Rediscovering the Classics: Welcoming Back Overproof Cognac

Cognac was once the workhorse spirit reached for more often than any other spirit. By the late 1800s with the phylloxera epidemic threatening to devastate the entire European grape industry, cognacs were still flowing into all sorts of concoctions in America. And with good reason--cognac is tasty. But as the blight continued, something had to change. For the wine industry that meant grafting American root stock onto European vines to curb the pests' steady appetite. The cognac industry made changes as well. For instance, the folle blanche grape, long the mainstay of cognac distillers, was passed over in favor of the more resilient ugni blanc grape. Even considering the changes and innovations cognac houses made, cognac's reign in the world of cocktails persevered. Even as many spirits fell out of popularity during Prohibition, cognac maintained a steady role as such classics as the Sidecar, French 75 both gained their popularity during those dark days. And if the resilience of the Stinger, which made it through unscathed, attests to anything, it is that cognac still carried weight in bartenders' hands.

When Americans emerged from the bleak days of the failed Noble Experiment, cognac, like many spirits, was forced to change again. New drinkers emerged, but their thirst was not for the more rough and tumble spirits that flowed during the golden era of cocktail. Their palates, fueled by years of sweeter drinks that required cream and other heavy-handed mixers to overpower the under-quality spirits, craved more mellow flavors, sometimes even invisible spirits. Thus, Canadian whiskey, bourbon, and vodka grew in popularity. With innovations in the areas of distillation, barrel-aging and blending, cognac producers were able to keep their spirit on pace with demand. Regardless of whether the industry changed to adapt to the market or whether it was just a happy accident, the resulting cognacs were smooth, drinkable and utterly complex. These changes would help define the cognac market for years.

No matter how revelatory a fine cognac's qualities may be in a snifter, the master blender's artistry can easily be lost in a mixed drink. While the hints of oak and vanilla can create a wonderful foundation, the other flavors in a cocktail often take center stage instead interacting with and enhancing the base spirit. While historically cognac has been used in conjunction with other stronger flavors--such as in the vieux carre where the rye is tempered by the milder cognac--cognac was never simply a pushover spirit. Like the whiskeys and rums of the early twentieth century, early cognacs were built for more, whether by choice or accident. And while this may have turned off certain tastes, those cognacs were able to carry a cocktail and not be pushed around. And even before the age of cocktails, brandies held up the punches of the world.

With the popularity of truly classic cocktails rising, the booze market has been steadily introducing products to allow those historic drinks to be re-created. And while those early spirits were rougher for many reasons, not all of them on purpose, they also were sold at higher proofs. This allowed the spirit to shine when mixed, and perhaps required that they be mixed. But as new products meant to replicate obscure ingredients emerge, we have also seen the the re-introduction of higher proof spirits with bolder flavors. Quality overproof cognacs give us a glimpse into what those classic cocktails may have tasted like and it becomes quite apparent why cognac was reached for so often.

Champagne Julep
Juleps were one of the first mixed drinks consumed widely across the United States. A simple mixture of spirit, mint, sugar and ice--nothing is more refreshing, especially in the heat of summer. Today, the julep has become linked to the Kentucky Derby, and it has become famous for its reliance on bourbon. This was not always the case. In the days before whiskey found a steady audience, a julep meant cognac. And just as an overproof bourbon works best in a julep--primarily because it won't be as affected by prolonged dilution--an overproof cognac also is a clear choice. Adding champagne to this already decadent beverage is quite extravagant, and incredibly delightful. Dangerous, yes, but delightful nonetheless.

Champagne Julep (adapted from Paul Clarke's recipe at cocktailchronicles.com) 

2 ounce cognac
7 mint leaves
2 teaspoons simple syrup
1 ounces champagne

Muddle lightly mint leaves in syrup. Retain one for garnish. Add cognac and then crushed ice. Top with champagne. Garnish with mint sprig.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, Chateau St. Michelle sparkling wine, and a 1:1 simple syrup. 

Prescription Sazerac
The original Sazerac was so named because of the cognac used to make it: Sazerac-du-Forge et fils. I have tried many Sazeracs with cognac and they are quite lovely. But with an overproof cognac, they are a revelation. Still, though it is not a true historical representation, using a mixture of cognac and rye creates a marvelous drink that has been a mainstay of my cocktail rotation. Much as the way that the cognac and rye play off each other in a Vieux Carre, the same is true in other incarnations. The rye dries out the more sweet cognac. The cognac balances the spicy rye. If you are using both an overproof rye and an overproof cognac, beware--this drink is hefty. But if your palate can handle the heat, it is worth it. Of course, give it a couple extra turns with the ice to make it balanced. Just because a recipe calls for an overproof spirit does not mean overall balance should be sacrificed. These overproof spirits are intended to be diluted in mixed drinks. The wonder comes from the way that they can retain their flavor in the face of other ingredients as well as the weight of water.

Prescription Sazerac

1 ounce rye
1 ounce cognac
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1/2 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes (or so) Herbsaint

Combine ingredients except Herbsaint in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled old fashioned glass rinsed with Herbsaint. Express lemon oils and discard peel.  

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, High West rye, Herbsaint Legendre, and a 1:1 simple syrup. 

Pink Sidecar
While the Sidecar was created sometime in the 1920s, it grew to popularity during the dark days of Prohibition. While certainly a lovely drink, the Sidecar grew into a quick slurp on the road to drunkenness. Even when a sub-quality cognac is used the lemon juice and orange liqueur easily mask it--and that is not counting that pesky sugar rim that would be added to the recipe in the 1930s. It would be easy to discount this cocktail as yet another get-drunk-quick drink, but there is more behind its pedigree than meets the eye. Many stories point to the Continent as the locale of origin, making the cocktail not one put together in the murky dens of ill-repute that proliferated in American speakeasies. Classy drinks could still  be found abroad where many American barmen emerged with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. But regardless of these creation myths, the Sidecar was always a drink I wanted to love. It was after all my first classic cocktail. And with such notorious cocktail luminaries as David Embury elevating the drink as one of the most basic drinks that every host should know, I always felt like I had missed something. Of course even he says that the Sidecar "is the most perfect example I know of a magnificent drink gone wrong." Embury takes the path most appropriate for one who only has access to standard proof cognac--he bumps up the booze and dries it out as much as possible and omits the sugar rim (8 parts cognac, 2 parts lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau). Once I tried the standard recipe with overproof cognac, I was floored and understood why this cocktail has been around for almost 100 years. This revelatory experience pushed me to experiment further, and I found that other liquors also created amazing results.

Pink Sidecar

2 ounces cognac
1 ounce pamplemousse rose
3/4 ounce lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a ice-filled shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. 

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and Combier pamplemousse rose. 

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