Cognac & the foundation of mixology


Imagine, if you can, a world without cocktails. And not just cocktails—no fizzes, no sours, no slings; no juleps, crustas or daisies. Not even a highball. Impossible, no? And yet, at the beginning of the 1600s, although distilled spirits had been in general use in Europe for at least 200 years, there was still no generally accepted way to mix them into a palatable drink. About all that you could get was a shot of your “aqua vitae”—“water of life,” the generic Latin term for distilled wine, beer, or anything else—poured into a glass of wine or a mug of beer. But then English sailors, in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from home and completely out of beer and wine, figured out that if you took a portion of this aqua vitae, added some lime juice to brighten it up, balanced it with a little sugar, watered the whole thing down to take out the burn and spiced it up with a scraping or two of nutmeg or a splash of rosewater, suddenly you had something very much worth drinking.


That crucial discovery took place around 1620. At first, “punch,” as this new drink came to be called, remained a sailor’s drink, one that was generally made with whatever spirits were available in tropical ports of call—palm-sap or sugarcane arrack in the East, raw rum in the Caribbean. By 1670, though, this improvised beverage had found a home in England itself. It wasn’t easy: punch was too costly for the humble alehouses where most of the common people drank, and too newfangled and industrial for the taverns frequented by the wine-drinking gentry. But in towns like London, Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh, examples of a new, third kind of drinking establishment were popping up.


img1These coffeehouses, as they were called, sold coffee, of course, but they also needed something for when people wanted something a little stronger than the “soot-coloured ninny broth,” as one critic of the day termed it, that was their main stock in trade, and punch was perfect. Coffeehouses were modern establishments, places for people to gather, read newspapers (another novelty of the age) and talk about politics, religion and every other topic under the sun. Punch fit right in: put a bowl of it in the middle of the table and conversation would flow far into the night.

Of course, some changes had to be made. The sailors’ version of punch was based on ingredients that were cheap and available—in Asia and the Caribbean; in England, arrack and, for a time, rum were exotic spirits, and limes were simply unavailable. The latter were easily replaced by lemons, imported from Portugal, or sour Spanish oranges. For the spirits, there was French brandy. Cognac, if you could get it. As one English physician of the day claimed, punch properly made with “choice brandy”—i.e., cognac—“cheers the Heart, and revives the Spirits beyond any other Liquor.” What’s more, drunk moderately, it “helps Digestion, restores lost Appetite, and makes the Body profoundly Healthful, and able to resist the Assaults of all Diseases.” Indeed many sophisticated drinkers, the celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift among them, far preferred the smooth, rich Cognac version of punch to the funkier, more assertive arrack and rum versions.


By the middle of the eighteenth century, with the aid of men like James Ashley, who ran London’s most famous punch-house and became the world’s first celebrity mixologist, a bowl of punch made with Cognac and perhaps a splash of Jamaican rum for extra bouquet represented the state of the art in fancy drinking. It didn’t hurt that Ashley bought his Cognac directly from the docks, getting it before it could be adulterated or diluted.

Nor was Cognac punch reserved for the gentry: even a relative nonentity such as the small-town Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, who kept a meticulous diary in the 1760s, could occasionally indulge in “an agreeable bowl” of it (it helped that he got his brandy from his friend the local excise officer, who had the advantage of confiscated smuggled goods). Over the next decades, Cognac punch would move up and down the social ladder by a few rungs, depending on the state of Britain’s relations with France. When cannon and bayonet did the talking, Cognac climbed out of reach of the aspirational classes.At other times, you would have scenes like Bob Sawyer’s little bachelor’s party in the Pickwick Papers, complete with mismatched glassware,img2 jugs of warm Brandy Punch and a long-unpaid landlady who cuts off the hot water supply just when it’s most needed.

Whether fueled with Cognac or arrack, rum, whiskey or gin, in England, America and much of Europe punch had become the social beverage of choice, and in its heyday—from the early 1700s to the middle of the next century—evenings without number were spent clustered around the flowing bowl, talking, singing, laughing (and, of course, sometimes shouting, shoving and brawling). Punch was the foundation of modern mixology, and Cognac was there almost from the very beginning.

American Drinks

By Dickens’s time, however, there were other fun things you could do with Cognac. If punch had a fault, it was the difficulty of obtaining fresh citrus fruit all year round, particularly in remote areas. Everything else—the Cognac, the sugar, the water, the spices—was easy enough to transport and keep around. In Scotland and Ireland, drinkers learned to get by with merely a little lemon peel for their punch. In the backwoods of America, even that proved too difficult to get. But what if, instead of flavoring your liquor, sugar and water with lemon, you used the mint that grew wild instead? Or a few dashes of “bitters”—a medicinal infusion of spices, barks, roots, herbs and flowers?


By 1820, American tipplers had so taken to the mint julep and the cocktail, as these new drinks were known, that even with improved supplies of citrus they didn’t go away. Indeed, American bartenders such as Orasmus Willard of New York’s City Hotel (the first American celebrity mixologist) took the bowl of punch and shrank it down to single-serving size, so that it could take its place next to them in the new country’s busy barrooms. Americans, you see, did not drink at leisure. It was in and out; drink up and get back to work. That didn’t mean that their palates were unsophisticated, though.

img4At first, in the hard years that followed the Revolution, American drinkers based their juleps, cocktails and glasses of punch on the raw, native whiskey or rum from the Caribbean. But by 1820, as the country was becoming more prosperous, the spirit of choice for all three drinks was imported French brandy. Cognac, to be specific; the best of the best. (Although, it must be conceded, in the case of the cocktail imported Dutch gin came in a close second.)


img3In the years before the American Civil War, the Cognac-based mint julep was considered the height of the bartender’s art. In the hands of an expert like Willard or George Vennigerholtz of the famous Mansion House, Natchez, Mississippi, it was a seductive mixture of rich brandy, fine wines (Madeira, Bordeaux and various ports and sherries were all used), sugar, and, of course, copious amounts of ice, topped with architecturally-arranged thickets of mint, berries of the season, pieces of lemon and powdered sugar. Drunk through a straw in the American way, such a julep was something to be remembered until one’s dying day.


As America grew richer and more populous, however, people had less time for such delights. The julep grew simpler in preparation (although not until the end of the century did Bourbon whiskey replace Cognac as the spirit of choice) and the cocktail—a quick, simple drink to prepare and yet a delightful one to consume—took its place as the iconic American drink. In 1862, a former sailor, theatrical producer and all-around sport, now head bartender at New York’s luxurious Metropolitan Hotel, published the first book that detailed the new American school of drinking. Jerry Thomas’s Bar Tenders Guide was a watershed: after it, and with its aid, the cocktails, sours, juleps (nothing more than a simple, iced punch in a small glass) and all their other kin would belong not just to America, but to the world img5(indeed, by 1900 editions and imitations of his book had appeared in England, France, Germany and several other countries, even including Australia).

Among the many recipes for brandy drinks—in his saloon, the only brandies Thomas stocked were twenty- and thirty-year-old Cognacs—were the now-standard mint julep and brandy cocktail, but also such novelties as the brandy crusta, a New Orleans variation on the cocktail that added liqueur and lemon juice to the normal brandy, sugar and bitters, and the brandy smash, which was a sort of quick-and-easy, shaken variation on the julep. Cognac featured in another of the Crescent City’s famed cocktails; the Sazerac, named after a popular Cognac brand of the day, Sazerac de Forge etFils.


Over the next few decades, until Prohibition brought things to a screeching halt in 1919, American bartenders led by gents such as Harry Johnson and William Schmidt of New York, Bill Boothby of San Francisco and Henry Ramos of New Orleans, worked to refine the mixologist’s art, developing new formulae, incorporating a host of new ingredients and techniques and essentially perfecting the cocktail as we know it today. Throughout, Cognac was one of the key building blocks of the bar. Indeed, the bar at New York’s Hoffman House, reputed to be the best in the country, was famous for, among other things, the age and quality of its Cognac, which it sold at the unheard-of price of a dollar a glass.


The Cognac Cocktail Story Continues

Doctor David Wondrich, our Historical Oracle, has demonstrated the important role Cognac played in the 19th century mixed drinks…in fact all cocktails were based on one of the triumvirate of brandy, whiskey or gin. Almost from the beginning Cognac found markets well beyond the shores of France. A quick look at cocktail books in the 19th and the 20th century bears out the importance of Cognac in mixed drinks.
Pioneers of the cocktail recipe book like Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson call for brandy in nearly a third of the recipes in their groundbreaking books. Looking forward to one of the first important cocktail books of the 20th century, Tom Bullock’s Ideal Bartender, we find brandy cocktails continue to play important roles.


img7Bullock, a black man born in 1873, distinguished himself on many counts not the least of which was in overcoming an impenetrable wall of white dominance by publishing, The Ideal Bartender, in 1917. Bullock, who died in 1964 only nine years short of a century, was at the summit of his profession when he published his classic recipe book.
Bullock embraced Cognac from the beginning of his career with his Abricontine (Apricot Liqueur) Pousse Café of Apricot, Maraschino, Curacao, Chartreuse and Cognac. He was a proponent of Cognac as a dash for accent in glasses of Punches, Champagne Sours and cocktails, a tradition that has traction in today’s cocktail revival.


The return of punch as a bar drink has Bullock well placed for a serious comeback. Bullock’s use of Cognac in punches is his most interesting contribution. His full-bore punches in a bowl as well as his punches in a glass, like the Doray Punch and Boating Punch, use Cognac as an anchor with wonderful mixes of juices, wines and cordials.
Bullock was a conduit from the 19th to 20th century for Brandy cocktails. We find the 19th century classics like the Crusta, Coffee Cocktail and the original Brandy Cocktail side by side with the Brandy Highballs destined to become a signature of the 20th century bar. The unfortunate timing of the release of the book just a few short years before Prohibition lessened what should have been a considerable impact on the craft.


img9 By the end of the 19th century the world was becoming a much smaller place with the growth of international business and the birth of the multinational corporation. Nowhere was this more prevalent than the cities of London and Paris. The American cocktail found a small but enthusiastic crowd of admirers in these two international cities.
At the turn of the 19th century the party was in high gear in the big urban centers of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans. Cognac cocktails reigned in the after dinner category with the infamous Stinger and the Coffee Cocktail. And it is instructive to remember that this was the pre-income tax era: the big robber barons still held sway, and the Champagne and Cognac flowed like water.

The rural states on the other hand were firmly controlled by the temperance movement and especially by the ASL (Anti-Saloon League). By 1915 well over half those states had voted dry and in many other states de-facto prohibition existed in many counties.

We all know the long list of problems created by Prohibition but in an unexpected turn Prohibition also enriched the cocktail culture. World War 1 and Prohibition in the United States supercharged the growth of the American cocktail overseas and indeed the “American Bar” which seemed to appear in the Grand hotels all over Europe almost overnight. Many of these cocktails employed local favorites like Champagne and Cognac.

American barmen like Harry Craddock and Harry MacElhone received a warm reception in Europe, and set up shop in high-end hotel and club bars, becoming the rage of the spending class and widely imitated by their European counterparts.img10 Several classic cocktails that we enjoy today emerged while the cocktail was in exile. One of these was the Sidecar, which finds its antecedent in Santini’s mid-19th century New Orleans’s classic, the Brandy Crusta, and the Sidecar is enjoying a huge comeback in today’s cocktail revival movement. The Sidecar has its own variations such as Between the Sheets, popular again today in the retro bar scene.

The Highball came on the scene in the beginning of the 20th century, but it really came into its own post prohibition. The lack of skilled labor behind the bar ushered in the growing popularity of such a simple concoction as the highball. Cognac and soda was the iconic highball of the early 20th century. I remember reading Hemingway as a young man and imitating all the things he drank; I imagined myself sitting in a Left Bank coffee house sipping on Cognac and soda!

The Crusta cocktail was not the only 19th century recipe to inspire the European barmen, the lowly sour started keeping fancy company when it hooked up with Champagne in the French 75 and later with Cognac when this gin cocktail morphed into a Cognac variation.

The new Millennium fueled a burst of interest in special bottlings of Cognac. I paid tribute to this exciting period with a drink I called The Milennium – my variation on the East India Cocktail, a classic from the 19th century. We truly have entered a new Golden Age of the Cocktail and Cognac continues to play a large role in today’s modern cocktails!

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