French Brandy's Big Break

Still consider cognac a stuffy old-man’s drink? Think again. These fine French brandies are bold, complex, and downright delicious.
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Still consider cognac a stuffy old-man’s drink? Think again. These fine French brandies are bold, complex, and downright delicious.
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Few spirits are as plagued by misconceptions as cognac, which conjures images of creaky Brits nursing snifters or Jay Z guzzling from a Grammy. Get over it. To clear the air: Cognac is brandy, a kind of distilled wine. But not all brandy is cognac. 

With us so far? As with more commonly quaffed spirits like scotch or bourbon, there are strict rules that define the real stuff. True cognac is double distilled, aged in French oak for at least two years, and produced from the grapes of a distinct geographic region in western France—centered in the medieval city of Cognac. The area was renowned for its wine, but the export suffered on seafaring voyages. To preserve it, 16th-century Dutch merchants turned to distillation, creating brandewijn, or burned wine. (You’d call it brandy.) By the 17th century, vintners discovered that a second distillation created a clearer, more elegant spirit called eau-de-vie (“water of life”). The resulting spirit was like the well-heeled offspring of wine and scotch, by turns sturdy, delicate, complex, and completely delicious. 

“Cognac is the king of brandies,” says Flavien Desoblin, who owns Manhattan’s Brandy Library, a bar specializing in the refined drink. While standbys Hennessy, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier are easy to find, Desoblin suggests also seeking out smaller houses, such as Park, Pierre Ferrand, Delamain, and Paul Giraud. And don’t let the clock limit your consumption: Cognac is ideal to sip before dinner, after dinner, or with a splash of soda during your meal. “It’s not just an old man’s drink anymore,” he says. Thirsty for a glass? Try one of these four fine varieties. 

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Park Borderies Single Vineyard Cognac

Dismayed by the tactics of some cognac producers who use oak chips in lieu of barrel aging or add grape sugar to amp smoothness—sacrilege!—Scottish purist Dominic Park founded his house in the early ’90s. His spirits are lighter and more delicate than most, particularly this vintage fashioned with perfectly balanced Borderies grapes. The beguilingly floral release evokes stewed fruitand vanilla beans. [$55]

Hennessy V.S.O.P. Privilège

In the 1740s, an Irishman fought in Louis XV’s army, an experience that, two decades later, led the retired officer to found a brandy house. His name? Richard Hennessy. Today, the company is the world’s leader in cognac production, a distinction cemented by Privilège. Aged for up to 15 years, with a rich amber hue, a nose of cinnamon and cloves, and flavors of honey and ripe fruit, Privilège is best savored straight, on the rocks, or, if you must, in a sidecar. [$65]

Rémy Martin XO Excellence

Flashback to 1731: To nix a grape glut, French monarch Louis XV forbids planting new vines. Seven years later, he makes an exception for winegrower Rémy Martin, whos  cognacs soon become shorthand for peerless luxury. To create Excellence, about 300 vintages—oak-aged up to 37 years— are married into a velvety marvel. Summer-ripe peaches, plums, and orange peel ride shotgun on the nose, while the fruity low-sipper drinks smoother than a Barry White ballad. [$150]

Hardy Noces d’Or

For 150 years, Hardy has been synonymous with high-end liquid expression. Noces d’Or unites more than 40 different cognacs aged for at least half a century. The result is lush and multilayered, revealing caramel and tobacco in equal measure.Sip it neat, and take

your time. After all, you deserve it. [$300]