Behind the Bar: Cognac Cocktails

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If you were a bartender at the beginning of the 19th century, you basically had three spirits to choose from: brandy, whiskey or gin. Nearly all early cocktails were based on that triumvirate.

Brandy, in particular French cognac, was extremely popular in America when the cocktail was first created. And while many people today consider it a sipping liquor, it was then primarily used in mixed drinks. Pioneering mixologists Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson call for brandy in nearly a third of the recipes featured in their groundbreaking books. Those primordial cognac cocktails were straightforward, as was the style of the day, and usually included bitters, Curaçao, gum syrup and, later, perhaps a splash of absinthe.

Fast forward to the early 1900s, and the party was in high gear in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans. The cognac-based Stinger and Coffee Cocktail were the after-dinner tipples of choice.

While Prohibition dampened the festivities, the infamous dry period ironically helped spur the growth of American mixology overseas. As top bartenders fled to Europe to run bars in grand hotels across the continent, cognac concoctions like the Sidecar and the French 75 became ubiquitous.

These classics are, of course, still favorites of modern drinkers. One reason for the enduring popularity of cognac libations is that the spirit mixes so well with fruit. I had great success with them during my tenure at the Rainbow Room. In fact, two of my original recipes, the Millennium and Ritz cocktails, never came off the menu.

Millennium Cocktail

Contributed by Dale DeGroff

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1.5 oz Cognac
  • 1.5 oz Pineapple juice
  • 1 oz Orange Curaçao
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • Garnish: Orange twist and freshly grated nutmeg
  • Glass: Martini

PREPARATION:

Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with a twist of orange and dust with freshly grated nutmeg.

Ritz Cocktail

Contributed by Dale DeGroff

INGREDIENTS:

  • .75 oz Cognac
  • .5 oz Cointreau
  • .25 oz Maraschino liqueur
  • .25 oz Fresh lemon juice
  • Champagne
  • Garnish: Flamed orange peel
  • Glass: Martini

PREPARATION:

Add all the ingredients except the Champagne to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a Martini glass. Fill with Champagne and garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Master mixologist Dale DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. He is also a Liquor.com advisor.

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