There will always be people who think Cognac belongs in a snifter, by itself, sipped slowly. Remy Savage, Martell’s French-born, London-based Global Mixologist, isn’t one of them. “As a mixologist, Cognac is super fun to play with,” he says. “It’s complex like a smoky Islay Scotch but malleable like vodka. I think Cognac sits exactly in between those [extremes]. You can take it more or less in any direction.”
In the canon of classic cocktails, Cognac makes a few reliable appearances—the Sazerac, the Sidecar, the Corpse Reviver No.1—but there was a time when the French brandy was the ne plus ultra of the spirit world and appeared in most cocktails before falling out of fashion, a victim to changing tastes and vineyard blight. Devotees like Jordon Sipperley, a Beverage Director in Santa Monica, are endeavoring to bring back the brandy’s halcyon days. “If you go into a nice bar and look at all the bottles they have on the back shelf, most of the time you’re looking at a large selection of whiskeys, or the exception to that is a tequila-and-mezcal bar where they will blow the doors off [agave spirits],” he says. When he was building out the liquor library where he currently works, “We wanted to do the same thing with French spirits, but instead of trying to find every single French whiskey we could, we decided to lean into brandy: Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and other eaux de vie.”
Whether it’s something straightforward like the Cognac Negroni that Savage mixes for himself or something a bit more elaborate—say, Sipperley’s Le Sourcis, a Cognac Sour flavored with tangerine and thyme—Cognac’s various expressions are essential and versatile spirits for the home bar. “Every single Cognac liquid is good to mix,” Savage says. “Nothing is too sacred not to put in a cocktail.” Here are their best tips.
Since Cognac and whiskey are both brown and barreled, it’s easy to assume that the former is a surefire substitution for the latter in mixing cocktails, but while they can work beautifully together, Martell’s Savage calls out clear spirits as Cognac’s easiest mates. “Straightaway you can replace vodka and gin in most drinks with Cognac, and you will always find good results,” he says. “Cognac has the flexibility to express itself, and Martell especially, since it is not distilled with the lees, tends to be more delicate, floral, and lighter.” Cognac in a honey-sweetened Bees Knees? Yes, please. Or follow the subset of French 75 fanatics who insist this classic Champagne cocktail is made not with gin, but Cognac.
Younger Cognacs for Busier Cocktails
“There’s a huge difference how you communicate the quality of Cognac through a drink,” Sipperley says. “So if you’re serving something like a Corpse Reviver, where you’re playing with a lot of other spirits like Calvados and absinthe and Benedictine, you might not want to show off a Cognac that commands attention by itself, where it could get lost with other ingredients. This is where I would use something little bit poppier,” typically a VS that will meld easily with many other modifiers.
Showcase Older Cognacs in Stiff and Stirred Cocktails
A cocktail Savage often makes for himself and his friends is a Cognac Negroni. “Cognac behaves well in the classic structure; it has the richness of the wood, which marries really nicely with sweet vermouth.” Simply constructed, slowly sipped drinks—the Negroni, Old Fashioned, Manhattan (which, when made with Cognac, is called a Harvard)—deserve Cognacs you can think on.
“When you start cutting ingredients back, that’s when you want to go for your XOs and more distinctive styles of Cognac, which can really highlight the spirit,” Sipperley says. “You want the spirit to be a soloist, not part of the band.”
Make a Swift Swap for Whiskey
Despite being the oldest of the big Cognac houses in France, Martell has a rebellious streak, lately displayed in Blue Swift, its rule-bending Spirit Drink made of cognac VSOP aged in American oak bourbon barrels. “That whiskey cask finish gives Blue Swift a bit more of kick,” says Savage, along with the vanilla, butterscotch, and caramelized banana characteristics often associated with Bourbon. “It really stands out beautifully in American whiskey drinks,” like the timeless Boulevardier (a Bourbon-based Negroni) and the modern classic Gold Rush (Bourbon, honey, lemon). Martell Blue Swift in a Mint Julep is not only delicious but historical; before the French grape blight of 1872, which paved the way for the ascendance of American whiskey, most Juleps were made with Cognac.
Lean into Grapes
Sipperley’s friend made a joke a few years ago: “Whiskey is beer after it grows up, and brandy is wine after it grows up. I thought that was a really funny thing to say, and it’s informed my ideas of what flavors we’re looking to pull when we use grape-based spirits like Cognac.” To wit: One of his newer cocktails on the menu at Sipperley’s current gig is Les Pétals Oubliés, French for “the forgotten petals.” The bloom in question is St. Germain elderflower liqueur, a scintilla of which accents Sipperley’s mixture of Cognac, pastis, lemon, and mint. “It looks like this refreshing highball, but as you drink it, there’s this really deep undertone of flavors that are almost more vinous,” thanks to the brandy’s grape DNA. Other places to highlight the vineyard connection include any sangria or wine spritz, as well as the New York Sour, a classic Whiskey Sour crowned with a float of red wine and a particularly smart home for Martell Blue Swift.
If All Else Fails, Just Add Water
Long before the arrival of American cocktail culture in Paris, where structured drinks like the Sidecar were allegedly born at the legendary Harry’s Bar, French people consumed Cognac in a much more casual fashion. “Fine à l’eau,” Savage says in his melodic French accent. “Basically a grape eau de vie lightened with water.” There’s no set formula. It’s very freestyle, all up to the drinker’s preferences. “On ice with sparkling water and garnish with a lemon? Amazing. If it’s just served room temperature, I would enjoy, that too.”