Sips from abroad

Allen Katz of New York Distilling prepares a Cognac cocktail at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans last month.

A short seven years ago, when Tales of the Cocktail marked its fifth anniversary by inaugurating an awards program for bars, bartenders and drinks writers, the spirits conference kept its gaze fixed firmly on the New World. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans suggested its readers seek out sessions covering the aesthetic fallout of Prohibition, the oddities of Galatoire's, the resurgence of rye whiskey and the history of the mint julep. A tequila tasting and Puerto Rican rum party also made the recommended list.

But at the latest edition of Tales, which last month drew 23,000 liquor enthusiasts to New Orleans, promoters and presenters were so fixated on Europe that it's surprising the host hotel didn't tally up room charges in euros. Award winners toasted their victories with Champagne; the cognoscenti flocked to seminars on sherry, absinthe, Scotch and Calvados; and Grey Goose introduced VX, a new vodka that's 5 percent cognac.

"What I didn't want to do 17 years ago, I did with VX," announced Francois Thibault, the cognac cellar master who developed the original Grey Goose recipe. VX (shorthand for "very exceptional") will be released nationally this fall, and is likely to retail for around $75 a bottle. "I wanted something very delicate, such as a woman, with the freshness of peaches and apricot."

While cocktail makers haven't completely abandoned the swagger associated with brown liquor, an increasing number of beverage professionals are looking to liqueurs, brandies and eaux-de-vie to add nuance and subtlety to their drinks. Although the recognition of European contributions to the global liquor cabinet isn't new - Charleston has a longtime relationship with Grand Marnier, and lavish meals here are likely to end with a glass of Fernet Branca or shot of Underberg - there's now a movement to nudge continental spirits toward the center of U.S. cocktail culture.

Americans have always enjoyed European-made spirits, although they couldn't always get their hands on them. Colonists drank rum when they could, and distilled whatever else was available when they couldn't. But cognac imports began arriving in the following century, and a market for the distilled grape brandy flourished. Cognac was suitable for sipping, of course, but it was also considered essential for proper cocktail-mixing: Jerry Thomas' 1862 "How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion" lists more than a dozen recipes calling for cognac, including milk punch, eggnog and burnt brandy, a Southern specialty incorporating white sugar and dried peaches.

Cognac wasn't cheap, which is why many aficionados opted for low-quality versions of the French spirit, or attempted to distill their own ersatz cognac. "There was a lot of adulterated brandy on the market," cocktail historian David Wondrich says. "Many settled for that."

The popularity of cognac stretched from Latin America to Russia after 1861, when British custom duties were drastically reduced, resulting in a tripling of cognac sales. But if the Americas were the source of enhanced demand, they also supplied the pest that upended the cognac industry. Phylloxera vastatrix, a yellow-hued root louse that arrived in the southern Rhone via vine cuttings shipped from the United States, took down 40 percent of France's vineyards in the 1870s.

Desperate grape growers tried burying toads at the base of each vine, believing they would absorb the deadly toxin, but cognac was kaput.

Or so it seemed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when growers had to successively cope with the phylloxera crisis, the high cost of hardier vines, World War I and Prohibition. Whatever foothold cognac had gained in U.S. bars, it was forced to surrender.

"After phylloxera, the only place cognac could find back in the market was as an after-dinner drink," Cognac Ferrand's Alexandre Gabriel told a Tales audience, citing the cognac-and-seltzer water tradition that vanished from the French countryside.

Within a few years, though, another American audience for cognac emerged. According to a cognac history published by Slate, black soldiers stationed in southwest France and black artists living in Paris preferred cognac to whiskey, which was culturally tied up with white Southern pride. Hennessy seized the opportunity, becoming the first spirit company to advertise in Ebony and Jet. A little more than half of the cognac sold in the U.S. today is purchased by African-American consumers.

Cocktail recipes featuring Hennessy still crop up in Ebony, which recently suggested readers celebrate Mother's Day by combining the cognac with citrus juices, simple syrup, creme de cassis and an egg white. But in most press-grabbing craft cocktail bars, cognac has never reclaimed its position in the speed rack.

"Some spirits seem to be celebrated more than others," Imbibe editor Paul Clarke lamented at the start of a Tales session devoted to the unheralded glories of cognac and pisco, a grape brandy produced in Chile and Peru.

According to Clarke, "when you look through (vintage cocktail) books, you see that brandy doesn't just play a big role. It is the foundational ingredient."

The domestic availability of both cognac and pisco, which was historically much more significant on the West Coast, for good geographical reasons, has lately reached record proportions. But, Clarke said, "When I look at bar menus, cognac and pisco seem to be underrepresented." Aside from the stray Sidecar and Pisco Sour, the spirits are barely ever mentioned on cocktail lists.

Cocktail magnate Alex Day, who owns bars in New York and Los Angeles, blames the absence partly on brandy illiteracy. "Knowing these ingredients are reflective of where they came from is fundamental," Day said. "The magic of wine production is all these other flavors: No two cognacs are the same. But they're incredibly versatile and collaborative."

For example, Day said, cognac "gets along famously" with rum.

"Cognac is very scholarly and witty," he added. "Pisco is loud, aggressive. It's a whiz kid who drinks a little bit too much."

Both spirits also are expensive, just as they were in their heydays. It takes one full acre of French soil to make 500 bottles of cognac, Gabriel said.

Day suggested the solution involves lower-alcohol cocktails: "Don't do a big slug of booze," he said, adding that the equivalence between alcohol and value is outmoded. Brandy backers are adamant that cost shouldn't interfere with their mission to make the spirit both as commonplace and celebrated as vodka, bourbon and gin.

"We want to restore these spirits back to their rightful place in the pantheon," Clarke said. "They haven't fully moved into their place, and we're going to change that."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.