One of my favorite literature teachers in high school used to jokingly offer a snifter of his finest Cognac to the student who made a particularly clever observation. His humor may have been wasted on soda-swilling teenagers, but many years later I am starting to understand his passion for Cognac. I was recently invited to learn more about this iconic French spirit at an amazing evening hosted by award-winning mixologist and certified Cognac educator Franky Marshall at Balvanera restaurant in New York City. I've always thought of Cognac as an after-dinner drink, so I was stunned and impressed by the clever Cognac & food combinations devised by Franky and Chef Fernando Navas.
Our evening began with a Cognac & Champagne cocktail expertly prepared by Franky - the French 75. Most often prepared with gin, I found that Hine RARE Cognac VSOP made the French 75 more complex and nuanced. The dry Champagne melded intriguingly with the Cognac's smoky and caramel notes. After all, before it becomes Cognac, the spirit starts off as a low-alcohol white wine produced primarily from the Ugni Blanc grape. The white wine is then distilled in two stages, which increases the alcohol content. Once distillation is complete and the eau-de-vie has been created, the transformation to Cognac continues with the crucial step of aging the eau-de-vie in oak casks. It is the contact with wood extracts during the aging process that imbues Cognac with its color and bouquet. The Cognac Master Blender is the artiste that guides the aging process and blends together eaux-de-vie of distinct ages and different crus. The aging designations for Cognac are V.S. (Very Special, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least two years old), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale, the youngest eau-de-vie is at least four years old), and XO (Extra Old, the youngest eau-de-vie is at least six years old). However, most Cognac Master Blenders use eaux-de-vie that are much older than the minimum requirements in their blends.
Cognac and caviar may seem like an unlikely combination but the pairing of Osetra with Bache Gabrielsen "Natur & Eleganse" Cognac XO ($140) was nothing short of sensational. XO is the richest of the Cognacs and when eaten with caviar it enhances the creaminess of the fish eggs and creates a decadent flavor explosion.
Another surprising pairing was Park Cognac VSOP served with Duck Breast, Risotto and Asparagus. Park VSOP was bold enough to hold its own with the rich and succulent duck without overpowering it.
Are you intrigued by Cognac? Visit www.cognac.fr for everything you need to know - from its history to how to read the label. Cheers!