A few years ago, I made a Fish House Punch for a group of friends. The classic 1732 recipe was a favorite of George Washington and is a potent crowd-pleaser containing Cognac. Yes, Cognac. Though it has the reputation of being less sexy than vodka, the centuries-old process for making 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. Why is there such a thing as a Cognac educator?
“Cognac is now where single-malt whiskey was about nine or 10 years ago. Some think it’s something to be consumed in large, high-backed leather chairs with big balloon glasses and cigars. But that’s an outdated image of Cognac,” he says.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. According to Kleinman: “The craft cocktail revolution has gone a long way toward changing perceptions, especially when many of these enthusiastic bartenders start really doing research on drinks. Many landmark cocktails were originally made with Cognac.”
Cognac is a type of brandy made from grapes, mostly Ugni Blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard.Highly regulated, Cognac must be distilled twice in Charentais (or alembic) pot stills and aged in French oak barrels for at least two years.
“The specificity for Cognac is amazing,” says Kleinman. “It 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 overconcentrate the alcohol vapors, he says). Most Cognacs adhere to a long-held classification system: VS (Very Special), aged at least two years, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) is aged at least four years, and XO (Extra Old) is 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 will teach classes to help collectors expand their knowledge. “The more people learn about Cognac and the more they get to taste it, the more they will view Cognac as an enjoyable, aromatic, and flavorful experience,” he says.