Travel, Food & Drink

In the Right Spirit: 4 Tips to Drink Cognac the French Way

French Cognac is having its moment, so break out the tulip-shaped glasses and explore the best ways to enjoy this noble drink, here

While gin and whiskey have enjoyed high-profile revivals, traditional French Cognac has been undergoing its own renaissance. New, lighter styles are attracting a wider—and younger—audience, it’s gaining a reputation as the base for mixologists’ most creative cocktails, and, in France, it’s become an established apéritif or even daytime drink.

But first, the basics: Cognac’s white grapes can only be grown, and the drink produced, in five designated appellations, and under strict regulations, in the Cognac region of France. “Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine,” explains Jack Charlton, brand ambassador for Rémy Martin.

True Cognac can only come from the commune of Cognac in France—usually made from the Ugni Blanc grapes that grow here. In the past its production has been subject to strict traditions. Image: Getty Images

Along with these staunch traditions comes a storied past: Cognac was first produced in the 1500s, more than 100 years before the first European settlers landed in America. In 1738, the first Cognac was given the royal accord—the seal of the French royal family—and, during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte famously supplied his artillery companies with a ration of the drink. Legend has it that, upon being exiled to the remote island of St. Helena, he even took several barrels along for the journey—a treat the British officers onboard the ship transporting him were reported to very much enjoy.

So, what’s the modern way to enjoy the drink? Today, its French producers recommend embracing innovation along with long-standing tradition. Read on for the four ways they advise you try your Cognac tonight.

Get the Right Glass

According to established French brands such as Hennessy and Rémy Martin, what you serve Cognac in is far more than an aesthetic choice: the type of glass can affect the tasting experience. This is especially the case when drinking XO or “extra old” Cognac, which they recommend should be served neat in a tulip-shaped glass or on the rocks in a tumbler.

Different shaped glasses
Not sure which shape of glass to go for? When in doubt choose one that allows the warmth of your hands to permeate the drink slowly, rather than all at once, allowing its aromas and flavors to emerge over time. Image: Alamy

Tulip-shaped glasses, say Hennessy, allow you to “really enjoy the color, thanks to their shape” and are specifically designed for the drink’s complex aromas to reach your nose. On ice, a large tumbler—with room for two cubes—should be your go-to, as this allows it to be held in-hand, aiding in the melting process. The slight dilution and temperature change should subtly highlight Cognac’s chocolate and floral notes.

Avoid balloon-shaped glasses, if you can. While experts used to recommend this shape, it’s now thought to heat up too quickly from the warmth of your hand, dulling the drink’s flavors in the process.

Break with Tradition

While you no doubt recognize the big names—Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin—which traditionally create blended Cognacs from the products of distilleries all over the French region, smaller producers are creating more experimental offerings. These new styles are often single-cru, aged in a variety of barrels along with the traditional French Oak, or made with grapes grown on unique terroirs.

A bottle of Bourgoin Cognac
A truly modern Cognac, Bourgoin is produced on a family estate in the town of Saint-Saturnin, France, and eschews more traditional aging processes. Image: Courtesy of Bourgoin

Look out for producers combining tradition with innovation, such as Bourgoin—the family-run estate ages its 22-year cask-strength Cognac in French Limousin oak, before finishing it off in toasted micro barriques. Or try Château de Beaulon. Known for experimenting with different grapes, it specializes in exotic varieties that can be harder to grow, but produce a more delicate, floral flavor.

Go for Creative Cocktails

Cognac-based cocktails are being championed by producers, mixologists, and French drinkers alike. The recently opened Hôtel Chais Monnet, which, fittingly, was itself once a Cognac house, is one such proponent. Its signature 1838 cocktail can be recreated at home by combining VSOP Cognac, saffron syrup, and soda—although you’ll have to book a stay to discover the secret ingredient its bartenders use as a finishing flourish.

The bar at Hotel Chais Monnet
Bar 1838 at Hôtel Chais Monnet not only offers Cognac-based cocktails, it also houses a world-class selection—including D'usse VSOP and Branson, the Cognac labels owned respectively by Jay-Z and 50 Cent, both of whom have stayed here.

Alternatively, make like the locals and add tonic or ginger ale for a simple long drink that, according to the experts at Rémy Martin, “brings out notes of fresh fruit and even liquorice in a VSOP. This is how the drink is normally enjoyed in the Cognac area as an apéritif.”

Try an Adventurous Pairing

Although classically thought of as an after-dinner drink or an accompaniment to dessert, Cognac also pairs particularly well with strong flavors, such as Roquefort and Parmesan cheeses, candied orange, ginger, and dark chocolate. To accompany the floral, spicy notes of a VSOP, French producers recommend opting for aged cheeses, dried apricots and liquorice, while they suggest trying figs and candied fruit along with an XO.

A glass of Cognac served along with seafood
Highly chilled Cognac brings out bright amber notes in the drink that work well with seafood, matching the salty flavors of oysters and cutting through the richness of lobster and scallops. Image: Courtesy of Rémy Martin

If you’re feeling adventurous, Cognac can even be consumed frozen. Its high alcohol content means the liquid becomes viscous rather than icy, leading to a velvety mouth feel that perfectly pairs with seafood such as oysters, lobster, or sushi.

In short, much like the drink’s current resurgence, taking a more creative approach to its flavors and intricacies can only lead to more interesting results.

Banner image: Getty Images