There’s something about cognac that appeals like no other spirit. It’s the champagne of the spirits world, with a cachet and class all its own. Little wonder, then, that it’s inspired some excellent books, and The World of Cognac by Michelle Brachet is up there with the best of them.
That isn’t just my opinion. Before the book was even published and was still in manuscript form, it was given an award for ‘Best Wine Book for Professionals’ at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2014. It eventually came out in 2017 and is as handsome a book as you could hope for.
Michelle Brachet obviously knows her cognac. She writes for the Cognac Expert website, and for lifestyle and drinks magazines worldwide. She hosts Evenings with Cognac, attends industry events as a guest speaker, and has been called the UK’s leading female cognac expert. She’s definitely the woman for the job, then.
And what a job she’s done. This is a hefty coffee-table book of 300+ pages and covers everything you might want to know about cognac. It’s also beautifully-produced, using photos both taken by the author and provided by the many cognac houses that are covered.
The World of Cognac begins not with the usual history section (that comes later) but with an explanation of how it’s made. This gives the reader an understanding of what cognac is, right from the opening pages. What grapes are used? What’s the harvesting process? How is the spirit distilled and how is cognac aged?
There’s also a good section on cognac blending, which is a real skill. I once attended a tasting at Martell which also included a demonstration on blending, This is how I described part of it:
'In a fascinating part of the tasting, we’re given a small glass of cognac from 1875, and another from 1848. Tasted on their own, they are pleasant enough but not outstanding. Then we’re invited to pour about 30% of one of them into the other, and taste the resulting mix. It’s astonishing how much better the blend is than either of the two components. ‘That’s the secret of good cognac,’ says our guide. ‘The blending. But you have to know what you’re doing as it’s also possible to blend two wonderful cognacs and produce a bad one!’
Cognac and Cuisine
At Martell I also attended a session on pairing cognac with food, another revelation which Michelle Brachet covers in a section of her book. If the photos in these spreads don’t make you hungry then nothing will. Cognac paired with a dish of foie gras and fig sounds divine. Cognac and oysters is a little more surprising, but then the book is full of surprises.
As well as pairing cognac with food the author also has a chapter on cooking with cognac. What? Cooking with that precious spirit that many think is only for sipping neat after dinner? Why, yes. As the author points out, there are many recipes in the region of Cognac that include cognac as one of their ingredients. It would be surprising if they didn’t, as not only is it a local specialty it’s easy to see how it can impart rich flavours into a dish. One mention of cognac-infused chocolate fondant and I think most people would then understand it.
Cognac in cocktails is something I’ve also learned to appreciate on my own visits to the region. Again, some people would probably say it’s a waste of good cognac, but if bourbon, why not cognac? As with cooking, cognac can lend a richness and smoothness to cocktails that no other spirit can do. Cognac should be as much a part of the mixologist’s palette of flavours as any other spirit.
Another joy of visiting the Cognac region, and of this book, is discovering just how many cognac makers there are. We tend to think of the big names, like Martell, Hennessy and Rémy Martin, but there are hundreds of other producers out there, with some cognacs only available at the cellar door.
At the back of this book the author has done her homework and her legwork in compiling a hundred-page Cognac Directory where even the most knowledgeable cognac fan is sure to find some new names to try.