In-Depth

How Parisian Bartenders are Bringing Cognac Back to Life

A cocktail next to lemon wedges.
Parisian bartenders are using cocktails as a way to popularize a quintessentially French spirit — Cognac. (Photo: bhofack2/iStock)

Although Cognac is a quintessentially French spirit (it must be made from grapes grown in the country’s Charente region and aged in French oak barrels), the French don’t actually drink it much at all. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), more than 97 percent of the country’s Cognac production is exported.

Yet Cognac-based drinks are starting to appear with more frequency at French bars, thanks to the rising popularity of cocktails in the country. “Through cocktails, bartenders are using more and more Cognac in their drinks and it helps our guests to get a different perspective on it,” says Hyacinthe Lescoët, head bartender at Le Mary Céleste in Paris.

In a country where wine flows like water, quality cocktail bars like those now found all over the United States didn’t really catch on in Paris until about five years ago. Even today, most French people first consider gin, vodka or whiskey when ordering a mixed drink. “Cognac has the reputation as a luxurious product,” Lescoët explains, “something you would gently sip after a big meal rather than drink all night in cocktails.” Terms like “old-school” and “grandpa” are commonly thrown around when discussing the spirit’s reputation in its own country.

Part of the struggle to get the French to drink Cognac is rooted in the spirit’s history — it’s always been produced primarily for the export market. After Dutch merchants returned from France in the 17th century with wine from the Charente and distilled it, the residents of the town of Cognac began making wine purely for distillation purposes. The Dutch kept buying the spirit and then it also became popular in Great Britain. In the late 19th century, a grape disease nearly wiped out the Cognac industry, but they revived it by targeting American and Asian consumers, which remain the spirit’s biggest markets today.

Sullivan Doh, co-owner of notable Parisian cocktail bars like Le Syndicat and La Commune, didn’t even come to appreciate Cognac until he left France and began working in upscale restaurants in London. He completely fell in love with the taste, history and culture behind it, so now Le Syndicat serves cocktails made only with French spirits, including Cognac of course.

The BNIC is well-aware of Cognac’s stuffy reputation and has taken some steps to change that. “We have been encouraging bartenders to work with Cognac for many years now,” says Laurine Caute of the communications department at BNIC, “but we officially started in 2008 when we created a Cognac cocktail to represent the category.” The organization has invited bartenders from around the world to Cognac to create cocktails such as the Lady Coeur, a drink that combines the spirit with fresh orange juice, lemon juice, simple syrup, rose vermouth, champagne and cinnamon.

Most of the BNIC’s recipes are heavy on fruit and particularly citrus flavors, which is understandable thanks to the influence of classic drinks like the Sidecar and French 75. Doh also recommends pairing Cognac with anything citrus-flavored like triple sec or orange blossom water. La Commune, the sister bar to Le Syndicat, serves a Cognac drink with citrus liqueur from Corsica, pineapple and lemongrass syrups, fresh ginger juice, a dash of chili and sparkling waters. It’s now one of the bar’s best-selling drinks.

Lescoët is also inspired by the flavors in classic Cognac cocktails. “The most underrated Cognac cocktail for me would be the coffee cocktail, mixing Cognac, ruby port, an egg and some simple syrup, shaken and served straight up with some fresh grated nutmeg,” he says. It inspires him to highlight the spirit’s grape flavors, mixing it with a nice port or a French wine aperitif liqueur such as Dubonnet or Lillet. The Double Identity at Le Mary Céleste (inspired by the novel “The Great Gatsby”) actually combines Kümmel liqueur with two wine products — Pedro Ximenez sherry and Lillet Rouge.

At Mabel, a rum-focused cocktail bar in Paris, owner Joseph Akhavan values the spirit’s fruity notes, but his “Band of Brothers” drink also showcases its other qualities. “The idea was to go for an earthy yet approachable drink,” he says, “which is why I went for deep flavors such as beetroot, cacao and grape.” He infuses Merlet Brothers Blend with raw organic cacao butter by combining the two ingredients in a sous-vide bag and heating it at a low temperature. After two hours, he puts the bag in an ice bath to harden the butter and make it easy to separate from the liquid. The fat-washed spirit is then mixed with a homemade beet and Merlot grape shrub, verjus, bitters and champagne.

Cognac consumption has been fluctuating in France since 2011, and it may never rival that of other European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany. But Doh says the current generation of twenty and thirty-something drinkers in France are more open-minded than previous generations. “They don’t really know about our own alcohol but they’re willing to learn,” he says. Slowly but surely, the French are learning to appreciate their own spirits through the enjoyment of cocktails.

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