While driving through the quiet hills of Champagne, in the Northeast of France, an area with more wine grapes than people (a guess), the conversation turned to our favorite cocktails —a strange topic for this part of the country, it seemed. I responded, as I always do, with praise for the “Old Fashioned,” my go-to cocktail. That answer was met with excitement from Rémy Martin’s International Ambassador, Thierry Arnold, the man showing us where the brand’s Cognac begins its life. A colleague’s mention of a Sazerac was met with equal delight.
The reason, I was told, is, whiskey-based cocktails work exceptionally well with Cognac in place of bourbon or rye.
Yeah… I was skeptical, too.
It’s a distinctly bold idea, especially for American audiences, ones who have turned to whiskey in droves over the last few years and who have seen a classic cocktail renaissance propelled by the spirit. There is a bit of logic here, though. Rémy Martin’s array of Cognacs offer complexity and different dominant characteristics throughout the lineup. And whereas whiskey is made with grains like barley, corn, and wheat, things that should taste the same no matter where they’re grown as long as conditions are right, cognac is made from grapes. Not just any grapes, mind you; Rémy Martin, like all Cognac, is made from grapes from the Cognac region, as is required by the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) for anything labeled “Cognac,” and such grapes are prized for their aromatic qualities, which, in turn, give your cocktails new character. That said, it’s not a completely foreign taste, which is why all this makes sense. Cognac still boasts those oak barrel characteristics whiskey-based cocktails demand, as Rémy Martin expressions spend varying amounts of time resting in casks. In other words, it’s not like you’re subbing Maker’s Mark for Ketel One.
My first taste of such a cocktail came shortly before we attended the Cannes Film Festival, the event Rémy Martin invited us to attend. The brand is the official sponsor of the festival, though you wouldn’t know it there, as French laws make it very difficult to advertise alcohol and associating it with anything fun is a big no-no. So you can sponsor the festival but you can’t say you’re sponsoring the festival. Maybe that’s why there’s such a focus on the United States. The French don’t really drink Cognac, and Rémy Martin would have a hell of a time convincing them to. Having grown up in the States, I can tell you Cognac has long been viewed as a unique spirit. It saw a surge in popularity with hip-hop fans in the mid-90s, with rappers like The Notorious B.I.G. name-dropping the brand in songs. But while it sold well—and still does—in corner bodegas in Oakland, California, it also found a home as an elegant after-dinner sipper, especially expressions like XO. Lots of people have, and do, enjoy Rémy—only most never build a mixed drink around it. That should change.
That first cocktail I had, by the way? A Rémy Ginger, a summer-friendly drink that’s a lot like the Whiskey and Ginger you probably know. It’s Rémy Martin VSOP, ginger ale or ginger beer, and lime. That’s it. If you think brown spirits and sunshine go together like Drake and Pusha-T, whip yourself up one of these and expand your mind. The fruitiness of Rémy VSOP actually lends itself better to this drink than the Irish whiskey traditionally used, at least in my opinion, especially when you consider the booze in this drink always plays second fiddle to the ginger-forward mixer, and the fruit notes actually pull the VSOP a little more to the surface.
After enjoying a few Rémy Gingers and taking in a screening of Spike Lee’s forthcoming BlacKkKlansman, we retreated to a small club a few blocks from the marina, where we sipped on other Cognac cocktails. A Sidecar wasn’t a surprise, as it’s always made with Cognac, but trying my first ever Rémy Martin Old Fashioned was. It felt blasphemous at first, like I was enjoying a cover of a song more than the original. But this was like Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Sure the original is damn near perfect, but it doesn’t close the door on experimentation, and sometimes those experiments yield equally impressive results. The Old Fashioned had the sweet orange profile I love, only it also had notes of dark fruit and an elongated finish; it tasted similar yet very new. While we sipped on Old Fashioneds made with Rémy Martin XO, an uber-complex offering that will set you back over a hundred bucks a bottle, I think you can achieve nearly as impressive results using a personal fave, Rémy Martin 1738, a Cognac that acts as a delicious gateway for bourbon lovers. It exists, in my mind, as somewhat of a bourbon-y Cognac, with a distinct smoothness and loads of caramel and toffee. If you’re on the fence about swapping out whiskey for Cognac, I recommend starting with some 1738.
So what other drinks work well with Rémy? The Sazerac mentioned at the beginning is an obvious choice, as it began its life as a brandy-based cocktail and it’s somewhat similar to an Old Fashioned. Then there’s the Mint Julep, a drink I’ve yet to try with Cognac but one that actually excites me more than others after trying a ginger-forward drink in Cannes. Once the weather starts to cool, try your hand at a Hot Toddy with the aforementioned 1738. You can dig through the collection of cocktails listed here to get a better idea of the versatility of the spirit, and you might even see your favorite mixed drink listed. I did, and I’m not sure I can go back.