In praise of French spirit

Timothy Barber
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’S a strange thing: the French don’t like cognac. In fact, according to Patrice Pinet, master blender for Courvoisier, France imports more Scottish whisky than it makes cognac. Young people in France in particular, he laments, have given up on the drink, associating it with a naff, fusty past instead of a cool, cocktail-centric present.

Actually cognac has an august past – it was a favourite drink of Napoleon, for a start, and the techniques of its production go back 300 years. But even here cognac can suffer by its association with a kind of post-prandial tradition observed by old duffers bearing huge bulb glasses in one hand and cigars in the other. That’s a shame, says Richard Wynne, owner of hip East London cocktail joint Callooh Callay, since cognac has a lot more to offer.
“A fine cognac is just as good and versatile in cocktails as any aged whisky or rum, and the flavours can be very comparable,” he says. “The perception of it is still people having brandy as the Titanic goes down, but people who drink cognac like that don’t know what they’re drinking or why.”

So what are they drinking? Cognac is brandy, but made to exacted methods in the Charente region of south west France, where other famous brands include Remy Martin, Martell and Hennessy. Ugni Blanc grapes are harvested into white wine, which is then distilled repeatedly, aged in oak barrels and eventually blended at great complexity into cognacs in which the age of the youngest component of the blend determines the variety.

For instance, a “VS” marking on a bottle means simply “Very Special”, with the youngest brandy at least two years aged; “VSOP” means “Very Special Old Pale” – four years aged – while “XO” stands for “Extra Old”, requiring a decade in the cask at the very least.

“The longer it’s been aged the more subtlety it takes on,” says Wynne. “You get everything from those dark, wintry notes like chocolate, orange zest and nutmeg to much lighter, fruitier tones.”

At a time when things old-fashioned and full of provenance and history are quite the fashionable thing, there seems something rather satisfying in co-opting the drink of snooty old gentlemen’s clubs into cool cocktails. Alternatively take the view of the US hip hop community, which has embraced the drink wholeheartedly as a tipple with suitable bling factor. As Busta Rhymes raps, “Give me some sh*t, you can give me the cribs, you can give me whatever, just pass the Courvoisier.”

Well, quite. The fact is, this winter cognac could just be the party season drink of choice – which is roughly what Busta was suggesting.


As a rule of thumb, the more aged and complex the cognac, the more expensive it will be – which means you could be shelling out three figures for a bottle of XO. If that seems a bit extravagant, Courvoisier’s new VSOP expression, Exclusif, is both affordable (£28.59 a bottle) and blended with cocktails and punch in mind.

One of the simplest mixers for cognac is ginger beer – served with ice, it makes for a sweetly delicious aperitif. Add a slice of lime for a twist on the Dark ‘n Stormy rum cocktail.

For something more extravagant – and satisfyingly old school – the ultimate cognac cocktail is the Sidecar, invented in Paris shortly after the end of World War One. A Sidecar mixes cognac with quantro and lemon juice, while Callooh Callay’s Richard Wynne recommends adding in passion fruit puree and ginger syrup for some extra exotic edge. “Serve it over crushed ice and you’ve got a really fruity drink with a hit of bitterness in the passion fruit – perfectly refreshing for a winter’s evening,” says Wynne.

For a to really warm the cockles, try this Spiced Apple Warmer, as recommended by the people at Courvoisier. Take two parts cognac, 0.3 parts allspice, 0.3 parts maple syrup and 0.5 parts lemon juice and mix with apple juice in a saucepan. Heat it all up, then pour into a glass with a slice of lemon and add a sprinkle of cinnamon.