Imagine Cognac Differently

Paul Blow

Most people’s vision of Cognac is a cozy one: You are in a plush armchair, an oversized snifter cradled in the palm of your hand. The Cognac reflects the dancing light of a crackling fire.

Here’s another: You’re rocking gently in a hammock slung between two elms; your bare feet sway in the warm summer air. You’re holding an ice-filled tumbler containing two ounces of amber-hued Cognac, which smells sweetly of figs and almonds.

Sounds nice, right? Especially when you consider that nosing alcohol from a snifter is brutal (singes your nose hairs off) and a hammock is much more appealing than a fireplace this time of year. It’s no crime to put Cognac over ice—even the people of the region do it, says Cyril Camus, president of Camus, Cognac’s fifth-largest brand.

Camus is encouraging people to think differently about Cognac. “In many ways Cognac might have been a victim of its own success,” Camus told me recently over lunch. “There was so much success in the 1980s that it got more industrialized and standardized.” In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cognac was at the heart of several huge consolidations in the wine and spirits world that led to such behemoths as Rémy Cointreau and Möet Hennessy (now under the banner of LVMH). Camus, of which Cyril is the fifth generation, is still family-owned. And it’s still dynamic.

For one, Camus Cognac has been gradually shifting styles, moving away from the richer, denser, woodier style that has been popular for generations to something lighter and less oaky. Much Cognac, especially at the higher end, smells lovely but tastes woody and tannic. That’s largely because of the oak, which is a handy tool for covering up flaws in a distillate. Camus is using a high-quality base spirit and a more neutral, old oak that imparts less tannin, color, and flavor.

Camus is also set to release a series of vintage Cognacs this fall, something commonly seen in the more dynamic region of Armagnac, but rarely in Cognac. Plus, this year is the 10th anniversary of Camus XO, a rare bottling from a single estate and single region, the small, much-overlooked Cognac region of Borderies.

And, incidentally, Camus VS—Camus’s base-level offering—is perhaps the best of that category. It’s incredibly smooth and drinkable for its 80-proof strength; has beguiling aromas of dried figs, flowers, nuts, and honey; and can be had for about $30 a bottle. Try it over ice in the middle of July (and get a hammock); it’s outrageously refreshing.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.