Cognac has a reputation of being an outdated spirit of choice, reminiscent of our Daddy’s generation. “XO”, anyone? Seriously, I’ve always only seen brandy being swished around in a short glass, which was in turn always tightly gripped by some manly hand. I vaguely recall being fed from said glass, beginning four years old. I also vaguely recall the liquid brooding in a short and stout round bottle, like this:
So what’s this? Cognac is actually a type of brandy produced in the Cognac region, much like how champagne is a sparkling wine produced in the region of Champagne. The famed “XO” (and its unfortunate “Uncle image”) etched in our minds actually refers to the number of years the cognac has been aged in a cask – 20 years or more for XO. The other familiar term, “VSOP”, refers to cognac that has been aged in a cask for at least 4 years.
I didn’t know these technical terms (oops, pardon my ignorance) until I attended the Remy Martin Cocktail Masterclass. Honestly, I raised my eyebrows when I saw the invitation to this event. Cognac-based cocktails?? Definitely new to me, neither my first choice nor even an intuitive choice at a cocktail bar. Sounds like a 50 year old uncle trying to fit in at Butter Factory. But if they pull it off, using cognac in cocktails will be an ingenious way of revolutionizing the image of cognac amongst the younger generation, I thought. Perhaps a ploy to sustain the market demand for cognac.
Well, it turns out that this concept isn’t that ingenious – or I was plainly uninformed. According to Laurent, the Asia Pacific Marketing Manager for Remy Cointreau, the use of cognac in cocktails has been going on for years in America, and more recently catching up in Europe. And with this Masterclass, it appears that SG and the rest of Asia will be hopping onto the bandwagon soon enough.
To further debunk the myth that cognac is a stodgy, old, classic spirit, we find out that the Cognac region just welcomed its first ever female Cellar Master, Pierrette Trichet. Talk about progressive. Cellar Masters play a pivotal role in the production of cognac – they decide the recipe of the final blend of eau de vie, which forms the foundation and essence of every bottle of cognac.
Pierrette Trichet is the “nose” of the House of Remy Martin, the “boss” of the tasting committee. Every year, the eau de vie differs, depending on the soil conditions, acidity of the grapes, etc. The exclusive tasting committee first harnesses the appropriate eau de vie. Pierrette is then entrusted with the final step, the immense responsibility of blending a eau de vie which will taste the same as the eau de vie that has come before. She works alone, rewriting recipes every year to obtain a consistent taste, perpetuating the style of Remy Martin. What drives her? “The spirit of excellence, a hallmark of the house of Remy Martin,” she says, smiling warmly at us.
For someone with such an impressive background, Pierrette is amazingly down-to-earth and incredibly warm and nice. When her introduction was over, she extended a welcoming arm, ushering us to the main bar area for the cocktail masterclass. I was also the lucky subject of one or two of her warm indulgent smiles throughout the course of the afternoon.
So how does the ‘Uncle’ fare amongst us hip and happening young things? Amazingly well, as mixologist Anthony Zhong from Jigger & Pony demonstrates. The Regent Punch, as welcome drink, started us off on a very happy note.
After walking a distance in the humid afternoon heat to get to Jigger & Pony, this was just the right drink to perk us up. The main elements were freshly brewed green tea, VSOP cognac, and champagne, served in a pretty crystal punch cup. Perhaps Anthony wanted to ease us into the afternoon with a familiar taste – cognac and green tea – which was given a sophisticated lift with the fizzy soda and champagne, and pleasantly sweetened by dry sherry.
Later we gathered and sat around the bar to watch Anthony create some cognac magic. Anthony was a charming mixologist, engaging us in conversation whilst expertly mixing up the drinks. Difficult multi-tasking feat, if you ask me – breaking the ice, easing the awkwardness, introducing the cocktails, all whilst ensuring that the exact proportions of each ingredient goes into the shaker.
The first drink was the Side Car. “For the ladies”, says Anthony. This is a classic cocktail, made with 6 parts cognac, 1 part cointreau, and 1 part lemonade. Anthony waved pieces of lemon skin over the glasses, bending and breaking them, gently perfuming the glasses just before they were served. The ladies were first hit by the saccharine fragrance from the fresh lemon zest, right before our first sip revealed a very sweet cocktail (due to the lemonade). The citrusy and sweet flavours transformed the earthy, dark cognac into a playful, flirty drink. The cognac delivered a punch with its heavy body, lowering its bimbo factor. Happy drink!
Next up we had the Kinship, a cognac cocktail specially crafted by Anthony.
This was a “digestif for the gentlemen”, mostly because it was stronger and had more robust flavours. The Kinship is an intense mix of VSOP cognac, sweet vermouth, cointreau, torched cinnamon powder and torched orange peel.
The torched cinnamon powder brought out the vegetal and darker aromas of the cognac. It was a lovely contrast to the cognac’s caramel and vanilla notes. Just before serving the drink, Anthony bent the orange peel, spraying the ethers into the flame of a lighter, causing a mini-explosion of sparks. Very impressive!
I understood why the drink was supposedly for the men. It was a severe drink… Cognac is used in cocktails for its heavy body – and true enough, Kinship came in, sat in my mouth, and refused to leave. Not that I’m complaining. Anthony’s choice of Cointreau over other triple secs (Cointreau is drier) also upped the potency of Kinship and lent it a more robust orange flavour. Add to that the raw and organic vegetal aromas from the cinnamon and cognac, complete with a heady, lingering finish… Mmm. Strong, dark, deep. Very sexy and yummy.
Alas, we have come upon the last drink of the afternoon. Anthony arranged champagne flutes in a line (ooh yay bubbly??), dropping in sugar cubes drizzled with Angostura Bitters. Curious sight.
Next, he soaked the sugar cubes with VSOP cognac, then topped them up with Piper Hiedsick champagne (!!).
What better way to end the afternoon than with bubbly? I thought the champagne took centre-stage for this cocktail though – perhaps because the cocktail wasn’t stirred, and I could only taste the top portion of it. The cognac and the bitters took a backseat, adding body and a very slight hint of licorice – probably dissolved and released from all the bubbly action.
I got curious about the Angostura Bitters, cos I’ve never tried it in a cocktail before. Anthony kindly poured me a small sample to smell and taste. All I gathered were its herbal, spicy, licorice notes. Pierrette sneaked up behind me, curious as well, and started sniffing my glass of Angostura Bitters. Clearly her nose could pick up a lot more interesting notes than mine did, cos after the Angostura bitters she immediately went behind the counter to seek out (sniff out) the other exotic bitters in Anthony’s well-stocked collection.
Anthony started pulling off bottle after bottle of bitters off the shelves, offering them to Pierrette. The two stars of the day stood together, discussing alcohol intensely. Everybody slipped into reporter mode. Cue camera clicks.
Laurent said “Pierrette looks like a happy kid in a candy shop”. Hahaha. So true.
Pierrette looked very comfortable and at ease behind the bar counter, doing what she did best – smelling and tasting, surveying the varieties of bitters Anthony offered to her.
As the two connoisseurs bantered on, the rest of us broke up into small groups, chit-chatting the afternoon away. By this time the alcohol kicked in, and the conversation flowed easily. I mean, three cocktails, loose lips yo. The kitchen started serving up wonderful tapa to go with the cocktails – perhaps to line our stomachs and to prevent embarrassing behaviour arising from our drunkenness.
The tomato bruschetta was savoury heaven. The sweetpea mash and olive tapenade were executed very well too. These tapa are served free during aperitivo hours at Jigger & Pony, 6-8pm, Mon-Sat, along with any cocktail order.
So, how did Uncle fare? I think he deserves a new lease of life, and to be accepted amongst us young things. I’m definitely gonna head back to Jigger and Pony for their cognac cocktails soon.
Jigger and Pony
101 Amoy Street