Fayetteville’s French connection is hardly a secret.
The city’s very name is the giveaway.
Settled by Scottish immigrants in the mid-1700s, the area became known as Campbellton in 1762, according to the city’s website. But in 1783, the N.C. General Assembly approved a new name for the city in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who fought with the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Dozens of cities across the country were named in Lafayette’s honor; you’ve no doubt heard of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Lafayette, Louisiana. But ours is the only one of them, history records, that the Marquis himself visited when he came by horse-drawn carriage in 1825.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s “Farewell Tour” that brought him here in rock-star style, cities across America will be part of a re-creation that will begin in August 2024 in New York City. The celebration will follow the Marquis’ route, landing in our neighborhood on March 4-5, 2025.
But local history buffs are not waiting until then to get the party started.
That’s where Cognac becomes part of the story.
La Fayette Cognac, which is now available in five Cumberland County liquor stores, is a toast to the nobleman who helped America gain its freedom. And as a lead-up to the 200th anniversary celebration, eight local bars and restaurants will feature cocktails made with the Cognac in a “people’s choice” competition organized by Fayetteville-Cumberland County Economic Development Corp.
Voting will be open through December on the corporation’s website, www.fcedc.com/contest, according to Jennifer McFadyen Hammond, manager of marketing and community engagement for the agency.
Cognac may not be an everyday libation in a nation that generally prefers vodka and Bud Lite.
According to Food & Wine magazine, Cognac is a type of Brandy named after its region of production in France. Making it requires adherence to strict rules: It “must be made from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes; distilled twice in a copper pot still; and aged in Limousin or Tronçais oak for at least two years,” Food & Wine reports.
In other words, it doesn’t happen overnight.
If you like bourbon, scotch or dark rum, you would probably enjoy savoring a sip or six of Cognac on a winter’s eve. Serving suggestions are “neat” — meaning with no ice and straight out of the bottle — on the rocks, or in a cocktail.
The third option is where Fayetteville bars will come into play for the “people’s choice” competition.
Joshua Choi is one of those neat guys who prefers to savor a drink without mixing it up or watering it down.
The owner of Winterbloom Tea on Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville, who added a full bar to his business a few years ago, says customers of the “new generation” generally prefer a toned-down blend of flavors in a mixed drink over the “neat” approach.
“The alcohol is masked, to a certain extent,” says Choi, whose warm persona and chill conversation are themselves as soothing as a cup of warm jasmine mint.
His approach to the Cognac cocktail contest, naturally, was to include fresh-brewed tea as a key ingredient. He chose a clove-infused blend that is pronounced in the final product but balanced with a subtle Cognac presence and the unexpected, yet welcome, essence of pears. The latter comes from the addition of pear and ginger bitters.
“We still want tea to be a part of the show,” Choi says.
Equal portions of La Fayette Cognac and Noces Royales, a French liqueur known as a proper accompaniment to pear, are combined with a splash of lemon juice.
Choi calls his concoction “Sidecar-esque,” a reference to the cocktail traditionally made with Cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice. Hence, the name: Sidekick.
One sip puts you in front of a warm fireplace on a December night with the comfort of knowing you don’t have to go to work in the morning.
A block down Hay Street at Blue Moon Cafe, you can find Choi’s friend Nate Cuffee making a Lafayette Connection.
That’s the cafe’s entry in the “people’s choice” contest. It’s a combination of La Fayette Cognac, amaretto, fresh lemon juice and black lemon bitters.
Cuffee, who has been a co-owner of Blue Moon for about five years, says he likes to push the limits when conjuring up cocktails. The Lafayette Connection will be part of the cafe’s winter selections.
“All Cognacs vary in taste, but you can expect warm notes of caramel or molasses, fruit, a hint of nuttiness, cinnamon, spice, and oak,” he says.
‘Make it playful’
Cuffee adds that La Fayette Cognac has “the lingering, playful flavor notes” you might enjoy in more expensive brands, but at an “accessible” price.
“Many people usually see me with a glass of tequila, but as a growing mixologist, I truly appreciate the qualities of all liquors,” Cuffee says. “Whenever I’m looking to break my routine or even spice up a dinner, Cognac has always been a good choice.”
When trying a new brand, he chooses to serve it neat to capture all the flavor notes.
“If I like what I’m tasting, I’ll continue enjoying it on the rocks or mix it into one of my preferred cocktails,” he says.
Cuffee enjoys other Cognac combos as well.
“You can definitely win me over with a well-crafted Sidecar or Sazerac,” he says, the latter a New Orleans-born cocktail pairing Cognac and rye whiskey.
Cuffee says La Fayette Cognac is a great way of celebrating Fayetteville’s history and helps build community identity.
“That’s what makes this fun,” he says. “I like to push the limits. Just make it playful.”
La Fayette Cognac is available at each of the nine Cumberland County ABC stores.
David Horne, CEO and general manager of the Cumberland County ABC Board, and Greg Stallings, director of products and pricing for the N.C. ABC Commission, led the effort to get it approved for local sales, according to the Economic Development Commission.
Kris Johnson, a volunteer with the Fayetteville-Saint Avold Friendship Alliance, which promotes cooperation between Fayetteville and its French Sister City, was instrumental in making the connection with Hardy Cognac, a distillery in France founded in 1863 by British entrepreneur Anthony Hardy.
For Choi, the Cognac challenge can be a unifying, communal experience.
“Hopefully, this creates a bit of a buzz,” he says. “It’s been a fun experience to do all that with alcohol.”