I hate to admit it, but Diddy and Kanye got it right. There is something magical about Cognac that even hip hop grotesquerie can’t obfuscate, and I can safely say that the best cocktail I’ve ever had was one made with XO Cognac (a sin to Cognac lovers, but oh so worth it).
Unlike Bottles No. 1 — the American upstart gin — or No. 2 — the raucous, American rye — Cognac is pure and elegant sophistication. In a mixed drink, it’s just sublime. So why not Cognac all the time? Good question. If I had to make a desert island pick of only one bottle, Cognac certainly would be the first to spring to mind. Not only is it tasty; it’s so darn flexible. Mix it with liquor, mix it with citrus or cream; drink it hot, cold, warm, or straight — whatever the occasion calls for, Cognac is there for you.
So, why am I picking VSOP and not the coveted XO? And, more to the point: what do VSOP and XO mean? To answer the second part first: Cognac is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or “controlled appellation of origin,” which is a very French way of saying that where and how it can be made are strictly controlled under French law. The standard rating system for Cognac (based on age, not quality) is VS, VSOP, and XO. For more on what these mean and Cognac in general, just Google. There’s more to it than can be explained here, but the 5¢ take is that as you go from VS to VSOP and to XO, the Cognac gets finer and pricier.
It’s that latter statement that answers the first part of the question. XO is a lot more expensive. Remy Martin VSOP is $33; the XO is $120. Besides, some respect must be had for the Cognac. Mixing XO with ginger ale or the like just isn’t done (but it can be wonderful). As a joke, I once created the drink “Lafite and Coke” — the Lafite part being Chateau Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux, one of the greatest, most expensive wines on the planet. The joke was that someone had so much money and so little good taste (Kanye) that they would actually mix something so outstanding with Coca-Cola. What a horrific thought. Of course, when presented with the opportunity to actually try the concoction (there was still an ounce left in the bottle of Lafite, and Coke was in the fridge), I simply couldn’t pass it up. It tasted like Dr. Pepper.
I digress. But, by now, you should have a good idea of why Cognac and why VSOP. The Remy Martin? It’s mostly a matter of taste. All Cognac houses (Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, Hine, Remy, etc.) have a standard style that is similar across all of their products. Find the one that’s right for you. As almost all Cognacs are a blend of grapes from different regions within the Cognac area, each blending style will be slightly different. The Remy VSOP is 55% Grande Champagne and 45% Petite Champagne — the most central and, arguably, the finest Cognac grapes — but, and I can’t stress this enough, drink and pour what you like.
“Good Cognac is like a woman. Do not assault it. Coddle and warm it in your hands before you sip it.”
– Winston Churchill