A beginner's guide to cognac.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
April 2 2008 7:50 PM

Cognac Attack!

The king of brandies is back. Which ones are worth drinking?

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The third leg in cognac's rebuilt stool is the growing affluence of China and Russia. While the United States is still cognac's largest export market, taking roughly one of every three bottles shipped abroad, demand in both China and Russia is surging. With cognac imports growing 20 percent to 30 percent annually, China has now eclipsed Britain as cognac's second-biggest overseas market. Business is flourishing in Russia, too, and not just for the big-four exporters. Some smaller producers, notably Delamain and Audry, also command strong followings there. So great is the Russian thirst for cognac that they are even invading the vineyards: Last year, an outfit called the Russian Wine Trust acquired Croizet, a cognac house founded in 1805.

All three factors in combination have created a global cognac frenzy. In 2007, a record 158 million bottles were sold worldwide, and the cognac houses are naturally rushing to cash in on the flush times, particularly at the high end. Hennessy recently introduced a new cognac, called Beauté du Siècle, whose specs are as over-the-top as its name: Only 100 bottles are being produced, the bottles are all made of Baccarat crystal, each one comes in an ornate mirrored chest apparently fashioned by a team of 10 artists, and the cognac is hand-delivered to buyers by members of the Hennessy board. The cost? $235,000 per bottle.

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Most cognacs don't require six-figure investments, but given all the branding, marketing, and elaborate packaging, cognac is not cheap, and the combination of spiraling global demand and a sickly U.S. dollar is only ratcheting up the cost. VSes, the lowest-rung cognacs (ranked thus because they are the least aged), typically go for between $25 and $35, while VSOPs, one level up, fetch $35 to $50 per bottle. XOs, the premium offerings, normally sell for $70 and up. The tariffs are stiff, though it is worth bearing in mind that an open bottle of cognac can be consumed over a number of months.

So which cognacs are worth drinking, and how should you drink them? VSes and VSOPs are generally considered cocktail material, while XOs are usually left unadulterated. (Click here for more information on the differences among VS, VSOP, and XO.) Purists—curmudgeons, if you prefer—find the whole cognac-as-cocktail thing a bit louche. Not being the shaken-and-stirred type myself, I definitely prefer cognac straight up. On the other hand, less-aged cognacs, even most VSOPs, are not much fun on their own (the flavors are often harsh and unharmonious) and work better in combination with other spirits, soda, or tonic. Moreover, VSes and VSOPs account for 85 percent of all the cognac on the market, and if the mixology phenomenon is helping support production at all levels—and clearly it is—then I say mix away.

As for specific cognac producers, my taste runs to the little guys. The big four, which soak up more than 90 percent of cognac sales in the United States, turn out very good XOs, but I find that the brandies made by some of the smaller houses are more distinctive. I also prefer them because they tend to show more fruit and flowers, less heat and wood. Delamain Pale & Dry XO ($120) is a personal favorite —a mellow cognac, with terrific aromas of dried fruits, flowers, licorice, vanilla, and spice, leading to an eternal finish. I also love the Audry Réserve Spéciale ($115), a buttery-smooth elixir with a bouquet of honey, nuts, baking spices, flowers, and minerals. (If you've got the dosh, Delamain and Audry both produce higher-end cognacs that are even more ethereal.) Hine is another insider's choice. The Hine AntiqueXO ($145) is an elegant brandy marked by orange peel, wood, floral, and spice flavors that show great persistence. Hine also produces an excellent VSOP that, rare for this category, drinks well straight up. Fittingly, it is called Hine Rare VSOP ($50). It doesn't have the complexity of the Antique, but it has good fruit and floral scents along with an appealing nutty note, and it goes down very nicely. I am also a fan of Frapin. Frapin's Chateau Fontpinot XO ($108) is a laid-back, delicious cognac, redolent of toffee, wood, earth, and menthol. Having any of these cognacs after a good meal is almost enough to make me want to throw on my tux, grab a cigar, and join those geezers in the library.

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