Cognac: the ancient brand cutting it with cocktails
You might not expect a brand established almost 850 years ago to be riding the wave of the cocktail boom, at the cutting edge of experimentation, but then Frapin has always dared to be a bit different.
Farming its own grapes, where almost all of its rivals buy in from growers; refusing to produce a conventional VS Cognac, despite the commercial opportunities that it might present; risking distillation on the lees, where others might take fright. These are all decisions that require fortitude.
So what next for those nerves of steel? How about re-inventing that refined British staple, ‘afternoon tea’, for a new cocktail-craving generation?
Enter the hushed lobby of the venerable Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair and there are two options: Turn right and the scene is reassuringly familiar, as diners while away the afternoon with their cups of Earl Grey, finger sandwiches and clotted cream scones. Turn left, and it’s a different story. In the ‘Beck at Brown’s’ dining room something strange is happening… It’s called Aperi-TEAvo and it will blow your mind.
This quiet revolution is the brainchild of former sommelier Médéric Hauchard, a tea specialist at London’s Lalani & Co and Lucy Stewart from Louis Latour Agencies, the UK importer for Frapin. Friends for some time, they got chatting last year about doing something different, a fusion of fine Cognac and top notch tea. Brown’s was packed for its traditional afternoon tea serving, but the Beck dining room was sitting idle between lunch and dinner, making it the perfect place to try something new.
For Hauchard, the new offering is rooted in tradition: “tea is no stranger behind a bar. It has been used in cocktails by bartenders for a long time. Most of the best, oldest cocktail recipes are based on a few ingredients balancing the basic flavours like sweet, acid, bitter, sour. The goal here is to revisit classic cocktails, keeping the balance, lowering the pure alcohol content, and enhancing the aromas.”
“We use the single estate Frapin Cognac because they share the same philosophy as Lalani & Co”, he tells me, “focusing on provenance, origin, and expression of terroir. This is also our approach to tea.”
For Stewart, the message on provenance is also paramount: “so many bars are looking for the real deal and Frapin is just that, a name that bartenders the world over associate with quality.”
I was fortunate enough to experience what makes Frapin so special during a visit last Autumn.
If the six crus of the Cognac region were a dartboard, Grande Champagne would be the bull’s eye. The ‘Champagne’ moniker has nothing to do with its French namesake, although it is thought that similarities in soil type gave rise to it, hundreds of years ago. Frapin has 240 hectares of land, all of it in Grande Champagne, generally considered the finest of the crus.
Established in 1270, long before Cognac had been invented, the Frapin family farmed vines, adopting the distillation process around the middle of the 18th century. Using its own grapes, the house insists on controlling every aspect of the production process, from rootstocks to bottling.
The unorthodox approach to distillation on lees follows family tradition, with the current cellar master Patrice Piveteau convinced that it brings something special to the Cognac: “Because we control everything, we can afford to take risks, use special techniques, it’s really the artisanal way”.
The maturation process is also unusual, a story of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, combining conventional humid cellars with relatively rare dry cellars above. “People obsess about age”, Piveteau tells me, “but it’s not really about the age, it is about how it has been aged”. In the dry cellars, the evaporation is faster, producing a slightly leaner, more precise Cognac. In the humid cellars below, the evaporation rate is more moderate, delivering a plumper, more textured blending partner.
The majority of Frapin Cognac is XO (Extra Old), with a minimum twenty years ageing for the youngest blending component, but the cocktail partners are generally the ‘entry level’ 1270, with around five years ageing, and the VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), approximately a decade old.
The BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) has reported double digit sales growth since the end of the global financial crisis, with the cocktail boom credited for much of its success. It is estimated almost 80 percent of Cognac is now enjoyed mixed in some form.
“It Is important for traditional brands such as Frapin to embrace the world of cocktails as it’s a means to get involved with a market that’s becoming less and less associated with luxury,” says maestro of mixology Joe Hall at London bar Satan’s Whiskers. “As cocktails become more accessible, it’s a way to remove any potential intimidation from the brand’s image. Also, it tends to be cocktail bartenders that are the most invested and knowledgable salespeople for brands.”
At Brown’s, Aperi-TEAvo comes paired with a tasting menu that has a distinctly Asian influence. Diners can opt for cocktails to replace the tea options for a modest supplement of just £13.
‘Rock Oyster with Matcha Jelly and Beetroot Cream’ comes with a ‘Nitro Green’, a mix of NITRO Matcha tea, Drouin Calvados and Vermouth. Green and frothy, it looks suspiciously like the contents of a biodynamic dynamiser, but it tastes fascinating, with a real savoury charm.
A delicious ‘Tartellette with Smoked Salmon and Potato Horseradish Salad’ comes with the ‘Imperial Side Car’, a mix of Himalayan Imperial Black Tea infused Frapin 1270 Cognac, with Cointreau and lemon. It’s a wonderful combination, with a fusion of flavours that feels earthy, smoky and complex.
‘Tacos with Apple and Smoked Duck’ come with a choice to be made: either ‘Mr Brown’s Old Fashioned’, a blend of Kyoto Oolong 2017 infused Frapin 1270 Cognac, Angostura Bitter and cane sugar syrup; or ‘Mrs Brown’s Classic Champagne Cocktail’, which takes those ingredients and adds a dash of Brown’s House Champagne.
Naturally, purely for research purposes, in order to bring you the most comprehensive review, and not because I am a greedy lush who doesn’t know when to stop, I tried both. Each serve brings something different to the tea party, but I would vote for the Old Fashioned, which I always think works better with Cognac anyway. Again, there’s a smokiness, but also a fantastic, clean, cut through with the richness of the duck.
What’s most striking is just what a wonderful idea it is. Just as Manzanilla Sherry brings down the alcohol and adds acidity and balance to a cocktail, so does the tea, also adding a savoury complexity.
I loved it. And it appears I am not the only one.
“People have been amazed” Hauchard tells me, ”tea is a new area of exploration for customers, bartenders, and sommeliers and it is the perfect fit for Frapin.”
This piece originally appeared in The Buyer.