T-Pain wants to buy you a draaaank.
During T-Pain’s song “Buy U A Drank”, Yung Joc discusses buying a few shots of Louis XIII cognac for himself and a lady friend. If you are going to discuss cognac, one of the things that should be included is the role that hip hop music played in not only increasing the visibility of the liquor, but how it revived a dying industry. In the late 1990’s, cognac sales were evaporating. The Asian markets, cognac’s largest market at the time, were in a tail spin, and Europeans were discovering the joys of single malt scotch. No one was particularly interested in this painstakingly made, elegant, complicated spirit. Then almost overnight, with the release of Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvosier”, cognac was jumping up the liquor charts, hitting over $1 billion in sales in just the U.S.A. alone by 2003. Cognac was back, and a small region in France could not be happier.
Cognac has always enjoyed a reputation of being a high class, refined drink. (I have yet to hear the story of crazy college benders on cognac.) Part of the reason it is such a high cost drink is the strict limitations that are put upon it by the French government. There are only three grapes that can be used to make 90% of what goes in a bottle of cognac: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. There are even restrictions on what grapes can make up that last 10%. Those grapes must be grown in a region of France about 310 sq. mi., or a little smaller than Indianapolis, IN. The chalky soil of the region (and the more and softer the chalk, the better) produces a grape that is higher in acid. This grape would produce a terrible wine, but it is perfect for distilling. The distillation of cognac can only be done from November through March, and must be done in copper pot stills, called alembics. Copper is used because it will not change the flavor of the product being produced in it. Remember, all of this is legally required.
That is just growing it. Now we can start creating it. At first, the growers pick and squeeze the grapes in October as if they were producing wine. For two to three weeks, the grape juice gets to just relax and ferment like nature intended. Ultimately it produces a low alcohol (7-8% ABV), acidic wine they then run through the pot still, extracting the eau-de-vie (water of life), getting rid of the too weak and too strong flavors, and finally ending up at a respectable, 70% ABV beverage. All of this has to be (legally) finished by March 31st following the October harvest. This liquid ambrosia is then poured into charred oaken casks where it straightens up, and after two years, is free to become the finest spirit in the world. During the aging process, the raw spirit absorbs the flavor of the oak and gets deeper in color. Oak is not air tight, either. Millions of bottles of cognac evaporate every year during the maturation process, a portion that cognac makers refer to as the “angel’s share”. Angels like it so much that they are the second largest market for cognac, after the United States. The longer the eau-de-vie is allowed to stay in the cask, the deeper and richer the final product is going to be. While the minimum is two years, most cognacs are aged far longer than that, some going as long as fifty years in the cask.
After two paragraphs, you would think the story about creating cognac was complete. There is one final phase: blending. You do not simply crack open a cask and start bottling it. Every house that makes cognac has a master blender, whose job it is to taste and smell each of the different liquids coming out of the casks, across a wide variety of years and regions, and then combines them into a single spirit with a consistent taste. As the current cellar master at Remy Martin puts it, she “has to manage the present, and predict the future” when preparing the blends. Each blend is then married and then bottled, though sometimes it is allowed some time to fully blend in large glass storage units before bottling for the public. After it is bottled, it gets labeled. Remember the blending part? When you look on a bottle of cognac, it is going to have one of the following designations:
- VS – Very Special – the youngest cognac in the blend is two years old
- VSOP – Very Superior Old Pale – the youngest cognac in the blend was stored at least four years, usually in aged oak
- XO – Extra Old – the youngest cognac in the blend was stored for at least six years, usually closer to fifteen and up
There are other designations, such as Napoleon (a grade equal to XO), Extra (usually older than an XO), or Hors d’âge (equal to XO, but indicates a longer time in the cask). Most of these are more for marketing, to let people know how much longer the cognac as been in touch with the oak.
Time for those shots Yung Joc bought us. Cognac is not just something you experience only on the taste buds, but with your nose and eyes as well. Traditionally, the best way to enjoy a cognac is in a tulip shaped glass. A brandy snifter can do the same work, but it does not have the extra lip of glass that is helpful for the full cognac experience, as we shall read shortly. After pouring it, you can first start by taking in the color. Remember, the longer a cognac has been aged, the richer and deeper the color. The youngest are a light gold color; the oldest can be amber or even red. After you have enjoyed the color, put it up to your nose and smell it, enjoying the fruity, oaky, and earthy aromas often associated with the liquor. The tulip glass aids in this, driving the bouquet straight to the nose. As you are drinking it in with your eyes and nose, your hand is warming up the cognac, releasing even more of the flavor. After you have done all of this, bring it to your lips and savor away.
But what to savor? And where? The big four when it comes to cognac are Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, and Martell. You can find at least one in most bars, usually a VS, just in case someone asks. L’Auberge has one of the widest selections in the area, with Hennessy, Courvoisier, and Remy Martin in VS, VSOP, and XO. Some places like Fleming’s may have Louis XIII, but the finest cognacs are hard to find in the area. All of the bartenders and managers I spoke to said the same thing: there is not much of a demand for them. But, there are enough good ones out there that you should be able to find one to try. But if you do want to try Louis XIII, let T-Pain buy it for you. It really is $150 a pour.
If you are looking to try one in a cocktail, here is an oldie but a goodie. It was listed in Imbibe’s Top 25 Most Influential cocktails of all time: the Sidecar.
1 oz. cognac (VS or VSOP’s are recommended for cocktails. I would try Remy Martin.)
1 oz. orange liqueur
1 oz. lemon juice
Pour ingredients into a shaker, shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Sugared rim is optional.