and cidery. "You're sometimes looking for a little more body, a little more heat," admits Max Seaman of the Varnish, where an allegiance to pre-Prohibition cocktails has him venturing frequently into cognac cocktail recipes.

He notes two nifty solutions to this dilemma: One is to use a higher-proof brandy (his choice is Pierre Ferrand 1840, at 90 proof), which gives a little extra bite. (Both Hennessy Privilege and the Ferrand 1840 are available at K&L, Hi-Time, Wally's and Wine House.)

To go in the opposite direction, many cognac cocktails employ Champagne, with its high acidity and fine perlage providing the bite the spirit itself may lack -- like the Harry's Pick Me Up (recipe below). "It's very refreshing," Seaman notes, "a great way to start or end an evening."

Harry's Pick Me Up

(adapted from The Savoy Cocktail Book, Harry Craddock, 1930)

1 oz. cognac (Pierre Ferrand 1840)

½ oz. fresh lemon juice

½ oz. grenadine (house-made, from pomegranate)

1. Shake with a small amount of ice, strain into Champagne flute, top with Champagne and a lemon twist.

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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.