Can a Spirit be Too Good for a Cocktail?

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a tasting event hosted by Remy Martin cognac. Cocktails were provided featuring their VSOP cognac but the star of the show was their Coeur de Cognac, which was available to taste neat or with an ice cube. When I questioned why Coeur de Cognac wasn’t being showcased in the cocktails as well I received a familiar reply, ‘it’s too refined to be mixed in a cocktail, it should be enjoyed as it is’.
It’s not unusual for a producer to take great pride in the premium products that they have created, or to turn their noses up at the idea that you want to adulterate them by putting them in a cocktail, but when is a spirit too good to be used in a mixed drink? I think there are two schools of thought on that subject.
For some, a beautifully crafted and carefully matured spirit is seen as being perfect just the way it is and should be celebrated in all its natural glory untainted by other flavours. I can see this point of view, and as a man who enjoys a neat spirit from time-to-time myself I can well appreciate the beauty of a well-made product. There is a flip side to that coin however, and as a cocktail enthusiast I always think that trying to achieve the best representation of a particular cocktail often involves using a more premium base spirit.
In my opinion there are many classic cocktails that celebrate the spirit used in them by allowing a few simple ingredients to enhance them. The Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Manhattan, El Presidente and Martini for example are cocktails that let the base spirit shine through. So when I’m drinking a classic such as these can the base spirit really be ‘too good’ for mixing? I guess it’s a matter of perspective.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that every cocktail should be made with the most expensive and rare ingredients available. But on occasion, in the right bar with the right bartender stirring up drinks, choosing a more exclusive base spirit in a drink that will let it shine, can make for a memorable drinking experience. For Example:


50ml Remy Martin Coeur de Cognac
25ml Beefeater Crown Jewel
10ml Lillet Blanc
2 dashes Bitter Truth Orange Bitters 
1 dash absinthe
Stir all ingredients with cracked or cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe, finishing of with a small orange twist.
I remember one night at LAB several years back having a rum sazerac made for me using Havana Club 15 year old rum and Martell Cordon Bleu cognac. The memory of sipping that beautifully balanced and elegant drink still brings a smile to my face. The complexity of flavours that those two fine spirits brought to the drink made it by far and away the best sazerac I have ever tasted. Using less expensive ingredients would still have yielded a damn good cocktail, but it wouldn’t have been as good and I wouldn’t be writing about it today!
Having tasted Coeur de Cognac neat, I can appreciate why it’s producer would suggest it should be savoured just the way it comes out of the bottle. It is undoubtedly a fine spirit. It is complex, with orchard fruit aromas and a delicate pear flavour that dances over rich caramel tones, a hint of spice and a delicate dry wood note. There is no doubt that sipping it neat is a great way to enjoy it, but for me as a confirmed cocktail geek, sipping it made me think about all the great cocktails that would be enhanced by using it in place of a younger, less complex cognac. A simple drink such as the Brandy Old Fashioned is undoubtedly better when made with a fine cognac:


60ml Remy Martin Coeur de Cognac
1 level barspoon white sugar
1 dash peach bitters 
1 dash Angostura bitters 
In an Old Fashioned glass add the sugar and bitters and a tiny splash of water then crush the sugar down to dissolve it. Add 3 ice cubes and about 20ml of the cognac and stir for a little while until the ice cubes are starting to melt, then add more ice and a further 20ml of cognac and repeat before filling the glass with more ice and the last of the cognac and giving it one last brief stir. Finish it off with a lemon twist.
I’m sure the debate will continue as to whether a spirit can be ‘too good’ to be used in a cocktail and I suppose everyone draws their own line as to which spirits they will or won’t combine with other ingredients. For me it comes down to individual products and to tasting them neat. Only once I have tasted them and got a feel for their flavour profile will I think about whether or not to use them in a cocktail. Are they so refined that they won’t stand up to other flavours? Do they offer a complexity that might enhance a favourite drink of mine? Are they too expensive for me to justify experimenting with them?
Of course there was one way to settle this dilema with Coeur de Cognac once and for all, and that was to mix up a cocktail using both VSOP and Coeur de Cognac and do a direct comparison. So setting about making two Corpse Reviver No.1s from Trader Vics bartender’s guide I did a comparative tasting and found that it was undoubtedly more refined and complex using the more premium cognac:


30ml Remy Martin Coeur de Cognac
15ml calvados
15ml sweet vermouth
Stir all ingredients with cracked or cubed ice and strain into a small chilled coupe or cocktail glass and twist a small lemon peel over the top.

I guess it’s down to personal preference, but to my mind when it comes to spirits and cocktails I fall in favour of using the best ingredients you can but treating them with a gentle touch so that the base spirit is still allowed to shine. 




To put things in perspective

To put things in perspective in terms of Cognac, most of it in France (particularly the vast majority of all the VS and VSOP) is drank with Coca Cola according to Alain Royer. He also commented that he’s seen celebrities do the same with XO as a status symbol.

Definitely good booze has a place in cocktails especially when finances allow. Some prosper from it, and some suffer — especially those that were developed with harsher ingredients. Prohibition-era drinks, like the 12 Mile Limit, and others like the Caipirinha are lesser drinks with too refined of a spirit.

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