One of the promises we made when we started blogging was to keep ourselves challenged and use the opportunity to try new things. For Carolyn this means new baking techniques, for me it means new tools and ingredients for cooking and cocktails. As for cooking, we always enjoy trying new recipes and the garden is a constant source of inspiration and challenges. But for cocktails, we sometimes find it easy to get “comfortable”. We generally prefer gin, rum and tequila over whiskeys and darker spirits (although we do like our Applejack). And since there are so many cocktail recipes, it is easy to stay in our comfort zone.
But Carolyn’s recent success with a new baking technique in her Mocha Cake reminded us to try new things and we went right for a big challenge, Cognac-based (or really brandy-based) cocktails. Even more so, a summer cocktail with brandy. For those of you less familiar with brandy, it is simply liquor made with distilled wine rather than sugar or grain. The wine used as the base for brandy can be from any fruit, but is most famously from grapes. Good brandies are made all over the world, pretty much wherever grapes or fruit are grown. But the most famous grape brandies are Cognac and Armagnac from France, and the best bottles are considered some of the greatest spirits in the world.
Most of the best Cognacs and Armagnacs should be enjoyed on their own, but there are many varieties that are good for cocktails. In fact, Cognac was the spirit of choice for many early American cocktails, including the Mint Julep. But outbreaks of Phylloxera in France during the 1800’s limited Cognac supplies and Americans turned more to their native whiskey. But quality Cognac / brandy has good fruit, floral and spice flavors that make it a worthy addition to many drinks.
Cognacs and Armagnacs are both distilled grape wine that’s aged in oak barrels. The main difference in production is their region / appelation and that Cognac is distilled twice, while Armagnac just once. The other difference is price, with Cognac usually 2x the price of Armagnac. While many will argue the relative merits of Cognac vs. Armagnac, the real variables in brandy are aging and blending. To keep it brief (and trust us the French can get into great, laborious detail on these matters) VS is the youngest designation with 2 years of aging, VSOP with 4 years and XO with at least 6 years, but often many more. “Napoleon” is another common designation usually meaning somewhere between VSOP and XO. Simple, huh?
In any event, we can generalize a
lot bit and say that most VS Cognac can be harsh, hot and not all that tasty. VSOP bottles are often very good on their own or in cocktails. And XO is usually best on its own. When buying Cognac or Armagnac, or any brandy, the best path is to ask someone you trust at your Liquor store for a good bottle, give them the likely use and your price range. This is how we were steered to Armagnac, particularly for cocktails. At roughly 1/2 the price of Cognac, you can get a high quality bottle for less money. We got a great Napoleon Armagnac for about $30 and it is very tasty and smooth with good spice and herbal notes.