This is a blog about cocktails and booze and entertaining and celebrations and good times. This post was supposed to go up on July 14, the day France celebrates Bastille Day. By now you know of the horrific events that occurred in Nice that night. I thought about not posting this, it seemed wrong and trivial to write about drinks when France has suffered so much in the past 18 months. But then I thought not just about what France has endured but also how. Theirs is a country that aches for and mourns their dead. But they also absolutely, defiantly, continue to celebrate their freedoms and Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and it is to that spirit that I dedicate this post.
Bastille Day doesn’t just commemorate the start of the French Revolution, here in New York City it also marks the start of Cognac Classics Week. What, you ask, is Cognac Classics Week? It’s a program begun by Hennessy to celebration of the French spirit. During Cognac Classics Week, which runs until July 21, 25 bars in New York City and 21 in Chicago will be serving up their takes on the quintessential cognac drinks, and each made with Hennessy VSOP Privilège. Having attended a preview of the event and gotten the chance to sample the Champs-Élyseéy at The Late Late, the Golden Sazerac at The Suffolk Arms and the Saffron Sazerac at Sanitorium, I can honestly say that it’s not to be missed.
Now, I realize that a lot of us read the word cognac and shrugged, then saw Hennessy and thought, ‘bet.’ Just remember, this is about classic cocktails made with Hennessy. I’m talking the Sidecar, French 75, and Sazerac. Now if your usual method of enjoying Henny is sipping it straight or mixed with, shudder, cola, then it’s time you expand your horizons and your cognac knowledge. To help, I asked Moët Hennessy Mixology Ambassador Tomas DeLos Reyes to impart some cognac knowledge.
TheLUSHiouslife: So, do you need to know about Cognac before getting into Cognac Classics Week?
Tomas DeLos Reyes: Cognac is a grape based Brandy produced in the Cognac region of France. Surprisingly not many people know that but I’m working on it every day. Many of the classics served today with other spirits such as whiskey and gin were originally made with cognac. One of the first cocktail books written by Jerry Thomas, where a majority of the cocktails call for “French Brandy”, include the first recipe for Brandy Punch. When referring to Brandy, only the best was used and because the Cognac region built a reputation of producing the finest Brandy in the world, most bartenders naturally chose cognac for their cocktails.
In the 1850s, a vine pest wiped out over 90% of the grapes grown for Cognac and eventually led to low supply, high demand and increased cost. This forced bartenders in the US to resort to spirits easily accessible and inexpensive such as Rum, Gin and American Whiskey. Cognac Classics Week was created to bring everyone back to how these classics were originally made and further Cognac as a complex and mixable brown spirit.
LL: Do you have any Cognac myths vs. facts to share?
TDR: The myth that “Cognac is strong”. First of all, spirits are diluted generally down to 40% ABV [80 proof] which puts them all equal in strength. Since a V.S Cognac is what many drinkers have as a first, you should know that V.S is a younger cognac that is matured in new French oak barrel. And just like a bourbon that’s aged in new American oak barrel, there’s that perception of strength in flavor coming from the lightly charred barrels that results in oaky spice on the palate. The difference with a cognac is that because it is grape based, you’ll get some of that fruit, most commonly apricot, taste in the mid and back palate.
As for cocktails, start with a few of the classics that were originally made with Cognac: The Sazerac, Mint Julep, French 75 and the Sidecar. The Sidecar is probably the most popular cognac cocktail and would be a great start for anyone who’s got a taste for cocktails but not ambitious enough for a more spirit forward Sazerac.
The Sazerac is the cocktail nerd’s cocktail. Steeped in history, it dates back to pre-Civil War New Orleans, today the drink is most often made with rye. However, a sazerac made with cognac, as was originally intended, is a revelation—spirit forward yet smooth, and with cognac’s signature tinge of fruit. My new favorite version is the Golden Sazerac, created by Giuseppe González, renown bartender and owner of The Suffolk Arms.
The Golden Sazerac
2.25 oz Hennessy VSOP Privilège Cognac
6 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1 barspoon of Lyle’s Golden syrup
Lemon peel to garnish
Rinse a chilled rocks glass with absinthe, discarding any excess, and set aside. Add the cognac, bitters and syrup to a mixing glass, and fill with ice. Stir and strain into the prepared glass. Garnish by twisting the lemon peel over the surface of the drink to express its oils, then discard.