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.
Bullock, 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.
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. 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!
Crustas were a fancy twist on the basic cocktail created by Joseph Santini, who opened the Jewel of the South saloon in 1852 on Gravier Street in New Orleans. Simply a plain cocktail--cognac, sugar and bitters--with a little orange curacao and lemon juice added and served in a glass whose rim has been crusted in sugar (hence the name "crusta"), it is nonetheless a most delightful drink. Many authorities on the history of drinks believe it is the progenitor of the mighty Sidecar.
- 1 oz VSOP Cognac
- 1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 oz Orange Curacao
- 1 dash bitters
- 1 dash simple syrup
Serve in a London dock glass with a sugared rim and the broad peel of lemon in the mouth of the glass.
The Sidecar is our legacy from the Crusta although the 20th century chapter to the story is poorly documented. Harry's New York Bar claims credit for the Sidecar but Colin Field, the head bartender at the Ritz Hotel's Hemingway bar in Paris is convinced his predecessor Frank Meier, Hemingway's legendary Barman in the early days of the Ritz created the drink sometime in 1923, but there is no documentation to prove his claim. The single bit of evidence we have in print is the 1922, book by Robert of the Embassy bar in London called Cocktails-How to Mix Them, in it the drink is credited to a barman named MacGarry at the Bucks Club in London.
- 1 1/2 oz VSOP Cognac
- 1 oz Triple Sec
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and strain into a small cocktail glass with a lightly sugared rim, Garnish with a small flamed orange zest.
- 1 1/2 oz Cognac
- 1 1/2 oz pineapple juice
- 1 oz orange curacao
- 1 dash Angostura Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of orange and dust with freshly grated nutmeg.
19th century specialty drink. from Jerry Thomas' The Bartender's Guide– How To Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks Dick & Fitzgerald Publ. 1887.
- 1 oz Cognac
- 1 oz Ruby Port
- 1 small egg
- 1/2 tsp sugar
Shake all ingredients with ice well and strain into a Port glass, dust with nutmeg.
Created at Harry's Bar in Paris around World War I and named after a French 75mm artillery piece. In the 19th century, Frappes were considered "Lady's drinks". This recipe originally called for gin, but it has become more popular with Cognac.
- 1 oz (30ml) Cognac
- 3/4 oz (25ml) simple syrup
- 1/2 oz (15ml) fresh lemon juice
- 3 ounces Champagne
Shake the Cognac, lemon juice and simple syrup well with ice and strain into an ice filled wine glass and top with Champagne. Garnish with lemon peel.
Master Mixologist Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, developed his extraordinary techniques and talent tending bar at great establishments, most notably, New York's famous Rainbow Room, where in the late 1980's he pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating the great classic cocktails. Universally acknowledged as one of the world's premier mixologists whose innovations have globally impacted the industry, DeGroff has been credited with reinventing the profession of bartending and setting off the cocktail explosion that continues to transform the industry.
Industry awards include: the 2009 James Beard Wine & Spirits Professional Award, the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from Nightclub & Bar Magazine, 2008 TOTC Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2007 Cheers Beverage Industry Innovator of the Year with his partners, for Beverage Alcohol Resource. DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail (Random House), winner of the 2009 Spirit Awards, and The Craft of the Cocktail (Random House), winner of the 2002 IACP Julia Child Award. He is also the founding President of The Museum of the American Cocktail, a non-profit museum with an exhibit in New Orleans that celebrates 200 years of the rich history of the cocktail.