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A taste for the ages

Hip once again, cognac enjoys spirited rebirth

By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2008

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With his 2002 chart buster "Pass the Courvoisier," Busta Rhymes helped cognac cast off its musty, buttoned-up image, restoring it as the liquor of the hip and fabulous. Since then, it has become one of the country's fastest growing premium spirits, with sales spiking 23 percent from 2002 to 2006.

But besides blinged-out hip-hop stars and Washington power brokers, who's drinking it? According to Erik Johnson, beverage director at L'Espalier and Sel de la Terre, any diner with a sense of adventure and the time to enjoy it.

"It's something you can relax and linger over," Johnson says. "You can see how it changes as you roll it around in your mouth, as it opens up and evolves. You take time and have a little bit of history."

The four behemoth cognac houses - Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin - date back far enough to be legends in their own right, and their mystique endures, not least because their warehouses contain cognacs with components that have been aging longer than most of us have been alive.

Cognac's association with French restaurants goes deeper than the drink's Gallic origins, Johnson says. "French restaurants are usually the places doing multicourse dinners with dishes with lots of textures, then a cheese course, and dessert," he says. "You have all these different flavors, people are eating for a couple of hours, and cognac, with all its flavors, is a nice way to finish everything up."

While Very Special and Very Superior Old Pale (formal designations of younger grades of cognac) will run you about the same as other premium liquors, the prices of higher grade XOs (extra old) can be jaw-dropping. A pour from that eye-catching Baccarat Crystal bottle of Rémy's Louis XIII can run you upward of $130.

To understand why is to understand the long-held laws that define a brandy as a cognac. Just as not all sparkling wine is Champagne, not all brandy is cognac, but all cognac is brandy. What distinguishes cognac is that, by law, it's made from grapes grown in six designated regions around the French town of Cognac.

The resulting wine is double distilled into "eau de vie" and aged in French oak barrels. Craftsmanship figures in when a cellar master blends dozens - sometimes hundreds - of components to create the silken copper elixir. In Louis XIII, for instance, there are more than 12,000 eaux de vie, some of which have aged more than a century. And as the adage goes: Time is money.

The status that cognac carries isn't subtle, says Brad Fichter, bar manager at Mooo "We get cognac drinkers at the bar, and they want to drink something no one else is drinking, something that sets them apart from everyone else at the bar," he says. The collection at Mooo includes some of the better known boutique cognacs, such as Kelt and Delamian. For the extreme splurger, there is the Hardy Perfection. The price of Perfection: $900 - a pour.

Even in cocktails, which is how a majority of cognac is consumed, its reputation as the cosmopolitan spirit endures.

"When people think cognac, they think 'fancy,' " says John Gertsen, principal bartender at No. 9 Park. "It's one of the finer ingredients that people feel more sophisticated drinking."

But for those who want to savor cognac on its own, the snifter isn't the way to go. Frank Weber, evening manager at the Omni Parker House, says he's been a cognac drinker his whole adult life (and even has a son, now 32, named Remy Martin to prove it). He gently places a delicate tulip glass on the bar and, as if raising a trophy, he presents a bottle of Davidoff VSOP, a cognac made with ingredients from Hennessy's cellar.

"Those gigantic glasses that Americans use?" he says, dismissively waving his hand. Into the tulip glass he pours a few drops of the deep amber liquid.

"It has enormous depth, clean vibrant separated tastes - natural caramel, raisin," he says. "And it's the color, the nose is all encompassing."

High-grade XO (extra old) cognac, such as Remy Martin's Louis XIII, can cost as much as $130 a pour.