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07.21.10 by  

Cognac Cocktails: It Pays To Play.

Chicago’s Todd Appel shares how to fool around with cognac in place of other spirits in cocktail recipes. The payoff: a new twist on your entire repertoire of recipes.

When Todd Appel first started bartending, he didn’t think that mixing cocktails with cognac made any sense. Those thoughts were turned on their head when he took a class from master mixologist Bridget Albert — turns out cognac is an extremely versatile spirit that can be subbed into basically any drink recipe. If you can catch him — between mad workout sessions or making homemade BBQ sauce — while tending bar at the Crimson Lounge, Chicago, ask him to give one of his creations a spin.

Replace whiskey, gin or vodka with cognac for a new twist on classic cocktail recipes. Photo:

served raw: what flavor attributes do you want to look for in the spirit when crafting cognac cocktails?
Todd Appel: You can sometimes get some stone fruit; tasting usually depends on my palate that day. You could get almond … cognac almost has a liqueur taste with a deep, nutty flavor, vanilla tones and maybe a hint of black pepper in the back. That plus the essence of grape goes nicely with fruit.

what known flavors pair well with cognac?
It goes well with fruits and flavored liqueurs, citrus pairs well, fresh pureés … basically, anything goes.

are there any rules you abide by when mixing with it?
I tend to like drinks spirit-forward, for example, the classic Sidecar. It’s basically a brandy sour made of equal parts cognac, Cointreau or Grand Marnier, and lemon juice, but I want the Cointreau and lemon to be a small part of the drink that’s just there to flavor the cognac. Same thing with whiskey cocktails. I want to taste the whiskey, I want the spirit to be a major ingredient of the cocktail.

If you’re using cognac as a secondary ingredient or if you were going to make a wine-based drink or a bowl of punch, then you’d probably want to make it less spirit-forward.

I break rules all the time, they’re all made to be broken, but I just don’t like to mask a good spirit with mixers.

in addition to the sidecar, what are some of your go-to cognac cocktails?
I’m from Wisconsin and they actually drink brandy manhattans there. I like to switch that up and use a super high-end VSOP cognac for a luxury manhattan. Bourbon and rye are powerful, but cognac offers a totally different, more subtle flavor.

One of my other favorites right now is a cognac cocktail made with pear purée, rich ginger syrup and fresh lemon juice. This started as a bourbon drink, but uses cognac instead of bourbon because it plays well with the fruit and doesn’t overpower the drink. I like to make my ginger syrups on the stronger, richer side too, but you could use a ginger liqueur like Domain Canton if you weren’t making your own syrup.

any advice for those who want to nab a bottle of cognac and mix a round of cocktails for friends?
You could use cognac in place of whiskey in any whiskey cocktail. The original sazerac was made with cognac — long before the era of whiskey in this country people drank a lot of cognac. You could make cognac mint juleps, cognac old fashioneds, a brandy crusta, a cognac-inspired “pisco sour” by adding an egg white and bitters to a sidecar recipe. Even a cognac mojito with muddled mint works. You could try a cognac French 75, subbing out the gin for cognac.

I also like to make wine- and champagne-based cocktails with cognac. I make a white sangria where I’ll steep the fruit in cognac before putting it in the punch and adding champagne.

should we mix with the “good stuff”?
I tend to always use the big 3 cognacs for mixing. I usually use VSOP in spirit-forward drinks like a manhattan or old fashioned. For more light, refreshing drinks, you want the cognac to be young so you could use a VS. Ferrand 30 Reserve and Ambre bottles, Hine Vintage Cognacs, Martell Cordon Bleu … they’re all unique.

and a good way to un-wind with cognac?
After dinner, I’ll mix a good VSOP with a little fruit liqueur like pear or peach, and keep it at room temperature. You don’t want it chilled because you want to have the bouquet in your nose. Put it in a brandy snifter and sip.

Todd’s Post Workout Refresher

  • 3 parts cognac
  • 1/2 part or splash pear purée
  • 1 part fresh lemon juice
  • 1 part rich ginger syrup (or a ginger liqueur like Domain Canton)
  • Lemon peel or fresh ginger, for garnish
  1. Shake ingredients in a Boston tin filled with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel or piece of fresh ginger.


  • 1 part cognac
  • 1 part Cointreau
  • 1 part fresh lemon juice
  • Sugar and lemon peel, for garnish
  1. Shake over ice, strain into a sugar-rimmed cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.