If you know only one thing about Cognac, it is probably that you drink it out of those orb-like glasses—preferably while wearing a smoking jacket and reclining in a leather chair in your well-appointed study. For those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of glassware or well-appointed studies, those glasses are called snifters and they are the last things out of which you should be drinking Cognac. And this is not, like, just my opinion, man. There are facts, and to better understand them I spoke with Jordan Bushell, the national brand ambassador for Hennessy, which sells more Cognac than any other brand in the world.
What’s wrong with a snifter?
The biggest problem with the design of the glass with respect to Cognac is that the top of the glass is too narrow. Bushell says a snifter most resembles a Pinot Noir glass, which is designed to concentrate the nose of the wine—a necessary feature for subtly scented liquids like Pinot. But Cognac has three times as much alcohol as a typical Pinot Noir, making it decidedly unsubtle. “You’re never filling a snifter with that much alcohol,” says Bushell. “And the surface of the Cognac tends to be at the widest part of the glass, allowing a lot more air to get to it.” That means that instead of getting rich, dried fruit and nutty aromas you’ll just get a nose full of alcohol. And since taste is deeply intertwined with smell, if you ruin the experience of nosing Cognac, you’ll ruin the experience of tasting it too.
So why do we drink out of snifters?
According to Bushell, it’s hard to know with absolute certainty, but the tradition of serving Cognac in a snifter quite possibly started as a status symbol in the early 20th century. In the first days of American cocktails, when drinks were springing from the mind and bar of Jerry Thomas, Cognac was commonplace. The first Mint Julep featured Cognac, ditto early Sazeracs. But just before the end of the 19th century an outbreak of phylloxera decimated grapes in the Cognac region used to make the brandy. Suddenly Cognac was a scarce commodity and its reputation transformed from that of an everyday, everyman spirit into a drink for society’s financial elite. “If you had opulent wealth in the early 1900s, how could you show it off?” Bushell asks. One brown spirit, after all, looked just like another. But you could use glassware as a signaling device. “If you saw someone drinking out of a snifter, you could identify them as drinking Cognac, which was rare and fine.”
The scarcity of Cognac and the showiness that accompanied drinking it could also be responsible for the fact that when you see Cognac on a restaurant menu it is almost always tucked away in the back next to the espresso and port as an after dinner drink. Cognac’s reputation is still such that people think there are very limited quantities and circumstances under which you should drink it. You might have a bottle of wine during dinner, but you should really only have one Cognac after you’re done.
But the days of Cognac scarcity are well behind us and if you only take a splash from a snifter after a meal, you’re unnecessarily depriving yourself. It still makes a hell of a Mint Julep or Sazerac, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I poured some over ice one afternoon and it was delicious.
If snifters are out, what glass should you be using for Cognac?
Cognac works in a rocks glass or in a cocktail, but if you want to get the most out of a bottle, Bushell suggests using a tulip glass, which, in some ways is an inverse snifter—wider at the top than it is in the middle. “If you put it in a tulip glass, much like the flower it’s named for, it opens up more delicately. You hold it a little away from the nose and you get floral, then fruit. And if you put your nose right in it you won’t burn your nostrils. You get the date, the fig, that all comes through,” he says. I tried it with him and it does indeed taste like a completely different spirit. But you should probably try it for yourself. Go grab some Cognac and start sipping, preferably not just after dinner.