Cognac: An alchemy of tradition and craftsmanship

Revered for its remarkable flavours and complex ageing process, Cognac is traditionally served neat. To celebrate the festive season, three leading bartenders share how they serve up the quintessential spirit of France.
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GEORGE HUNTER, SAINT

‘Cognac is one of my favourite spirits,’ enthuses George Hunter, beverage director for Saint in Johan- nesburg. ‘Cognac has such a specific flavour. It’s the French Limousin oak, which brings a beautiful floral note that other brandies simply don’t have. You can taste that it’s cognac.’

At Saint restaurant, Hunter’s cognac selection is varied, ranging from Hennessy VSOP through to the legendary Rémy Martin Louis XIII. This iconic cognac is crafted from a blend of 1 200 eaux de vie, all between 40 and 100 years old, and is widely regarded as the most complex expression of cognac on the market.

‘There’s definitely a discerning drinker that will come here for a Louis XIII,’ says Hunter.

With each bottle valued north of R70 000, it’s a spirit that must be savoured, but in cocktails Hunter works hard to place cognac front and centre.

‘With cocktails I usually stick with a VS or VSOP. But for something special, like an XO, I’d do an ‘Old Fashioned’, a style of drink that accentuates the flavours in the spirit, and doesn’t change it into something completely different.’

And for Hunter, the cocktail potential of cognac is almost endless.

‘It’s a very diverse spirit. You can do a Collins-style drink – lengthened with a carbonated beverage – or you can do a cognac Manhattan. Cognac has that little bit of sweetness to balance the cocktail, and it can literally fit into almost any category of cocktail. For me as a bartender, I love that versatility.’

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JULIAN SHORT, SIN+TAX

‘I adore cognac,’ says Julian Short, owner and founder of Sin+Tax in Rosebank, Johannesburg. ‘We’ve stocked a lot of different cognacs, including Courvoisier and Bisquit, but the brand that we love is Rémy Martin. It’s very classy, and when it comes to cognac it’s all about class.’
Short’s speakeasy-style cocktail bar opened in December 2016, and soon grew a cult following for its unique style and authentic cocktail culture.

Sin+Tax prides itself on its reputation as a cocktail bar, and bottle service is a rarity here. While many guests enjoy a cognac on its own, Short is passionate about incorporating cognac into the ever-changing cocktail menu.

‘Cognac is bold and fruity, and you can do so many things with it. My favourite cognac cocktail is ‘The Sidecar’. It’s a very traditional French cocktail, but there are some great variations on it too.’

Show some interest and Short will also be quick to whip up a ‘Sazerac’, a French-American cocktail blending rye whisky and cognac.

‘With that there’s sugar syrup and bitters, and absinthe over the top, served with no ice in a big glass. There’s a lot of negative space in the glass. I love it.’

LEIGHTON RATHBONE, GIGI ROOFTOP

Set above the city skyline in the heart of the Mother City, Gigi Rooftop is perched atop Cape Town’s chic Gorgeous George Hotel.

It’s a bar with an eclectic clientele, for whom cognac is a spirit ripe for discovery. And while most guests enjoy it neat – ask for the dedicated brandy snifters – Leighton Rathbone has also created a collection of cognac-based cocktails.

A stand out is the ‘Royal Mukombe’, which blends VSOP cognac with ginger, clove, butternut, sesame seed oil and a touch of lemon juice.

‘I was apprehensive at first, because cognac has quite a subtle flavour and I was worried about overpowering that,’ Rathbone says. ‘While South African brandies are bold, cognacs are quite fresh. They are more refined, very subtle, with smooth floral notes. You need to work around that when creating cocktails.’

CIGARS & COGNAC

Looking to enhance your cognac experience? A fine cigar is the perfect counterpoint to an aged cognac, says Phillip Antoniades, co-owner of specialist cigar emporium Copa Habana.

Cigars can be paired to contrast or complement the flavour profile of cognac, but ‘when pairing, you don’t want a cigar that is extremely overpowering, because it can cancel out the intricate flavours of a cognac,’ cautions Antoniades, a passionate cigar-lover who opened Copa Habana with business partner Paniko Papavarnavas in 2020.

Highlighting Cohiba maduro and Hoyo de Monterey Epicure no 2. as cigars that pair especially well with cognac, Antoniades says that aged cognac is best: ‘It’s essential to go for something with a bit of age so it can stand up to the flavours of the cigar,’ says Antoniades. ‘For this a VSOP or an XO is recommended.’

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