Good drinks tell a story, and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we serve up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
Lesson 5: French Brandies
"It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid from time to time himself permits." No doubt about it, the 14th century Cardinal Prior Vital Du Four was a big fan of brandy, the distilled wine whose "40 virtues" he thus enumerated.
Brandy's history is in part the history of distillation, a process not refined for significant production until just about the Cardinal's time. The original goal for distilling wine? It was easier to transport, and since the beverage would be taxed by volume, removing the water as distilling does was a great workaround. The idea was to add the water back before consumption, like wine concentrate, but people found they liked the taste of new aromatic compounds that arose from the distillation process. That's because distillation doesn't just enhance the alcohol content of wine. As a heating process over metal (usually copper) it causes chemical changes. In fact, that's where brandy gets its name: in Dutch it was "brandewijn," from "gebrande wijn," meaning "burned wine."
As spirit expert Thad Vogler has been collecting some of the finest in French Brandy at Trou Normand, his new Financial District bar, I stopped by to taste some of the stuff — in its pure and cocktail forms — while Colin Gallagher tended bar. Vogler stocks small-batch spirits like Dudognon cognac, made by the same family in southwestern France since 1776, and the bar has three flagship french brandies bottled for Trou Normand exclusively. The place is even named for the Normandy tradition of a "trou normand," or mid-meal brandy shot (typically Calvados) as a palate cleanser and stomach-settler.
The first brandy question I had was the most basic: What's the difference between Cognac and Armagnac? I knew there was a distinction between these two styles: was it in the grapes? The distilling? Gallagher forgave my ignorance, and explained that it's both. To start, he called Armagnac "Cognac's more rustic uncle." That's fitting, because it's older than cognac.
Both of these brandy styles comes from southwest France — Armagnac from Gascony, Cognac from Cognac, which isn't far from Bordeaux. Each brandy employs similar grape varieties,such as Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. But regional differences in soil matter, and Cognacs emphasize mild Ugni Blanc grapes while Armanagcs often emphasize Folle Branche ones. The most obvious difference, however, is that Armagnac is distilled once while Cognac is distilled twice.
As far as working brandy into mixed drinks, "The cool thing about it," says Gallagher, "is it's delicious in a cocktail and on its own." He also thinks brandy in either form could have a wider audience. "I like people to drink with an open mind, or an open palate I guess. I'm not trying to convert, say, whiskey drinkers exactly, but a lot of them would enjoy brandy. It's another brown spirit that's rich and full in character."
The Bombay Cocktail:
.5oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
.5oz Dolin Rouge (sweet vermouth)
.25oz Orange Curaçao
2 dash orange bitters
2 dash absinthe
Stir over ice, strain and serve up with a lemon twist.