Cognac sounds traditional – perhaps even archaic, old and wise. It sounds like a warm drink your grandfather would sip by the fireplace on a winter evening. But times, they are a-changin’.
In fact, cognac can be served chilled – or better yet, in a tantalizing cocktail. Bursting with aromas, it pairs beautifully with food and even more so with velvety desserts. Remy Martin, a 300-year-old French cognac producer, aims to jump-start a revival for the spirit regionally – starting with Lebanon.
Why Lebanon? Area Manager of Remy Cointreau Tarek Baz says, “Despite everything, people still go out and clubs and restaurants are still full. Lebanon is still one of the cosmopolitan scenes that people look up to in the region.” He adds that the brand is trying to change perceptions and “Lebanon is a window to the Middle East. It’s where trends start.”
Remy Martin Brand Ambassador Alex Quintin agrees: “Lebanon is a very small market but it’s very influential. The people love partying, they love luxury, and they have great taste.” Quintin laments that cognac’s reputation is not what it should be; that the younger generation thinks it’s not for them. But by consistently creating awareness about cognac through their brand, they hope for change. “Cognac is not for your grandfather anymore,” he laughs.
During a recent visit Quintin taught 15 of Lebanon’s top mixologists and sommeliers about cognac, including how to make classic cocktails. “They are prescriptors. They recommend cocktails to customers and tell them how to drink in different ways, so they have to be educated,” he says. Private events have also helped introduce the spirit to Lebanese media and enthusiasts.
Cognac – named after the Cognac region in France – is similar to brandy, but with more legal requirements. First, a white wine is made from specific grapes. The white wine is then distilled twice to create a 70 percent strong, clear aromatic liquid called eau de vie. This eau de vie is aged in oak barrels, giving it a rich caramel color. Cellar Masters in cognac houses decide how to blend the different eaux de vie, creating various categories of cognac.
By law, Very Special (VS) grade cognac must be aged for at least two years; Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) for at least four; and Extra Old (XO) for a minimum of six years. “Every house makes their own blends of different years’ harvests to create the complexity of the cognac,” explains Quintin. Remy Martin, like many other houses, ages their cognacs for longer than the lowest required time.
Remy Martin does not make a VS, but its VSOP is created with over 200 eaux de vie and aged up to 14 years. It’s fresh, vivacious and aromatic, with undertones of apple, pear, apricot and vanilla – all concentrated flavors that were once in the wine from which it is made.
The Remy Martin XO contains eaux de vie as old as 35. “The XO spends a lot of time in oak so it’s more concentrated and the aromas have evolved into richer fruits. It tastes more like dates, candied fruit, toffee, with hints of flowers and spicy vanilla,” describes Quintin.
The most exceptional cognac in the Remy Martin lineup is the Louis XIII, a blend of over 1200 different eaux de vie, aged up to 100 years. “It’s a firework of taste,” Quintin says, comparing it to an orchestra of flavors. Sold in a striking Baccarat crystal decanter, it’s sometimes called “a century in a bottle.” In Lebanon, the Phoenicia Hotel Beirut just acquired the first Louis XIII Rare Cask and became the country’s premier Louis XIII Fortress – an honor bestowed on prestigious hotels carrying the brand.
“It’s about trying new things,” Quintin says. “But cognac comes from wine, so if you like drinking wine you’ll enjoy cognac,” he assures, saying the spirit is actually very versatile and relevant. He describes two kinds of food pairings for cognac: as a fusion with foods that are very similar in taste, or with foods that are complimentary and contrasting. Spicy and salty food pair well with the spirit, as do goat cheeses and Roquefort, as well as white fish, lamb and foie gras. It’s also a great dessert drink – pairing perfectly with chocolate, caramel and fruit tarts. “A hot dessert with a chilled XO to contrast – it’s beautiful for the palate!” Quintin says, adding that playing with temperatures and textures enhances flavors.