Cognac has got a bit of a bad rep in recent years. Beyond the occasional rapper calling out ‘Yak’ on a track, it’s lapsed into a legacy drink of yesteryear. Which is funny, as other spirits that have previously been out of vogue are suddenly seeing a resurgence.
Gin is huge at the moment, and the number of new gin brands emerging is staggering. Aperol, previously the mainstay of the Seventies, suddenly was the drink of the summer of 2016. Granted, some of that could be attributed to a huge PR budget and some great ad placement. But still.
So maybe it’s cognac’s turn now. The Cognac Social is a campaign championed by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac), who are the trade organisation representing all the producers in the Cognac region. So obviously, they have a vested interest in the success of cognac.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is Cognac?
All Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognac. Make sense?
Didn’t think so.
Cognac – like Champagne, Stilton and Cornish Pasties – has to come from a specific region. The way that it is produced, the quantities it’s produced in, how it’s stored and how it’s aged is all closely controlled.
You start off with a white wine. It’s then distilled to a maximum of 72%, before being stored in oak casks for a minimum of two years. Then, the Cognac producer’s master blender takes the various ages of cognac around him and combines them to get the bottling just right.
Typically about 40 different ages of cognac go into that one bottle, and the age of the youngest is the one that they use to classify its quality.
The Cognac Social
Back to the Cognac Social. What they’re aiming to do is to show that Cognac is not just an old man’s drink, quaffed by cigar chomping plutocrats in massive brandy balloons (though this is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy it…). It’s actually the base spirit to some fantastic classic cocktails, and a great ingredient in its own right.
That’s what the Cognac Social is setting out show the people of London. Distributed across three venues – Basement Sate in Soho, Chamberlain’s in Leadenhall Market and Met Bar in Mayfair – they’ve given these venues the opportunity (and the Cognac) to come up with their own expressions and offerings that best complement this fantastic spirit.
Priorities: Hard Liquor & Dessert
So, in the spirit of trying this spirit (see what I did there), I started off at Basement Sate. For those who don’t know, this gem of a cocktail bar in Soho combines the two most important things in life – hard liquor and dessert. They took inspiration for their dessert from the classic French dish, the Mont Blanc.
Basement Sate’s “From Mont Blanc to Cognac” sits a quenelle of Tahitian vanilla and mascarpone cream, with cognac and black cherry, atop a soft macadamia nut biscuit. They keep the chestnut ribbons/vermicelles of the classic Mont Blanc, and combine it with a cognac and chestnut jelly, among all of which are scattered caramelised chestnuts.
It’s good, too. The vanilla and mascarpone cream combined with the Cognac and black cherries makes for a posh rum and raisin ice cream experience. It would have been far too easy to let the Cognac overpower the dish, make it too boozy. The flavour is there, but it’s subtle, and helps string and marry all the flavours together.
Then for their mixological offering – the Segonzac Attack. Why Segonzac, you ask? Well, it’s a village in the Cognac region of France. You did ask.
The Segonzac takes Cognac, Arrack (effectively South-East Asia’s answer to brandy), coconut rum, pineapple juice, spiced coconut juice and clarified milk; and serves it straight up with a twist. In the dark of Basement Sate, I couldn’t get a good photograph (stupid bars and their moody lighting – sorry). It was delicious – though I do question just how much cognac they actually used. It’s certainly a nice and gentle way to get into it!
Maturity in the City
Later in the week we headed over to Chamberlain’s in Leadenhall Market for our next instalment. Descending into their whisky bar in the basement, it was time to sample the more grown-up side of Cognac.
Obviously, given Chamberlain’s slightly older and more traditional clientele, they can afford to be a bit more traditionalist with their Cognac offerings, too. They’d cooked up a rich chocolate tart, with an XO ice cream and paired with it was a flight of Cognacs of varying ages. I hadn’t eaten dinner at this point, so I practically inhaled the dessert – I can assure you it was delicious.
Flight of Fancy
For those of you who haven’t tried it before, if you dive in with an old Cognac, you’re probably not going to like it. It’s not dissimilar to a cheese board, in that way. You start with the milder cheeses and work your way up to the really strong and fusty ones.
That’s where the flight is good. First up, a young VS (Very Special) to ease you in, followed by a VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) and then finishing up with the XO (Extra Old). Essentially, the flight works you up from the young, simple Cognacs, to the oldest and most complex.
Chamberlain’s cocktail offering was dubbed the Sparkling Cup, and takes Cognac, Grand Marnier and little maraschino syrup, mixes it up, and tops it off with Champagne. Very much more of a traditional cocktail offering, there are few ingredients better matched for each other than these. And, like the best cocktails, less is more. It was a lovely drink – sweetness from the Grand Marnier and maraschino, lightness from the champagne, and a nice base of good quality Cognac. Yes.
Get Social with the Cognac Social
So, after reading all this, perhaps you’re thinking that you should give this Cognac stuff a try. Guess what? You can!
You’ve got until the end of November to stop into Chamberlain’s to enjoy their offering:
Chocolate Tart – £7.50
Cognac Flight – £20
Sparkling Cup Cocktail – £12
Basement Sate will be serving their From Mont Blanc to Cognac dessert (£7) and Segonzac Attack cocktail (£10) until the end of the year.
Finally, though I wasn’t able to try it, you can pop over to Met Bar for a mixology masterclass, where they’ll be showing you how versatile Cognac is and give you the opportunity to get behind the bar and make your own cocktails (£40pp).