Cognac isn't only for Christmas

A glass of cognac
Cognac is having a moment Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters

I thought I knew a bit about cognac. Strong, fiery, posh French brandy, isn’t it? Amber-hued, aged in oak, occasionally rolled round big-bowled snifter glasses after dinner. In our house, it’s brought out to splash over the Christmas pud, and then just sits sadly in the back of a cupboard until the next year. Perhaps the chaps in a gentleman’s club might savour it more than that, but I didn’t feel inclined to.

It turns out, however, that cognac has become fashionable. It is promoted in the best bars, sometimes as a long drink, served on ice or with tonic, and certainly in cocktails. I’ve spotted it in the hands of hip young women.

So I decided to head for the Charente in cognac country, booking tasting appointments with the venerable small house of Frapin and the huge operation that is Rémy Martin to find out more.

A vineyard in Charente - cognac country Credit: Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Frapin’s cobwebby old cellars have exactly the same black mould and dusty barrels of a Bordeaux chateau. Twenty generations of the same family has owned the company since the 13th century, and they own 593 acres of vines in the prized Grande Champagne heart of production.

Here the climate is between northern and southern, coolish at night but dry and sunny by day, influenced by Atlantic mists and breezes.

The limestone and chalk soils are perfect for creating the mineral-laced base white wine (generally made from the ugni blanc grape variety today) that, distilled, makes such a good eau de vie for ageing in oak cask.

My tasting was in the atmospheric cellar master’s office; all sepia photographs and lovely flasks glinting in the light. Under the guidance of export director Bertrand Verduzier I sampled 11 cognacs, from the entry level Frapin VS to the extraordinary Cuvee 1888, a one-off release containing some 19th-century spirit, and costing in the region of £5,000 a bottle. My assumption that cognac was one-dimensional firewater got blown away.

Bottle of Cognac Frapin Cuvee 1888 Credit: Geoff Caddick/EPA

Oh, the flavours and aromas: I found peaches and almonds in the VS (see box, right), a sweeter gingery note in the VSOP, and in the older cognacs, cinnamon and clove, walnut, earthy hints, black pepper, coffee and chocolate. 

My favourites were Frapin’s innovative Multi Millesime range: special releases of cognacs from great vintages expertly blended together to create balance and complexity. The 1986-1988-1991 has just been released – it is remarkably fresh and vivacious, with nuances of black pepper and oranges, complex and intriguing.

Then on to the house of Rémy Martin, which appears to own a whole chunk of cognac town (I was one of 30,000 visitors a year). It’s a young house compared to Frapin, a mere 300 years old, but one of the biggest players, working with 1,000 grape growers in the region.

“People are playing with different ideas around drinking cognac now, such as temperature and mixology,” says Rémy’s Alexandre Quintin. “Here in the Charente we would mix it with ginger ale, add a twist of lemon. But in the United States a younger crowd is experimenting with it, and London is creating the most interesting cognac cocktails in the world. It’s France which needs to catch up now.” 

Remy Martin cognac Credit: Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Temperature? Frozen cognac is the way to go and we began lunch at Rémy with a delicate starter of trout tartare with smoked scallops and a dab of wasabi, sipping with it a little Rémy Martin VSOP Mature Cask Finish, straight from the freezer. It worked beautifully, in part I think because icy brandy is less overpowering when so cold, tasting much more delicate, lightly raisined, gently spiced.

The main course, roast duck with honey and caramelised apple, played well on the richer, warming, mocha and fig nuances of the Rémy XO Excellence. The marriage of flavours worked impressively, and made a decadent, delicious change from wine.


A dessert of chocolate tartlet with a dulce sauce with Rémy’s new 1738 Accord Royal release was less successful, and I remain unconvinced that sweetness works with the wood-spice of brandy, but with savoury dishes, cognac can certainly provide a partner.

As for cocktails, there’s little to wake up a jaded palate than a perky Sidecar cocktail, made with fine cognac (30ml – the new 1738 works brilliantly here), Cointreau (20ml) and freshly squeezed lemon juice (10ml), all shaken over ice, served in a martini glass, with a twist of orange zest. 

More outre, there’s an enticing new cocktail invented by Clotilde Lataille at London’s Hawksmoor specifically for winter drinking – which I will try as soon as I’ve bought some nettle cordial (see below).

Terroir cocktail at Hawksmoor, London (recipe below) Credit: Ben Phillips

It all points towards cognac’s image becoming more modern and versatile than in the past. Whether you want to shake it up in a bar, match it with food, freeze it or savour a multi-vintage blend, there should be something out there for you. Cheap brandy remains simple, fiery stuff – that can stay in the kitchen cupboard. But fine cognac won’t be hiding there, waiting for the Christmas pudding, any more.

Clo’s Terroir cocktail


  • 45ml VSOP cognac
  • 25ml chardonnay
  • 12.5ml nettle cordial (available from 
  • A dash of orange bitters
  • A handful of ice cubes
  • A twist of lemon peel


  1. Shake the cognac with the chardonnay and nettle cordial.
  2. Strain.
  3. Add a dash of orange bitters over ice and pour over the rest of the ingredients.
  4. Serve in a chilled coupette glass with a lemon twist.