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Along way to your lips - Andy Gemmell

Dec. 8, 2009 by John Collingwood

Andy Gemmell is one of the worlds most respected Mixologists. He is now the Brand Mixology Manager for Maxxium UK and has kindly offered to share his words of wisdom about one of his favourite spirit categories, Cognac.

As a Scotsman I of course am incredibly proud of my national spirit (not Buckfast!). For me there is only one spirit that challenges Single Malt in it’s dedication to perfection. A misunderstood spirit when it comes to bartenders who think all they need to do is warm an oversized Brandy Balloon and stuff a Bev Nap in the top. (Do not do this in the town of Cognac! You will be hurt…). If it has got something over Single Malt then its Mixability.

Cognac, up to a certain age, is incredibly versatile and is used in some of the world’s most famous drinks. The category has had little bit of a character conflict in recent years but with brands now concentrating on what matters I’m sure we’ll see this category getting stronger and stronger. So where did it all begin?

The earliest known spirits were made from wine. In 1411 wine was recorded being distilled into a spirit in the Armagnac region of France, though the great days of Cognac were not to emerge for another 300 years – and when they did, it was as a distinctly luxurious spirit.

The development of wine-spirits was bound up in European trade and politics over the centuries. By the sixteenth century the Atlantic port of La Rochelle had allied itself with the protestant Huguenots, which isolated it from much of France but strengthened its links with northern Europe.

The Dutch were major trade partners at this time, and in order to take up less space on ship, encouraged the production of ‘burnt wine’ or brandewijn – from which we derive the word brandy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the centuries, the great merchant houses of Cognac were established, their names becoming well-known brands, synonymous with luxury. Soon, in the saloon bars of the New World, as the most prestigious spirit available, cognac was being used as the base for a new style

Every drop of liquid in your cognac glass has made quite an astonishing journey. The story begins as a gentle summer shower falls on the cool, Atlantic-influenced Cognac region, in western France. Picking up trace elements as it percolates quickly through the chalky soil, the rain-water meets the wispy tendril of a vine root, then up through the vine to the grape as it plumps and ripens.

There, protected from re-evaporation by the grape skin, the water dissolves sugars and acids manufactured by the vine. In the early autumn, the liquid is finally set free again when the grapes are harvested and crushed and the juice (or ‘must’) is collected for fermentation.

Yeast acts on the natural sugars, turning the liquid into a relatively weak white wine. As the wine is distilled in small copper stills, the precious liquid evaporates, flows as a gas through the funnel-like arm and is quickly condensed back into a new liquid, with a higher concentration of alcohol.

Then it happens again. Now it has reached the rank of eau-de-vie and our liquid is put in an oak barrel where it is left alone for a couple of years, before the first of many blendings. Depending on how exalted the spirit is as it develops, blending is repeated many times, so the contents of each batch of distillation will end up split between hundreds of casks.

Over time the abv will reduce as the alcohol evaporates in the balmy climate. Eventually, it will be judged to have reached its full potential and will be bottled. Depending on the available blend, there may be a little water added to reduce it to 40% abv, though for older cognacs this is seldom the case as the ‘angel’s share’ takes care of that.

So think of that journey, as you sip, and consider that every drop of the best cognac is a concentration of the grape and depends on the climate, the soil and the plant; as well, of course, as the skill of the winemakers, distillers and blenders.

Cognac’s rich history of use in cocktails is not surprising, as its rich and fruity character make it ideal for mixing in long and short drinks. Potent cocktails like the Harvard and the original version of the Sazerac make use of its dryness and intensity; where sour and punchy drinks like the Sidecar pair it with ingredients that bring out its fruitiness.

Here is one of my Favourite’s

Candied Sidecar

Click here to see Andy making it

50ml Courvoisier Exclusif
25ml Triple Sec
2 x Demerara coated lemon wedges
2 x barspoon lemon sorbet.

Toast lemon wedges and place in Boston glass
Add all ingredients
Shake hard and strain into chilled cocktail glass.