Sitting poolside at one of Miami’s chic resorts, it’s not uncommon to see people sipping on caipirinhas with muddled strawberries or pouring from glamorous punch bowls spiked with an array of refreshing spirits and freshly cut fruit.
The relentless year-round sun has a powerful influence on what we find on cocktail menus and, ultimately, on what we choose to imbibe at our favorite outdoor establishments.
But in an unexpected coup, a highly misunderstood category is poised to conquer both our pools and our palates.
Modern cognac is no longer just for sipping on a ski trip or for use as a stodgy backbone in select classic cocktails. Some of the best mixologists are now embracing the French brandy in surprisingly cool ways.
The most impressive and downright delightful weapon in the takeover is Mandarine Napoleon. Once the exclusive drink for Emperor Napoleon, the liqueur is a blend of cognac (aged 10 years) from France’s famous Grande Champagne region, secret spices, and mandarin oranges from Corsica.
Its versatility has inspired Chris Hudnall of the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach to invent more recipes on-the-spot for his guests, who are usually looking for immediate relief from the heat.
With the boldness of a fine cognac you can expect smooth oaky notes that give it a full-bodied flavor, but it’s the mandarin oranges that completely change the dynamic.
“There’s always a wow factor when I make an unusual drink suggestion to a guest and they’re satisfied,” said Hudnall. “When I tell them what’s in it, it’s a whole new level of wow.”
After decades of neglect, the liqueur is making its comeback in Miami on Sept. 20 with a new bottle featuring Napoleon’s upside down fleur-de-lis.
Marc De Kuyper, the eldest of the 11th generation of one of the world’s oldest family distilleries, is behind the relaunch. According to him, flipping the fleur-de-lis represents Napoleon’s rejection of the royal status quo. One could predict that the relaunch of his liqueur will do the same within the cocktail community.
The history lesson alone is worth the trip to Hudnall’s bar on the second floor of the members-only hotel. If you can, make your way up to try Hudnall’s “Coco Napoleon,” a tiki-inspired cocktail that puts the pina colada to shame with Mandarine Napoleon, coconut milk, fresh lime juice, spiced sugar cane syrup, and orange bitters.
For the ultimate refresher, Hudnall recommends a lovely spritzer that he calls the “Songbird.” He says the combination of Mandarine Napoleon with fresh orange juice, lemon juice and a splash of ginger beer is the perfect daytime cocktail.
It’s unusual to see bartenders add any citrus to traditional cognacs with ease because cognac tends to finish with a natural kick of acidity. Hudnall owes the playful approach he takes to the subtle sweetness of the mandarins.
If you’re not a member of Soho, don’t fret. You can cool off with the new breed of cognac cocktails now at Haven Lounge, Rosa Mexicana and Meat Market – all on Lincoln Rd. You can also find it across the bridge at Sustain and Wynwood Kitchen & Bar. After the relaunch, expect to see it at many of the city’s trendiest spots.
Insiders claim Mandarine Napoleon has the potential to creep up on international favorites like St. Germain and Chartreuse, which are both frontrunners in the increasingly popular category of handcrafted natural liqueurs.
De Kuyper says it’s the versatility that makes this liqueur so attractive on such a broad scale. From the most discerning cocktail geek to the most devoted beachgoers, his strategy is to conquer.
Beat the heat with Chris Hudnall at Soho Beach House, 4385 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-507-7900.
Chris Hudnall of Soho Beach House makes his "Coco Napoleon".