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Pass the cognac

What do Churchill, Kim Jong II, Kanye West and the von Olfers have in common? They know their XOs from their VSOPs.

As a third-generation cognac family, brother and sister duo, Max and Sophie von Olfers have successfully established the number one destination site for Cognac lovers globally. Cognac-Expert.com features over 800 different Cognacs for sale, all shipped globally. They have also successfully debunked the myth that Cognac is the drink of choice for old men and aristocrats.

Max and Sophie von Olfers

“Our family roots in Cognac extend back three generations. Our grandparents acquired an agricultural property in the Cognac region — our grandfather also farmed Cognac vineyards,” said Sophie von Olfers. “There are so many things we love about Cognac. We spent every summer in Charente and our cousins and friends would come and visit and we basically lived outside for weeks. The sun only sets around 10pm in the summer, and the nights are mild. We would go for night swims, build tree houses in the woods, go for long walks, and our mother would give us all haircuts in the vineyard behind the house. We would pick blackberries, and of course consume ridiculous amounts of chocolate eclairs. Summer in Cognac was the most peaceful time you can imagine.”

Inspired by a deep personal connection to the region, the von Olfers passion always lay in supporting small, artisanal family run farms and producers. In a category heavily dominated by 4 major brands (Hennessy, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, Martell), their online platform has been able to create an international reach and distribution network for several smaller artisanal Cognacs.

“What we love most are the many artisanal, family-run Cognac houses,” said Sophie. “Since we can remember, friends and neighbors have made Cognac and shared their secrets with us. We have learned from the most experienced farmers, distillers, blenders, and merchants. These people are the very heart and soul of Cognac, they operate on traditions that have been passed down to them for generations. We are both deeply attached to this part of the world, and to Cognac production in particular, which is present in all areas of life here.”

Cognac 101

A global brand from the very beginning, Cognac was originally distilled by the Dutch in the early 1600s, from distillation techniques learned in North Africa via the Middle East. It was eventually refined and claimed by the French. If you are not already familiar with the iconic French spirit, to be called Cognac, it must be from a specific winegrowing region, which is a delineated appellation in western France. The area extends from Aquitaine basin north of Bordeaux and runs south of Pays Nantais Loire and east to the Massif Central foothills.

Cognac is essentially a brandy (eau de vie), distilled from high quality white grapes — usually ugni blanc. It has a unique and distinctive taste, much of it from the terroir, and in particular its chalky, limestone soils.

The wine is distilled in copper tanks, twice. The eau de vie (French for “water of life”) is then aged in oak casks of different sizes, crafted from Troncais or the Limousin forest, for a minimum of two years, but usually much longer. The casks impart unique characteristics, as do the cellars they are stored in. When the eau de vie is matured, it waits in a wicker-covered glass demijohn’s until it eventually forms part of a blend.

The different types of Cognac are divided into a grading system expressed as abbreviations and refer to the aging process before bottling.

  • VS: stands for “very special.” Aged for a minimum of two years. Taste: Citrus -like flavor and lighter, making it good for cocktails.
  • VSOP: stands for “very special old pale.” Aged a minimum of four years Taste: Candied, dried fruit, toffee characteristics.
  • XO: stands for “extra old.” Aged for a minimum of six years. Taste: Flavors and aromas get more complex and pronounced, with hints of dry nuts and even cigar-like qualities.
  • Hors D’age: stands for “beyond.” Aged transcends the usual maturity
    designations and tastes: The added age brings depth and complexity.

Yak and Henny Side by Side with French Savoir Faire

The Cognac image conjures up dark wooden bookcases, plush leather chairs, a wood burning fireplace, cigar puffing gentry in slippers and a comfy robe. Its history and heritage dates back centuries and has survived kings and wars. From Louis XIII to Napoleon, (who’s silhouetted figure graces the label of Courvoisier, rationed French troops with Cognac to boost their moral); and Churchill who signed the WW II peace agreement over a glass of Cognac to Hemmingway who was partial to equal parts Cognac and Benedictine.

The image of old, white and aristocratic however, has been turned on its head. Cognac was the biggest selling spirit in 2018, with a record-breaking year in the U.S. In 2018 according to data from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, 205 million bottles were shipped globally, out pacing the resurgence of gin, vodka and even the beloved agave craze and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. In large part it is thanks to a growing, new millennial audience, faithful rap following and platforms like Cognac Expert. Now the French spirit is deftly trying to juggle heritage and tradition with modern and edgy.

Sophie von Olfers

“We never believed that Cognac was only for old men. It seems this was a branding accident that happened somewhere down the line,” said Sophie. “Cognac is loved by old and young, and it can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Some may prefer a mature blend that is served neat, while others drink their Cognac young and in a mix drink. Cognac will always be a luxury spirit, purely thanks to the amount of time and effort that goes into its making. An XO Cognac, for example, has to be blended with eau de vie that has been aged in oak barrels for at least 10 years. Cognac requires time, and time is luxury.”

When Busta Rhymes belted out, “Pass the Courvoisier,” little did we know what a profound influence it would have on Cognac houses. Courvoisier reported a 50 per cent jump in its American sales. As rap lyrics referenced “yak” – slang for Cogn(yak) – and Henny – slang for Hennessy and mixed it with everything from beer to Coca-Cola, or chugged it straight from crystal canters, Cognac became the official drink of choice for hip hop glitterati along with their fans.

DJ Khaled and Ludacris have rolled out their own Cognac brands; Jay-Z owns shares in trendy label D’USSÉ; Snoop Dogg teamed up with Landy Cognac; Pharrell Williams partnered with Louis XIII to launch the #ifwecare campaign and Quavo recently teamed up with Martell.

“We’ve always said there should be a bronze of Busta Rhymes on the main square in the town of Cognac,” said Sophie. “Old and new don’t contradict each other, in fact, they nourish each other in productive ways. It’s a mistake to think that young, urban people cannot appreciate heritage and history. On the contrary, we find that in this day and age people are longing for tradition.”

Unconventional Moves

“We predicted that Cognac would have its moment,” said Sophie. “Now is indeed a very exciting time for French brandy, it is becoming more and more popular around the globe. Cognac lovers in the US are discovering the spirit and showing great interest in artisanal producers and we believe that Cognac Expert has been been an important contributor to this. After all, we’ve been writing about Cognac for almost ten years now.”

The increased interest in Cognac from a younger market, who is more likely to mix their Cognac in cocktails, has seen established brands making some bold moves. Hennessy, the world’s largest selling brand, launched Hennessy Black, a lighter-tasting cognac designed to mix in cocktails. The opaque-black bottle was launched alongside a digital media campaign and You Tube video with an original theme song, titled “When I Step into the Club” by rapper-DJ-producer Swizz Beatz.

“First of all, many houses have been handed over to the younger generation in recent years. We know many visionary people in the world of Cognac who are really making a difference. They are rebranding their products, targeting new markets, internationalizing, experimenting with ageing methods and getting into organic farming. In short, they are not afraid to come up with unconventional ideas to shake things up.”

A resurged interest in Cognac, along with its versatility and range, has naturally spilled over to the cocktail scene, and mixologists are recreating vintage cocktails along with contemporary ones. Using Cognac as the base, bartenders are introducing Cognac to a new generation of drinkers.

Classics like a Sidecar, where the Cognac is balanced by sweet triple sec and sour lemon, the  New Orleans original, the Sazerac, can be made with Cognac, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters. Sophie’s favorite summer drink is the “Stinger” – a combination of Cognac and white crème de menthe. “It is absolutely delicious and refreshing. Prepare a large quantity in a pitcher for the perfect, no-frills cocktail hour,” said Sophie. Max loves the Mint-Julep au Cognac – simply exchange the Bourbon with Cognac in your preferred recipe.

The Year Ahead for Cognac Lovers

The von Olfers recently released a signature line of limited-edition Cognacs with the purpose of attracting global interest for artisanal Cognac producers. For their latest collaboration – Sélection N° 2 – they selected an EXTRA Cognac, created and specially bottled by Domaine de Birius. “What is unique about Sélection N° 2 is that it is blended from only three vintages and therefore impossible to recreate once it’s gone,” said Sophie. “The Cognac has a distinct, “pure and dry” taste profile, comprised of three outstanding vintages: 1975, 1982, and 1989. Remarkable for a Cognac of its age, Sélection N°2 is characterized by its freshness and is less sweet and fruitier than its precursor, Sélection N° 1. Featuring a round and elegant palate, it boasts only a touch of spice and a dry finish with a hint of smoke, with flavors of pear wine, saffron, pepper, and clove.”

Sélection N° 2

As for what to expect from the year ahead for Cognac Expert. “We will be sourcing more hyper-local, lesser known Cognacs from around the world,” said Max. “We’ll also be giving Master Classes about Cognac, like the Craft Spirits Festival Destille in Berlin and the CognacExpo in Norway. We just relaunched our blog at blog.cognac-expert.com which will include a special cocktail and mixology section. It’s a very young, fresh approach to cocktails with storytelling and features to help choose your Cognac – all quite complex stuff, but it’s also super fun.”

Recipes Courtesy Cognac Expert

The Luda

2oz. Cognac
3 fresh pineapple cubes
3 sprigs thyme
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. simple syrup or 1 tbsp. sugar

Muddle 3 fresh pineapple cubes and 3 sprigs of thyme. Add 2 ounces of Cognac, lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake well, strain over ice and garnish with a sprig of thyme.

Sophie’s Cognac Caipirinha

3 key limes (cut into slices)
2 tsp cane sugar
2 oz. Cognac
Crushed ice

Put all the lime slices in a tumbler glass. Add the sugar. Then take a wooden mortar and juice the limes straight in the glass. The juice of the limes will absorb the sugar, creating a creamy syrup. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Pour the Cognac over the ice, stir and serve.

The Lady Coeur

2 oz. Cognac
1½  oz. fresh orange juice
1 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. rosé vermouth
2 oz. Champagne or sparkling wine

Combined Cognac, fresh orange juice, lemon juice and vermouth in a shaker. Pour into a martini glass and top with Champagne. Sprinkle with cinnamon powder and garnish with an orange peel.

Brass Monkey

2 oz. Cognac
½ oz. Tawny Port
½ oz. Benedictine
½ oz. Fresh orange juice
3 Dashes of orange bitters

Stir all ingredients together in a rocks glass over cubed ice.  Garnish with half a slice of orange.

Colleen Thompson

Colleen Thompson is a writer and photographer whose work has been published worldwide in print and digital media. She loves the art of a crafted cocktail and the storytelling that often accompanies it. She is a qualified wine sommelier and loves wine without pomp and ceremony. If there is a wild beach she’s in her happy place. She can usually be found writing, cooking, foraging and beaching in one of her three favourite places on the planet - Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cape Town, South Africa and Wilmington, North Carolina.

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