Cognac

A Taste Of Cognac History

24 November 2013

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacIf I had to choose just one spirit to consume for the rest of my life, I would be crushed, but after I got over the initial shock of being forced to make such a difficult decision, I would choose cognac. I’ve had the fortune to taste quite a few cognacs, including the most famous brands, delicious small-production gems and even a couple of cognacs which literally brought me to tears. If you think cognac is just for aging aristocrats or rap stars, you’re missing out on an exquisite beverage that need not be burdensomely expensive to be thoroughly satisfying.

I’m pleased to drink just about any cognac, really, but I get especially excited when I have the opportunity to taste an unusual cognac. The Château de Beaulon 7-Year Cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche.

Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes (you can read more about cognac production and age designations in my post here). In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano).

There were a number of reasons farmers turned from Folle Blanche to Ugni Blanc. According to Cognac by Kyle Jarrad, Folle Blanche “tend[s] to suffer from rot when grafted onto American roots,” and grafting was the solution to the phylloxera epidemic. Just as important, Cognac producers “don’t want to start the process with a wine that is highly aromatic… Better to start the aging with the more acidic wine that Ugni Blanc gives,” to leave more room for the oak barrels to flavor the spirit.

Almost all cognacs you drink nowadays are distilled mostly or entirely from Ugni Blanc. Distilling a cognac from Folle Blanche instead is a reactionary move; it’s a throwback to the cognacs of the 19th century and earlier. In fact, according to the Château de Beaulon website, “Beaulon has remained faithful to the region’s traditional 16th-century vine stocks: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Montils for Cognac.”

Though it is possible to purchase cognacs with at least part of the blend dating back a century or more, such as the extravagantly beautiful Hennessy Paradis Impérial, those seeking a taste of cognac’s past will find the Château de Beaulon much easier on the pocketbook. And you certainly won’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice when you drink it.

The light caramel-colored cognac had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

If you’re planning on serving a digestif after your Thanksgiving dinner, and I strongly recommend it, a cognac like Château de Beaulon’s would be just the thing.

Top 10 Spirits And Cocktails Of 2012

19 December 2012

As I assembled this list, paging through a year’s worth of blog posts, I found myself rather startled at the breadth and diversity of the drinks I consumed in the past year. But even more, I felt profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to sample everything from Nicaraguan rum in Nicaragua to Cognac in Cognac.

I sipped a lot of amazing things in 2012, but there were a number of true standouts. As is the fashion at this time of year, here is my list of the Top 10 Spirits and Cocktails I drank in 2012. The links lead to the original blog posts about the drinks:

10. SPICE TRADE — I consumed this cocktail of genever, vermouth, star anise, galangal syrup and persimmon water at Madame Geneva, an atmospheric bar just off the Bowery in Manhattan. With that intimidating list of ingredients, this is one cocktail I won’t be making at home! The floating star anise garnish provided an aromatic introduction, and I loved its orange, anise and juniper flavors. It would have been easy to make this cocktail too sweet, but it tasted well-balanced and finished dry.

9. SPACE FILLER — The mixologist at Root in New Orleans came up with this cocktail, composed of rye whiskey, loganberry liqueur and lemon juice. It tasted surprisingly complex, with notes of berries, citrus and wood; sweet and sour elements positively danced on my palate.

8. FENTIMAN’S ROSE LEMONADE & GIN — I never came up with a name for this mixture of Fentiman’s delightful rose lemonade soda and gin, but it deserves a moniker as refreshing as its flavor. This combo smells amazing, with aromas of rose and juniper co-mingling beautifully. Aromatic, tart, not too sweet, complex — this was the whole package.

7. XORIGUER GIN — Speaking of gin, a bottle of this Menorcan beauty cost me only 12 euro, a smashing deal considering the flavor it packs. Sipped neat at room temperature, the gin didn’t feel silky smooth, but it tasted wonderfully complex, with notes of juniper, anise, rose, white pepper and even incense. What a shame this gin isn’t yet available in the U.S.! Hopefully that will change in 2013.

6. MIRTO — I found this digestif on another sensationally scenic Mediterranean island, Sardinia. Made from local myrtle berries, the mirto I brought home tasted of ripe cherries, something herbal, like eucalyptus perhaps, and cinnamon on the finish. It was positively delightful, both at room temperature and chilled (how it’s usually served). And it made some thoroughly delicious cocktails.

5.  — I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this cocktail on the menu at the Four Seasons Chicago. It contained Crème Yvette, a violet-based liqueur that hadn’t been produced in the last 50 years. But there it was, coelacanth-like, in the A², a concoction of Journeyman W.R. Whiskey, Crème Yvette, yuzu juice (a small grapefruit-like fruit) and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. The cocktail had an aroma of purple grapes, a strong, fruity flavor with some tangy citrus notes, and a dry, floral finish. A well-balanced and elegant drink.

4. FLOR DE CANA 18-YEAR CENTENARIO GOLD — This gorgeous Nicaraguan rum sucked me in with aromas of vanilla cake and brown sugar and sealed the deal with flavors of vanilla, oak and orange peel. Very rich, with a finish that went on and on.

3. BIJOU — Even if it served merely middling cocktails, the Ranstead Room in Philadelphia would still be worth a visit for its speakeasy-like location and sexy decor straight out of a Mad Men episode. But add in spectacular cocktails crafted with meticulous care, and you have a bar that alone makes a journey to Philly worthwhile. My bartender stirred up a Bijou, a wonderfully smooth mix of Beefeater Gin, Green Chartreuse, Dolin Blanc Vermouth and lemon zest. The aromatics of the gin, the herbaceous bitterness of the Chartreuse, the touch of smooth sweetness from the vermouth — it came together like a flavor symphony.

2. HINE TRIOMPHE — So beautiful was this blend of Grande Champagne Cognacs averaging around 50 years old, with extraordinarily velvety caramel and tobacco flavors, that it brought tears to my eyes. Cellar Master Eric Forget, seeing my reaction, quietly remarked, “It’s not a Cognac. It’s just a pleasure.” Indeed.

1. HENNESSY PARADIS IMPERIAL — This remarkable Cognac also reduced me to tears. Only this time, it was in front of the Cognac Summit’s videographer, camera rolling! Embarrassing, yes, but anyone who has tasted this ambrosial liquid can understand my emotional response. It was a sublime moment, tasting something so profoundly exquisite in so lovely a setting as Hennessy’s Château de Bagnolet. I learned later that the Paradis Impérial blend contains Cognacs dating from the 19th century. I drank liquid history! It’s humbling to think about all the work — and all the waiting — that went into producing that glass of Cognac.

Next up: My Top 10 Wines of 2012

Simple, Fresh, And Bloody

25 February 2012

Eating seasonally has come back into fashion, and there’s no reason we can’t drink seasonally as well. Certain cocktails are simply impossible to make at certain times of the year, making them taste all the sweeter when we can.

Right now, we’ve reached the peak season of blood oranges, also known as moros. These wonderful winter citrus fruits have some orange-colored cells as well as many deeply red cells, and their juice has a surprisingly bright magenta tinge. The peel may or may not also have a blush of red (don’t shy away from blood oranges with no hint of “blood” on their exterior).

Fresh-squeezed blood orange juice makes for a marvelous cocktail mixer, with a beautiful magenta color and a tart flavor that can substitute well for a number of other more common citrus fruits. Blood orange mimosas look gorgeous and taste great — add three parts Prosecco (my favorite), Cava or Champagne to a champagne flute, top with one part fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, and you’ve got a deep-pink (but deliciously dry and adult) drink sure to delight your brunch guests.

If, for some reason, you prefer to drink only in the evening, consider instead one of these simple, fresh and bloody recipes:

BLOODY MARGARITA:

–1 part fresh-squeezed blood orange juice

–1 part tequila (I used gold, but silver could also be tasty)

–1/2 part triple sec

To get the proportions right, squeeze the blood orange first. Whatever amount of juice you recover from the blood orange can be your standard “part”. Usually one blood orange provides enough juice for about one cocktail.

Combine all the ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini or margarita glass. Garnish with a twist if you like.

This light cocktail tastes tart, but the sweetness from the triple sec balanced it enough for my palate. The telltale flavor of the tequila still came through, and there was just a touch of bite from the blood orange.

BLOODY SIDECAR:

–1 part fresh-squeezed blood orange juice

–1 part Cognac

–1/4 to 1/3 part crème de cassis, to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a twist if you like. Easy!

I liked this cocktail even a little better, though its color wasn’t quite as brilliant as the margarita’s. Again, it tasted sweet and tart, but the Cognac added an intriguing woodsy note, a little bite and a satisfying caramel finish. The crème de cassis, a French blackcurrant liqueur, adds additional sweetness and roundness to the drink.

Cheers!

 

Cognac Tears

18 February 2012

Taste is quite literally our most visceral sense, and tastes, like smells, can elicit surprisingly intense emotional reactions. I was reintroduced to the connection between tongue and emotions on my recent trip to Cognac, when I found myself startled by my own tears, standing before some equally startled French people.

During the grand tasting in the Museum of the Art of Cognac, I found my way to the Hine table, where I had the pleasure of meeting Cellar Master Eric Forget. He introduced me to their fresh, fruity and subtly spicy VSOP and their richer, more floral Rare VSOP, both of which were quite tasty.

Then we got to the Hine “Homage” Early Landed Fine Champagne Cognac, a blend of top-quality Cognacs from 1984, 1986 and 1987. For the Homage, Hine returned to a seldom-practiced centuries-old tradition of aging the Cognac in English caves, instead of in France. (English merchants used to purchase barrels of freshly distilled Cognac to age themselves.) Because of the different climate and cellar conditions, Early Landed Cognacs develop different flavor notes.

In this case, the heady floral aroma had me at first sniff. In my notebook, I wrote “so rich and smooth, but not heavy — absolutely delicious — yes!” That last word was a bit scribbled, because I had to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes so that my hosts didn’t see them. The exquisite flavor and the connection with tradition stirred something deep inside.

I recovered over a taste of the elegant Hine XO, but I completely lost control of myself when I sampled the gorgeous Hine Triomphe, a blend of Grande Champagne Cognacs averaging around 50 years old. So beautiful was this Cognac, with velvety caramel and tobacco flavors, the emotions welled up within me yet again, even more strongly. There was simply no hiding it. Monsieur Forget, seeing my reaction, quietly remarked, “It’s not a Cognac. It’s just a pleasure.”

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Hidden Gems Of Cognac

8 February 2012

I’ve written a bit about the big guns of Cognac — Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier — but I would be remiss in my duties as Odd Bacchus if I didn’t devote at least one post to some of the lesser-known, small-production Cognacs. I can’t think of one brand I tasted that I didn’t enjoy, so it’s worth taking a risk on an unknown name if you see a good deal.

And why take a risk at all? Cognac simply tastes delicious, with complex flavors and often a touch of sweetness. If you like Bourbon, you’ll like Cognac. It’s not heavy, as many people I’ve spoken with fear. VS and VSOP Cognacs tend to feel very fresh, and even the older XOs usually have plenty of vivacious life.

At a grand tasting event in the Museum of the Arts of Cognac, I sampled no fewer than 25 different Cognacs, and although I enjoyed some more than others, there wasn’t a single one that tasted in the least bit unpleasant. Some, like Baron Otard and Prince Hubert de Polignac, have not yet made it to store shelves in the U.S., which is a great misfortune. I’ll therefore confine myself to Cognacs you have a fighting chance of finding:

PAUL GIRAUD (I wrote briefly about the charming Mr. Giraud in this post. All his vineyards are in the Grande Champagne region, the most prestigious part of Cognac.)

  • VSOP: Aged a minimum of eight years, this Cognac smelled of caramel and marzipan, and exhibited an elegantly restrained power.
  • XO: Mr. Giraud, referencing the theme of the Cognac Summit, shared his opinion that “this is the one for the ladies — it’s sweet and smooth.” Indeed it was, with concentrated aromas and rich but lively flavors. It paired beautifully with chocolate.
  • Tres Rare: This 40-year-old Cognac had a luxurious nose, and it really took me on a journey, developing and changing on my palate with a very long finish. Delicious.

FRANCOIS VOYER (The cellarmaster may be young, but he makes some pretty darn impressive Cognacs.)

  • VS: Surprisingly complex for a VS, and very spicy.
  • VSOP: It started slow and smooth, before building to a big finish.
  • XO: An enticing dark amber color. The nose was redolent of caramel, dried fruit and cake. Sweetness gave way to a long, spicy finish.
  • Hors d’Age: Served from a beautiful crystal decanter, this old Cognac smelled like caramel luxury. It had such elegance on the tongue, with deep caramel flavors supplemented by some herbal and spicy notes, and impressive, righteous power. Wow.

LOUIS ROYER (In addition to the Cognacs described below, watch for the “Distilleries Collection,” a range made exclusively from one region, i.e. Bon Bois, Fins Bois, Petit Champagne, etc. The distillery for each Cognac is located in the region as well, for maximum terroir effect.)

  • VSOP: Zippy and very spicy, made mostly with fruit from the Fins Bois region.
  • XO: A deep amber, this minimum 15- to 30-year-old Cognac starts very smooth and velvety and builds to a big, spicy finish.

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The Big Guns Of Cognac

1 February 2012

Breakfast Time

Over the course of the Cognac Summit, we visited three of the largest Cognac houses; houses no doubt familiar to most Americans: Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy. These three are so well-branded in the U.S., many of us think of them only as their name. It’s simply Hennessy, not the Cognac called Hennessy.

These three brands can be found just about everywhere, but should you be looking for their VS, VSOP, XO or something else entirely? (You can read an explanation of these age categories in this post. They’re imprecise, because, as our Rémy Martin ambassadrice confided, “A Cognac is like a coquette — she never gives her age exactly.”)

We had the fortune to taste a range of Cognacs from each of these three houses (the prices are from Binny’s Beverage Depot unless otherwise noted):

Rémy Martin VS: We sampled this with ice, so the aromas were harder to detect (room-temperature Cognac has a bigger bouquet). But I certainly enjoyed its fresh, smooth flavor profile. About $28.

Rémy Martin VSOP: This one came from a bottle straight from the freezer, so again, I didn’t get much of an aroma. But I loved the texture at this temperature — it tasted surprisingly smooth for a VSOP, with caramel and cake flavors and a spicy finish. About $35. An excellent value.

Rémy Martin XO: I noted aromas of pear, orange and fig. Rich at first, this Cognac tasted a little sharp on the palate as well. About $140.

Courvoisier VS: The fruit for this Cognac, the most popular Courvoisier in the U.S., comes mostly from the Fin Bois region (this post explains the different regions of Cognac). Fresh and spicy, with some vanilla and caramel flavors. Fun to drink. About $26 – a very good value.

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Regarding French Snobbery

29 January 2012

A few weeks ago, while batting around blog post ideas for a travel website to which I contribute, I told my editor I planned on writing a piece or two about Cognac. “It’s strange, isn’t it,” I remarked, “that people go to Scotland for the whisky trail, but few travelers seem to think of going to Cognac to visit Cognac houses.”

“Oh, well, people expect — and with good reason, I might add — that they won’t be especially welcome in most of the Cognac houses,” he replied. “You know, they expect to encounter quite a bit of snobbery. It’s the same reason people don’t go chateau-hopping in Bordeaux.”

I have visited much of France, and I have yet to encounter the proverbial French Snob. It’s not because I speak beautiful French — the average 18-month-old Parisian speaks better than I do. But maybe in Cognac, home of France’s most exclusive liquor, it would be different.

The Charming Paul Giraud

It came as no surprise to me that it was not. On our very first visit of a Cognac house, I was charmed by Paul Giraud, (right) whose family has been making Cognac for 200 years. Wearing an understated navy sportcoat, he showed us his atmospheric aging facility, where clumpy black mold caked the cobweb-draped rafters above sweet-smelling oak barrels. Concluding his remarks, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m just a farmer who makes Cognac.” Of course, it’s an entirely different experience visiting, say, the grand quarters of Courvoisier in Jarnac, but the friendliness and passion for the product were constants throughout the trip, wherever we went.

I met a number of French sommeliers during the trip as well, and none proved to be a wine snob. Quite the reverse, in fact. As we headed back to Bordeaux after the conference, I had a long chat with noted sommelier Dominique Laporte. He had no patience for people who claimed to know all there is to know about wine. “How can you ever really know wine?” he asked. He later argued that there were actually very few “bad” wines out there. I said something disparaging about Yellow Tail, to which he quickly responded, “That wine though, was made to appeal to people who drink soda. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s sweet, it’s simple, it’s cheap. There’s nothing wrong with that.” It turned out I was more of a wine snob than Monsieur Laporte!

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Cognac Update

26 January 2012

As I write this, I’m still in France, soaking up all there is to soak in the lovely city of Bordeaux. The International Cognac Summit was exhausting, but an absolute joy to attend. The Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac organized a wonderful event full of exciting people, fascinating visits and, of course, gorgeous Cognacs.

One of the most memorable round tables took place the first morning, when the group discussed ways to draw more women to Cognac. The Americans and Brits tossed around various ideas, seeming to agree that appealing Cognac-based cocktails were a big part of the answer. As people debated what ingredients and styles of cocktails women might most enjoy (I say quality ingredients in a delicious combination, the same as men, but what do I know?), I realized the French contingent hadn’t offered any ideas.

I said, “I’d like to hear from our French colleagues on this question. Since 97% of Cognac is exported, it seems to me there’s a huge opportunity here in France to sell more Cognac. What do you think?” I was expecting perhaps some ideas about ways to counter the French stereotype that women who drink Cognac are at best old fashioned, and at worst alcoholics and “bad mothers.”

After a long, silent pause, the moderator interjected, “Maybe Pierre, since you’re a bartender, you would be good to ask?”

I repeated the question, and Pierre (not his real name) replied, “Well, the marketing dollars go where the Cognac is selling, so they don’t have the chance to market so much here in France, because most Cognac is sold abroad. Also, you have to understand that advertising alcohol, it’s not the same as in the U.S. We have laws, so, you can’t just put up a billboard the way you can in America.”

Unimpressed by these rather strange excuses, I asked, “So it’s just hopeless?”

After some noises of consternation started bubbling forth, the moderator was forced to cut off the discussion. We were running late.

Working on ways to draw more women to drinking Cognac was a fine theme for the summit, and a fascinating one as well. But for next year’s summit, it might be wise to devote it to convincing the French themselves to drink more Cognac. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done right at home!

Cognac: Not Just For Rap Stars

24 August 2011

Cognac can be easy to dismiss as the purview of either grey-haired blue bloods or freewheeling young hip-hop fans. But those who subscribe to that view miss an obvious point: Cognac must be something quite special to appeal to both the château and the crib sets.

Cognac is a type of brandy made, as you might have guessed, in and around the city of Cognac in France. It must be double-distilled from white wine, 90% of which must be Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), Colombard and Folle Blanche. The grapes for this wine can come from a range of favorable or less favorable growth zones. Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne (not to be confused with the sparkling wine region) tend to be the best, and anything with “Bois” in the name tends to be less impressive.

Just as important, Cognacs are graded according to age. In order from youngest to oldest, the grades are V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. But just to keep you on your toes, Cognac can also be labeled as Napoleon, Extra, Vieille Reserve and Hors d’Âge, indicating an age greater than X.O., or simply Vieux (literally “old”), which falls somewhere between V.S.O.P. and X.O.

Those marketing Cognac to non-French consumers might wish to consider simplifying this system a bit.

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