Cognac’s Identity Crisis

How the liquor’s marketing success among both rappers and codgers has blinded consumers to its subtler pleasures

This year marks the 10th anniversary of a seminal moment in the history of cognac: the release of rapper Busta Rhymes’s “Pass the Courvoisier Part II.” The hit triggered a boomlet in sales of Courvoisier and other cognacs and opened the floodgates to references to “yak” in hundreds of hip-hop numbers. It wasn’t long before some rappers were negotiating marketing agreements with venerable brands (as Snoop Dogg did with Landy Cognac), while others created their own labels (such as Ludacris’s Conjure cognac and Ice-T’s French brandy, Original Gangster). The informal partnership reached an apogee of sorts in 2009, when Kanye West was filmed guzzling from a bottle of Hennessy on the red carpet of the MTV Video Music Awards, just moments before his infamous Taylor Swift outburst.

With that, cognac became cartoonish, a symbol of untamed luxury. It got blingy.

Of course, this new stereotype had to be layered onto a more established one: that of a snooty drink served in snifters in exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. As with the rap association, this image was anchored in reality. Cognac has long been a prized and valuable liquor, particularly since a pesky insect called the Phylloxera vastatrix devastated French grape crops in the late 19th century. Today, you can visit the Library Bar of the Lanesborough Hotel in London and see investment bankers sip pre-Phylloxera cognacs priced at up to $6,500 for a less-than-two-ounce tipple.

Thanks to these conflicting clichés of conspicuous consumption, cognac is doing rather well: it broke global sales records last year, with demand driven in large part by China and Russia, where the new capitalists are evidently looking for something blingy, too.

But one area where cognac is not getting as much love is in the craft-cocktail revival, where it seems to be hampered by consumer confusion over who, exactly, is supposed to be drinking it, and how. Served in a snifter and slowly sipped? Or poured in a cup with Coke on the side? As a result, cognac appears dutifully on many cocktail lists in the Sidecar, a classic drink. But it rarely gets a starring role on the menu.

This is odd, given that cognac is rich and supple and a delight to mix with. Indeed, cognac and other brandies (cognac is brandy made in and around the Charente Valley in western France) were central ingredients during the dawn of the cocktail: brandy is called for in nearly one out of three recipes in 19th-century cocktail books by Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson. Cognac has been around since the 17th century and, like bourbon, has a history full of complicated family dynamics and powerful ties to a region. If anything, cognac’s history is even more appealingly rococo than bourbon’s—think The Royal Tenenbaums rather than The Waltons—and serious cocktail folks love the story behind a spirit almost as much as the spirit itself.

Though they may be late to the game, cognac distillers have taken notice of their product’s absence from the cocktail lounges. In January, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the trade group that oversees production and promotion, hosted the fifth annual cognac summit in the town of Cognac, France, flying in notable bartenders, sommeliers, and retailers from around the world. Among the attendees was the Chicago-based bartender Carol Donovan, who recently told me she’s found herself thinking about cognac very differently ever since.

During one sipping session at the event, she tasted some 40 cognacs and was startled at the vast range. “Some tasted like cinnamon rolls, and in another, I tasted curry,” she says. “I was surprised how hugely different these were.” Now back behind the bar, Donovan says she has been experimenting widely with cognac, swapping it for bourbon in many drinks. “I think it lends itself more easily to balance in a cocktail,” she explains.

Therein lies the fundamental irony: as a spirit, cognac is pretty much the antithesis of the two cartoonish stereotypes it’s gotten saddled with. It is subtle, sophisticated, evocative, and extremely agreeable to mixing with other ingredients. Everything, in short, that you want in a cocktail.