Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer
A few years ago, my husband and I made a Fish House Punch for a group of friends. The classic 1732 recipe from the Schuylkill Fishing Club in Philadelphia was a favorite of George Washington and is a potent crowd-pleaser containing Cognac. Yes, Cognac. Though it has the reputation of being a lot less sexy than vodka, the centuries-old process to make Cognac is highly regarded among drink experts. In fact, Cognac is making a comeback.
Just ask spirits expert, writer and recently anointed Cognac Educator, Geoffrey Kleinman, a Marblehead resident. Through an elite program with the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, an organization that protects and promotes Cognac, Kleinman went through a rigorous training and testing program in France to become one of 61 certified Cognac educators in the world. He was one of only two individuals selected from the United States this year. Why is there such a thing as a Cognac Educator?
“Cognac is now where single malt whisky was about nine or ten years ago. Some think that it’s something to be consumed in large, high backed, leather chairs with big balloon glasses and cigars. But that’s such an outdated image of Cognac,” he says. These days, bartenders have refreshed the image of Cognac by way of cocktails. Now a favorite craft bar staple, Cognac is often seen in a Sidecar, Vieux Carre or French 75. Agrees Kleinman: “The craft cocktail revolution has gone a long way towards changing perceptions, especially when many of these enthusiastic bartenders start really doing research on drinks. Many landmark cocktails were originally made with cognac, including the iconic Sazerac, which I love with half cognac and half whiskey.”
Cognac is a type of brandy made from grapes, mostly Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Based on a time-honored and regulated process, Cognac must be distilled twice in Charentais (or alembic) pot stills and aged in French oak barrels for at least two years. There’s a saying: “All Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs.” This is because Cognac is considered the most prestigious of all brandies, heavily regulated by the French government to ensure quality.
“The specificity for Cognac is amazing,” says Kleinman. “Cognac is one of the most controlled spirits in the world with specifications not only on what kinds of grapes must be used and how it’s distilled and aged, but also how far a grower can space his rows, how many buds they can have per acre and even when they can harvest and ferment.”
If you’re Cognac curious, Kleinman advises you to try all three major classifications of cognac neat in a tumbler (no big balloon snifters – they over concentrate the alcohol vapors he says). Most Cognacs do not state their age on the bottle, instead adhering to a long-held classification system: VS (Very Special) aged at least two years, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) aged at least four years, and XO (Extra Old) aged at least six years. Quality Cognacs are aged much longer than necessary, some as long as 30 years. Those from the Grande Champagne region are considered the best.
Kleinman plans to teach classes and focus on helping wine and whisky collectors expand their bottle knowledge. “The more people learn about cognac and the more they actually get to taste it, the more people will look at cognac as an enjoyable, aromatic and flavorful experience,” he says. Cheers to that!
Kleinman is the editor at DrinkSpirits.com where you can contact him events and his favorite Cognac recommendations.
Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Northshore magazine. Click here for full PDF of article.