Cognac and Cocktails: why the US is way behind the times
Now, it’s not very often that you can ever accuse the USA of being slow to pick up on a trend. But when it comes to the penchant for using Cognac and other French brandies in cocktails, it has to be said that they really are lagging behind in the enjoyment stakes. Unlike gin, whisky, rum and tequila – the staples of ingredients found in cocktails all over America – Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados appear to come not even a poor second, but way down in the ranking list.
A recent article in the New York Times pondered as to why this might be. And it seems that there are several reasons for bartenders, restaurants and mixologists to shun Cognac for other, more traditional spirits.
The first is that, despite the huge amount of effort the Cognac brands have put into shaking off the old-fashioned image, there are still many bartenders who think of it as an ‘old man’s’ drink. Others are put off by the sweet profile of many of the leading brands of Cognac. However, it seems that the main reason Cognac and other French brandies have failed over the years to challenge the more popular spirits is an age-old issue: and that’s price. In practical terms, adding a decent Cognac or Armagnac to a cocktail is simply too expensive.
Bizarre, you might think, when many of the Cognac houses have products that are specifically designed for use in cocktails. For example, Pierre Ferrand’s 1840 Cognac, or G by Gautier, that was launched only this week, are both Cognacs created specifically for this use. And as we know, the younger Asian market in particular has really embraced the use of Cognac as a base for cocktails.
But in the US, thankfully, not every bar, restaurant and mixologist has ignored Cognac completely. There are a few that are embracing the use of French brandies in cocktails, and are standing head and shoulders above their competitors for this very reason.
Greenwich Village restaurant, Wallflower, has two Cognac cocktails on the menu. Head bartender, Xavier Herit, from Paris, also adds Calvados – the apple brandy from Normandy – into his gin cocktail, the Betty Draper.
Naren Young, from Bowery restaurant, Bacchanal, uses both Cognac and Rye in his cocktails, Aztec Sazerac and the Orchard Pear Julep. And he utilises Armagnac in the Pistachio Sour.
However, the prize for the most innovative method of driving down the cost of using Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados in cocktails has to go to Thad Vogler, owner of San Francisco restaurants, Bar Agricole and Trou Normand. Instead of purchasing Cognac by the bottle, his solution was to purchase barrels directly from the producers themselves. Now the owner of eight barrels of Cognac, Calvados and Armagnac, he’s able to sell French brandy based cocktails for $12-$14 dollars each.
Vogler has said that he’s noticed that, in metropolitan areas particularly, “The consuming public is up for what’s on the menu”. “I’ve been amazed at how much brandy is selling, and how little resistance there is”.
On a slightly different scale, Lower East Side Restaurant, Dirty French, is actively attempting to bring back the age old tradition of an after dinner brandy. Thomas Waugh, Director of Bar Operations, has on offer seven Cognacs, 11 Armagnacs and two Calvados, all available by the glass. Prices range from $16 – $73, depending on quality. Funnily enough, he finds that when he tries to sell an Armagnac to a customer, he always gets asked, “What kind of Cognac is that?”
In brief, Armagnac is brandy produced in the Armagnac region of France. It’s similar to Cognac, but there are some quite major differences in how it’s produced, compared to cognac. And Calvados? Well, this is an apple brandy produced in the Calvados region of France. Read more about exactly what Armagnac and Calvados are, and their production methods, and their differences to Cognac.