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.

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.

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.

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.