Cocktail Hour: Cognac magnificently cures what ails you

The cure for the common cold is one of life's great mysteries.

While this is perhaps not a perfect remedy, a hot toddy has soothed many a poor soul on a cold winter night. A warm cup of brandy mixed with hot water, lemon and honey, is a magical thing.

Brandy and cognac have always been favorites during the chilly winters. Minnesota and Wisconsin drink more brandy per capita than virtually any other state. Certainly their warming and bracing flavors stand out, but also the slightly sweeter taste profile of brandy helps. Minnesota is known in the beverage world as a "sweet state" — sweeter drinks like Moscato, Riesling, rum and brandy are all bigger sellers proportionately here than in other states.

The difference between cognac and brandy can be summed up by the famous phrase, "all cognac is brandy — but not all brandy is cognac."

A cognac must come from the specific Cognac region in France. It must be made from specified grapes, typically Ugni Blanc, distilled twice in copper stills, and aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels. Like good whiskey, the best cognacs are aged for much longer and can be a blend of different ages to get the unique and smooth flavor.


Cognac is definitely a gentleman's drink and can be enjoyed neat in a special snifter. I always have the image of an aristocrat sitting in front of his fireplace, in a smoking jacket, having a cigar and a good cognac. But don't be fooled — cognac is an awesome liquor to use in cocktails also. Brandy Manhattans and Brandy Old Fashioneds are great dinner companions.

The Manhattan is made in a rocks glass with two ounces of cognac, cherry juice, bitters, and a splash of water. The famous Old Fashioned is typically a little sweeter and made by muddling an orange slice, cherries, cherry juice and bitters. Add the cognac and you have a great drink — slightly sweet but delicious.

Top-selling cognacs are Hennessey, Remy Martin and Martell. Cognacs are typically labeled VS, VSOP and XO. VS is Very Special — aged a minimum of two years. VSOP is Very Special Old Pale — youngest cognac blended in is four years with most having much more age. XO is Extra Old, a minimum of six years, but almost always much more!

Other very high and rare grades of cognac are Napoleon, and of course Louis XIII from Remy Martin — only $1,900 per bottle!

American brandy is still the best value out there. Production methods are similar and grape quality is similar to cognacs, but the price is right. A good VSOP brandy can be found for about $12 to $15. They are nice and make excellent cocktails. Try Christian Brothers VSOP for the best everyday American brandy. Other top brands are E&J, Paul Masson and Korbel.

Brandy is distilled throughout the world, but is most well-known in Europe. Top European brands are Stock 84 from Italy, Torres from Spain, and Asbach Uralt from Germany. I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite Greek Brandy. Metaxa 7-Star is great quality liquor made similar to cognac, but slightly sweeter and with a more rich mouth feel. Try it sometime for the smoothest after-dinner liquor around!

During the cold winter months, try a brandy or cognac cocktail to help you warm up. You will feel better and your taste buds will appreciate you. You may even discover the ancient cure we have all been looking for!

Ari Kolas is co-owner of Apollo Wine & Spirits. To contribute to Cocktail Hour, send email to

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