Everyone knows cognac, which has traditionally been respected as a higher-end straight sip and cocktail component. But try finding cognac in a Chicago bar and you may have a harder time than you might think. There are reasons for that.
The United States accounts for the highest percentage of cognac consumed worldwide, but a lot of this consumption likely takes place at home rather than in a bar or restaurant. Check just about any cocktail menu at any local bar or restaurant: you probably won’t find cognac listed as an ingredient.
The drinks menu at Mordecai, Eater Chicago’s 2018 bar of the year, lists tequila, vodka and bourbon cocktails, but no cognac variations. Ditto Scofflaw, The Bandit, Bokeh. We checked cocktail menus at high-volume places like Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse and Shaw’s Crab House, and at these places, too, there were no cognac cocktails to be found on their menus. No doubt, you could have the bartender make you a classic Sazerac —believed to be America’s first cocktail—or other cognac-forward cocktail, but such drinks don’t seem to be perceived as popular enough to put on the menu… which is odd.
“Cognac is a heavily underrated spirit. Its flavor characteristics stand out in ways that vodka [America’s bestselling spirit] can’t, and it runs neck-and-neck with bourbon for complexity,” bartender Neko Harris at The Dawson (730 West Grand) tells us. “Cognac’s refreshing notes of apple, caramel and its subtle sweetness make for some amazing cocktails as well as standalone sippers.”
Mark Phelan, bar manager at Revival Café-Bar in Revival Food Hall (125 South Clark) explains that cognac sales suffer, at least in part, because of bourbon’s popularity. “Bourbon is so popular,” Phelan says, “that it’s hard to get people to move away from that. However, old bourbons and Scotch flatten out after a certain number of years; they might even taste worse than a younger one. Cognac, on the other hand, has impressed us with the nuance and the number of layers it can have. It expands as it gets older. Still, it’s a category that not many people are carrying.”
Perhaps the reason why many bars in Chicago don’t have cognac cocktails on their menus is that the stuff is often more expensive than other dark spirits. “Making alcohol out of grapes is fundamentally more expensive than making it out of grain or sugarcane,” says Alex Schmaling, head bartender at Beacon Tavern (405 North Wabash), “so the entry-level price on any brandy is simply higher. There are some newer cognac brands priced affordably for cocktail menus, and as a result, I think we’re already seeing more cognac on menus.”
At Revival Food Hall, Phelan serves cocktails inspired by Chicago architecture. His Marquette cocktail is a cognac-forward liquid reflection of the 1895 Holabird & Roche-designed building on Dearborn, which used to have a cognac cellar in the basement. This cellar suggests that cognac was more popular in late nineteenth-century Chicago than it is today. As many of Chicago’s earlier restaurants reflected a distinctly French influence, cognac benefited from the conventional wisdom that French food and drink was “the best.” Consequently, when people dined out (a much rarer event in the nineteenth century than now), they wanted what they considered to be the highest quality comestibles.
The mid-nineteenth century phylloxera epidemic, which laid waste to French vineyards, damaged cognac production and made it, like French wine, less available. As cognac became harder to find, bartenders substituted spirits like rye and bourbon for cognac in cocktails like Sidecars and Sazeracs. With time, those made-in-America spirits would slowly supplant cognac. The Sazerac was originally made with, and named after, Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac; now the Sazerac company produces rye and owns bourbon makers like Buffalo Trace and Pappy Van Winkle. You can see why people might think that the appropriate spirit for a Sazerac cocktail is either rye or bourbon.
Cognac lost more traction when the plague of Prohibition hit in the 1920s. That’s a shame because, as Phelan contends, “Cognac is a great base for drinks, stirred or shaken, because it’s not as assertive as other brown spirits might be.”
“I like drinking cognac,” says Marina Holter, lead bartender at The Whistler (2421 North Milwaukee). “It lends itself very well to cocktails, providing a refined backbone to a lot of drinks. It’s not something that people are scared to drink but there isn’t a lot of knowledge about it. I can go days without touching my bottle of cognac.”
Cognac has had its ups and downs over the centuries, but it retains its aura as a traditionally premium, sophisticated spirit. Bartenders recognize its value even if it’s not featured on the regular bar menu.
On a recent trip to New Orleans, the most French city in the United States, we tried Sazeracs at multiple bars, and the drink seemed uniformly richer and more flavorful than many we’ve had elsewhere. The secret to this deliciousness was likely, in part, because Crescent City bartenders still make the drink following the traditional recipe: with cognac.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, and he recently co-authored Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org