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?

A glass of cognac
A glass of cognac

In December, six British men were given multiyear prison sentences for hijacking a French delivery truck and stealing $168,000 worth of Courvoisier cognac. To anyone familiar with the recent ups and downs of the cognac market, it is a tale with symbolic resonance. In the late 1990s, you almost couldn't give France's most famous brandy away; these days, cognac sales are at record levels, producers are struggling to keep up with demand, and highway robberies are cutting into the available supply. So how did cognac get its groove back? Credit its revival to an unlikely union of American rap stars, Chinese and Russian fat cats, and hipster bartenders.

That cognac ever fell on hard times was a mighty comedown for the so-called king of brandies. Cognac is prized for its complex perfume, its refined flavor, and its staying power on the palate. Some find it a little too regal. A.J. Liebling preferred Calvados, the apple-based spirit from Normandy, which he claimed had "a more agreeable bouquet, a warmer touch to the heart, and a more outgoing personality than Cognac." Apart from a few dissenting opinions, however, cognac has always been considered the classiest and most pleasurable brandy.

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As it happens, my lone visit to the Cognac region, located on the Atlantic coast just north of Bordeaux, was in 1999, when the crisis was at its peak. It was just a few weeks before the turn of the millennium, and the mood in Cognac, even among the big four producers—Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin—was apocalyptic. Japan's prolonged economic malaise and the financial meltdown that struck the rest of East Asia in 1997 had hit cognac hard, and the single-malt scotch mania then sweeping Western yuppiedom had come as another heavy blow. Sales were stagnant, local grape growers were staging violent protests, and cognac was burdened with the worst possible image—it was seen as an old fart's drink, a digestif for tuxedoed geezers smoking cigars in wood-paneled libraries. The future for Cognac seemed as dark as its cellars, and even if I hadn't been a fan of the region's signature tipple, the gloom I encountered there would have driven me to drink.

Amid all the despair, however, the makings of a resurrection were already sliding into place. Cognac had always enjoyed a strong following among African-Americans, and during the 1990s, it became a staple of rap lyrics. References to yak and nyak began turning up in hip-hop songs, a trend that reached its apogee with the 2001 Busta Rhymes/P. Diddy duet "Pass the Courvoisier." ("Give me the Henny/ You can give me the Cris/ You can pass me the Rémy/ But pass the Courvoisier.") Although a spokesman for Busta later admitted to the New York Times that the performer had used Courvoisier simply because it fit in the song and was actually a Hennessy man, the hit anthem gave Courvoisier a huge boost in sales, and the shout-out from the rap community sent cognac's cachet soaring, a development that was the subject of bemused coverage in the business press. It's believed that the African-American community now accounts for anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of U.S. sales. According to Impact Databank, 4 million cases of cognac were sold in the United States last year, more than double the number a decade ago.

Another bump has come from the cocktail renaissance that began in the 1990s. The "mixology" fad, with its bar chefs, cocktail stylists, and outré concoctions, has been a tonic for almost the entire spirits sector, and the cognac industry is no exception. In fact, some credit the Hennessy martini, which became popular in the mid-1990s, with jump-starting the cocktail revival. Cognac has been used for cocktails as far back as the 19th century. One of the all-time classic mixed drinks, the sidecar, supposedly invented in Paris during World War I, is composed of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice; it is now coming back into fashion, and the mixology phenomenon has also given rise to some new cognac-based drinks. The cognac region recently played host to an International Cognac Summit, during which a group of eminent mixologists invented a drink called "the summit," composed of cognac, lemonade, lime zest, cucumber peel, and fresh ginger.

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