A bottle of Cognac belongs in every home bar. Although much Cognac is sipped and savoured neat, it also forms the base of several classic cocktails and can be enjoyed with mixers such as ginger ale or soda in a long serve over ice.
But which Cognac should you choose? The Cognac region of western France is a large and diverse area, with 78,000ha of vineyards. Most are planted with Ugni Blanc, a white grape that gives light, acidic wines, which are distilled to produce a fruity spirit. This spirit is then matured in French oak barrels to create the finished Cognac.
The amount of time spent in barrel defines the style of a Cognac. A VS will spend at least two years in oak; VSOP is aged for four years; and XO for 10 years. Above these classifications, the finest blends and vintage Cognacs can be aged for many decades.
These older Cognacs have more complex flavours and also come with a higher price tag. So for that reason younger Cognacs – VS and VSOP – are generally considered a better choice for cocktails.
In addition, some Cognac houses have produced blends that are specifically created for use in cocktails, such as H by Hine and Frapin 1270 (see below). These Cognacs may not have the traditional age categories on their labels.
Classic Cognac Cocktails
Several Cognac serves date back to the golden age of cocktails and are rightly considered classics. These include The Sidecar, a light and fruity mix of Cognac, lemon juice and triple sec, which is served straight up in a Martini glass or coupe. Named after the motorcycle attachment, the recipe first appeared in bartender Harry McElhone’s book ABC of Cocktails, published in 1919, though it’s not entirely clear if McElhone actually invented the recipe.
Then there’s the Vieux Carré, created in the 1930s by Walter Bergeron at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans. The name translates as ‘old square’ and refers to the city’s iconic French Quarter. To make a Vieux Carré combine 30ml of Cognac with 30ml of rye whiskey, 30ml of sweet vermouth, 5ml Bénédictine DOM liqueur and two dashes each of Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters. Stir in a mixing glass over ice, then strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a cocktail cherry and lemon peel.
Perfect for celebrations, the Champagne Cocktail is a sparkling cocktail served in a chilled flute glass. Although the exact origins of this mix are lost in the mists of time, it appears in cocktail books from the second half of the 19th century onwards. To make a Champagne Cocktail, coat a sugar cube with three dashes of Angostura Bitters, and drop it in the bottom of the glass. Pour over 30ml of Cognac, then top with Champagne.
In the mix
Alongside recipes created specifically for Cognac, it can also be used in cocktails as a substitute for other dark spirits such as whisky and rum. If you love Cognac and fancy experimenting with twists on other cocktails, try using it in an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac or a Mint Julep.
You can also pair Cognac with a variety of mixers in a long serve over ice. Try a simple Cognac Highball made from 50ml Cognac topped with soda water. The Horse’s Neck is a refreshing combination of 50ml Cognac, topped with ginger ale and two dashes of Angostura Bitters. The drink takes its name from the long spiral of lemon peel used as a garnish.
Here are some Cognacs that are perfect for mixing to get you started…
Best Cognacs for Cocktails
Tasting notes by Julie Sheppard, Laura Foster and Richard Woodard
Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif
Developed especially for use in cocktails, VSOP Exclusif is made with eaux-de-vie from the four top growing regions in Cognac: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. A smooth Cognac boasting sweet flavours of apricot, plum, caramel and cocoa, mingling with ginger, cinnamon and vanilla spice. Great in a Sidecar. Alc 40%
Named after the year the Frapin family settled in southwest France, first as wine growers and then as distillers, Frapin 1270 is a VS Cognac that’s intended for cocktails. Made with grapes grown exclusively in Grande Champagne, it boasts a floral nose with accompanying aromas of leather. A palate of orchard fruit, caramel, cinnamon and dried fruits is rounded off with dry, toasty spice. Try it in a Vieux Carré. Alc 40%
H by Hine
Made with grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions, H by Hine is another Cognac that has been blended specifically for mixing cocktails and is praised by bartenders for its versatility. Appealing floral notes of jasmine and iris sit atop a body of butterscotch, caramel and vanilla. Chopped almonds, hazelnuts, black pepper and ginger spice come in on the finish. Alc 40%
One of the ‘big four’ Cognac houses (along with Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell), Hennessy is the best-selling Cognac brand globally and its popular VS expression is used in cocktails by bartenders around the world. A blend of around 40 different eaux-de-vie, it offers aromas of spicy oak and nutty caramel on the nose. More woody notes on the palate, plus vanilla spice, a fruity character and a waft of florality. Alc 40%
Aged for a minimum of four years, VSOP Cognacs are great all-rounders – perfect for mixing and cocktails, but smooth enough to sip neat as well. Martell is known for its linear, fruit-forward style, and this example combines a basket of tropical fruits with spice and tannin from quite forward oak. Alc 40%
Merlet Brothers Blend
A family-owned house that can trace its Cognac-making history back to 1850, Merlet’s Brothers Blend is a contemporary Cognac created by current family head Gilles Merlet for his sons Luc and Pierre. Made with eaux-de-vie that’s at least four years old, it’s a soft, approachable Cognac full of stone fruit, jasmine, leather and vanilla notes, with a touch of cracked pepper. Alc 40%
Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal
Made by one of the ‘Big Four’ Cognac houses, the name celebrates a royal warrant that King Louis XV gave to Rémy Martin to plant a new vineyard in 1738. A good choice for a classic Champagne Cocktail, this Cognac is rich, smooth and full-bodied, with fruitcake aromas leading onto a pleasing palate of date sponge and toffee sauce, crystalised ginger, cinnamon, dark chocolate and leather. Alc 40%
The original Seignette Cognac house was founded in 1804 by Arzac Seignette. This contemporary homage to the label is produced by American distiller Sazerac, which also owns Sazerac de Forge & Fils Cognac and Domaine Breuil de Segonzac Cognac house. A light VS style with plenty of spice notes on the nose and palate. Pleasantly fruity and smooth, with flavours of dried apricot, candied peel and crystallised ginger, plus creamy vanilla and spicy oak that linger on the finish. Versatile and a good value option for mixing in cocktails. Alc 40%