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Not your grandfather’s Cognac: Stodgy spirit gets hip new image

Not your grandfather’s Cognac: Stodgy spirit gets hip new image

If you are the type who follows trends and tastes in spirits, you will no doubt have noticed that recent times have not been good to Cognac. In the face of economic uncertainty and robust competition in the luxury spirits market, sales of the famous French brandy have been hit hard of late, with dollar sales in 2008 down $78 million, or almost 10 percent, compared to sales two years earlier, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

But the fortunes of Cognac may be looking up as the beverage fights to shed its stodgy image with new packaging; a new, multilingual and user-friendly website,, developed by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac trade group; a Cognac Aroma Wheel, developed last year at the International Cognac Summit; new cocktails; and even infused Cognacs.

All of which seems devised to deliver the message that Cognac is fresher, more youthful and eminently more mixable than you think it is.

“I think people need to understand that Cognac is not just for after dinner at a fine restaurant,” said Ethan Kelley, beverage director for New York City’s Brandy Library, which sells a vast array of Cognacs and other brandies. “Most producers offer a VS or fine Cognac, which are perfect for cocktails and come at a price that’s not going to break the bar.”

Asked what sort of cocktails will welcome Cognac, Kelley notes the importance of respecting the integrity of the spirit. “Cognac can take strong flavors like vanilla and ginger,” Kelley said. “But when you start covering up the taste with fruit juices, you’re just going to make something that’s cloying and does the Cognac no favors.”

Cocktails are also on the mind of Ben Demarchelier, bar manager of Brasserie Cognac in midtown Manhattan. “I like introducing people to Cognac through cocktails, some originals, some classics and some variations on the classics,” Demarchelier said. “It helps younger people in particular look at Cognac as a smooth, fun drink, rather than your grandfather’s Cognac.”

Beyond cocktails like the time-tested Sidecar and the L’Eurasien, a mix of Cognac, bitters, ginger liqueur and ginger ale, Demarchelier introduces people to the flavors of Cognac slowly, beginning with less expensive and more accessible expressions.

“If I start them out with something younger, on a subsequent visit they may ask me to recommend something different,” he said. “That’s when I’ll move them up to something older and more complex.”

What Demarchelier likes to avoid, however, is the old-fashioned snifter, which he says he uses mainly for cocktails and youthful, fruity Cognacs.

“The Cognac tulip glass is what I use for most of my Cognacs because it better presents the spirit, intensifying the aroma by allowing it to breathe and expand, all the way to the finish,” he said. “In the snifter, I find the Cognac will snuff itself out, reducing its aroma to little more than pure alcohol, while the tulip keeps it fresh to the very end.”

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