Cognac Enters the Mix

Summit Cocktail
Summit Cocktail (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; Page F05

When it comes to flavor, I am drawn to the Old World. I like stinky cheeses, wild game, yeasty beers and spirits with hard-to-define tastes: the bitter complexity of Italian amari, the ancient herbs of green Chartreuse, the primal maltiness of genever. I don't know why. Perhaps I should have lived in another century, wandering about town with a cape, a monocle and a stick.

Last fall, for instance, I fulfilled a longtime wish to attend the famed white truffle festival in Alba, Italy. For several days, a friend and I ate truffle shaved on more things than seemed reasonable or necessary (one 35-euro dish was simply truffle shaved on a baked egg), wandered among the truffle hunters in a very pungent convention center, and debated endlessly how to describe the white-truffle experience. We tossed around the usual descriptors: earthy, woody, rooty, garlicky, foresty. We chuckled about the unfortunate comparison used by writer Corby Kummer in Gourmet magazine several years ago: "It tasted of parts of the body I urgently wanted to know better." But in the end, we agreed that part of the fungus's allure was that it defied description.

That's why, when I visited Cognac, France, last summer, I was happy to discover the concept of rancio. Rancio is the term for a peculiar flavor that the finest cognac takes on as it ages. It is, of course, impossible to describe. Nutty? Mushroomy? Cheesy? Gary Regan, author of the classic "The Joy of Mixology," calls rancio "lactic" and likens it to the flavor of soy sauce; I do not disagree, though there also might be hints of toffee or almond.

Beyond flavor, rancio also connotes a certain mouth feel, the way the cognac presents on the tongue and finishes with an almost walnutlike oiliness.

Even for cognac producers, rancio is hard to describe. "It's a special taste," said Pascal Dagnaud, the master distiller at the small but highly regarded Ragnaud-Sabourin. "It's close to caramel, but a little bitter. It tastes a little like a bitter nut. It's a special taste."

At both Ragnaud-Sabourin and Jean Fillioux (another highy regarded house), rancio was present in several offerings I tasted, as were dried fruit, spices and dark chocolate. Rancio was most pronounced in Jean Fillioux's Cigar Club and Family Reserve and in Ragnaud-Sabourin's 45-year-old Florilege and Le Paradis, the last a blend of mostly century-old cognac with a small percentage of eau de vie that predated the mid-19th-century phylloxera blight that destroyed so many European vineyards (speaking of Old World flavor!). Perhaps needless to mention: These cognacs were as close to perfection as a distilled spirit could be.

One doesn't have to go to France to experience rancio, but sadly, in the United States there are impediments. Cognac remains a mystery here for a few reasons. First, the really good stuff can be prohibitively priced. Case in point: Le Paradis will set you back about, oh, $700 or so. Second, many people still don't know what cognac is. Quite simply, it's a brandy produced in the Cognac AOC that follows a 300-year-old tradition calling for at least 90 percent Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard wine grapes to be distilled in copper pots. Most cognacs are created by blending numerous vintages and ages.

Finally, the alphabet stew of classifications -- VS, VSOP, XO -- can be confusing. Actually, they are straightforward. VS means very special, with the youngest eau de vie in the blend no less than two years old. VSOP means very old superior pale, with the youngest eau de vie at least four years old. XO means extra old, with the youngest eau de vie at least six years old.

Most of the cognac sold in the United States is either VS or VSOP. In very few cases do cognacs in those categories exhibit the elusive rancio, which generally appears after a decade or more of aging (and which, to me, is what separates a cognac you'd sip from one you'd mix in a cocktail). That is perhaps why boutique producers often do not make a VSOP or wait for at least 10 years to release theirs. If you want to taste a bit of rancio on the cheap, something like Martell Medaillon VSOP or Hine Rare VSOP (both about $40) are good. Otherwise, it might pay to invest $80 or more in a bottle of XO. It's expensive, but it should last you a long time.

Talking about prices that high makes me jittery. And I visited Cognac during strange, jittery times, just as the current recession was setting in. The "big four" cognac producers -- Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin -- had been riding high in recent years, with sales growing about 37 percent between 2001 and 2007. Cognac's popularity within youthful hip-hop culture (remember Busta Rhymes's "Pass the Courvoisier"?) generally is credited with the spirit's resurgence in the United States.

Last year, however, cognac sales stalled, and the larger producers organized what was called the International Cognac Summit to address the changing nature of cognac drinking, specifically the shift from after-dinner sipping among an older generation to its use in cocktails among a younger one. A team of mixologists created a new cocktail, the Summit, as a symbol of that recognition (the drink even has a Web site: http://www.cognacsummit.com). Courvoisier recently launched a down-market cognac, Exclusif, created especially for cocktail mixing.

I asked the distillers at Ragnaud-Sabourin and Jean Fillioux how they felt about the new focus on cocktails. Is it a good thing? "We're not interested in knowing whether it's a good thing or not," Dagnaud said.

When I posed the same question to master distiller Pascal Fillioux, he said simply: "I am not a mixologist. I like to drink cognac."

Spoken like a man after my Old World heart.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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