Adult Education: A Bourbon Lover Gets Schooled on Cognac, the Original Brown Spirit

Did you know that hip-hop saved cognac? I never thought about it until I Googled “cognac” and came across this recap of Kanye West’s appearance at the 2009 VMAs (the same year as the Taylor Swift diss) with his date—a bottle of Hennessy…


Maurice Hennessy teaches the Chaser a thing or two about cognac.
 

Did you know that hip-hop saved cognac? I never thought about it until I Googled “cognac” and came across this recap of Kanye West’s appearance at the 2009 VMAs (the same year as the Taylor Swift diss) with his date—a bottle of Hennessy.

“Busta Rhymes’s ‘Pass the Courvoisier’ might as well be called the turning point of the cognac market in America,” declared a 2009 article on Cognac.com. And to think I’d considered cognac an old guy thing, like cigars!

Hennessy is the number-one liquor brand mentioned in all rap lyrics,” said Maurice Hennessy—a distinguished-looking French gentleman whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather founded the cognac distillery in 1765—as I sat across from him in a suite at the Sofitel. On the table between us were 12 small glasses containing samples of everything in the brand’s lineup, all the way up to a $3,200 bottle of Richard Hennessy cognac (available for sipping at the Gage, Henri and Benny’s Chop House).

“I’m a bourbon girl from Kentucky, myself,” I told him as I alternately sniffed the brown liquids.

“The mint julep was originally meant to be made with cognac and served from a silver vase,” he replied elegantly. “Can you imagine? So much better.”

Two hours later, I could imagine. Through a happy coincidence, I’d been invited to two cognac tastings in one day, and at the Drawing Room, a bartender had just whipped me up the mintiest julep I’d ever tasted. Instead of Maker’s Mark, he’d mixed the drink with Rémy Martin 1738 cognac. Mint juleps can be something of an acquired taste—even Kentuckians who pound them like Bud Lights at Churchill Downs will admit as much—but I’m a little abashed to report that the julep made with cognac went down easier.

“The grape softens that grain edge,” a Rémy rep explained. Cognac, a variety of brandy, is made by double-distilling white wine, and supposedly, it fell out of favor after a massive insect attack on the vines in the late 19th century. I knew I was getting a lot of marketing-speak, but I’ll admit I did jot the words “smooth, rich” in my notebook.

Cognac, it seems, is having a moment, and it’s making its move from rap lyrics and Mad Men boardrooms to the mainstream.

At the Sofitel and the Drawing Room, I tried traditional brown spirit cocktails (sazeracs, sidecars, mint juleps) with cognac instead of bourbon, scotch, or rye. Then the Drawing Room’s mixologist, Charles Joly, served us two $13 cognac creations—Three Times the Vine (cognac, vermouth, lemon juice, simple syrup, rosé cava) and Centaurs (cognac, Cherry Heering, Galliano Ristretto, orange bitters)—both available by request at the Gold Coast lounge. They were delicious, and just as palatable (more, actually) than the pinkest of cosmopolitans.

“Do you think if a woman orders cognac, she’s doing it to impress the man she’s with—like how some women do when they smoke cigars?” I’d asked Maurice Hennessy earlier in the afternoon.

I received a small huff for asking such a question. “To play a game like that—to order cognac to impress a man—is a very American idea,” Hennessy said. “Half of our consumers are women. In Ireland, a man drinks a beer, but a woman orders cognac because she considers it more refined.”

Good to know. I’ll certainly feel more comfortable toting a bottle with me at my next red carpet appearance.

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