Tag Archives: Cognac

Complementary drinks

A contextualised guide to the appreciation of fine liquor

First published in GQ Magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

I recently watched Kingsman, a rip snorting romp of a spy movie in which suave veteran Harry Hart mentors young buck Eggsy on how to be a gentleman, the latter being a bit rough around the edges. His second lesson instructs on the making of a proper Martini. A little overly-trodden, and a little insufficient, but it had me nodding in agreement – yes indeed, gentlemen should know their liquor. What to drink when, and how. The right juice if you will for the right occasion. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter in suggesting that a cultivated repertoire is a vital attribute if you hope to evolve your masculinity to the next level. Well, maybe a little, but let’s just agree that it’s important. I may not be cast from the same aristocratic superspy mould but in this case I think I can step in where he left off. If you thought then that this was going to be a piece on cadging free booze I have this suggestion (now that I’ve assumed the mantle) for you: a gentleman should also own a dictionary (preferably the dictionary). But that’s just in passing. The matter at hand is drinks, and it is where I’ll make my bid for a small contribution to the lexicon of gentlemanliness.

Complement: “something that completes”, “one of a pair, or one of two things that go together”.

When it comes down to it life is about complementariness. The search for harmony. For optimality. The bringing of balance to the force. There are moments and occasions, which, whilst giving their own fundamental value to how you experience them, can be amplified, transformed even, made complete at the very least, by the right complements. In these instances, when they pertain to the not insignificant (as I think we’ve established) subject of drinks, it is beholden upon you to bring your gentlemanly knowledge to bear.

When: celebrations

What: champagne
An obvious one to start. From victories and Valentines, to birthdays and betrothals, this geographically indicated sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. The crisp, dry taste – and the tingling mouthfeel, courtesy of its hallmark fine bubbles – of brut champagne is the foundation on which it’s forged its popularity, but, as if often the case with liquor, perception plays almost as much of a role as the liquid itself. The popping of corks, launching of ships, the sabrage method, the champagne towers, and its many other rituals have all impressed this drink on our collective consciousness as something distinctly special.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Rich. I’ve marked many of the milestones in my life with Veuve, and it’s always lived up to expectations, with its superior taste, depth of heritage, and innovative approach. The Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims too adds to the charm and is well worth the visit. Rich in particular is an accessible, versatile offering which lends itself to personalised drinking. Shake things up by mixing in some cassis for a classic Kir Royale, or by creating your own infusions.

When: landmark celebrations

What: vintage spirits
A vintage bottling refers to liquid that was distilled and put into maturation in a single calendar year – the one denoted on its label. It is individual and variable by design, differing from a distillery’s standard bottlings, which may draw from production spanning various years in order to achieve flavour consistency. As such it captures the essence of one particular year – and what better way to fete an epic birthday or anniversary than by experiencing a little “stolen” taste of that specific period in time.

Try: Balblair vintage highland single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying their 1983, 1989, 1990 and 2000 vintages, all occupying the zone between delicious and outstanding, and I can reliably say that each is a fitting tribute.

When: summer and sunshine
What: caipirinha
Nothing evokes summer like sand and sea – so it seems fitting to take the lead for the season’s drink from the world’s foremost beach culture. A well-made caipirinha ticks all the boxes: it’s cool and refreshing – the essential attribute of course, it builds further with its complex and interesting flavour (but without being too challenging – that type of effort would only interfere with the fun and relaxation), and it’s strong and pure enough to be taken seriously – fun is great, frivolous is a waste of your gentlemanly time.
Try: Germana cachaça. The prime ingredient in the caipirinha is Brazil’s inimitable (no, it’s not rum) home-grown spirit. This stuff ranges from the cheap and nasty to the aromatic and sublime, with corresponding results for your caipirinha. Germana – a pot-stilled, artisanal cachaça housed in an unmistakeable banana bark wrapped bottle – features within the latter category. One word of caution – easy on the sugar.

When: gala events
What: martini
Ah, the martini resurfaces, as we always knew it must. Whoever said clothes maketh the man had clearly not yet encountered this most elegant of drinks – or he would have supplied an addendum. Your dress attire simply isn’t complete without the iconic martini stemware dangling languidly from your hand, and conversely a martini will never taste as downright delightful as it does when you’re suited and booted. And should it turn out to be a stuffy affair…well, let’s say that your bases are covered.

Try: Bombay Sapphire. Everyone has their own take on the Martini – here’s mine: Gin, of course, not vodka – it’s so much more interesting; and preferably a soft gin like Bombay. Dry vermouth – it exists for a reason. Noel Coward’s diametrically opposed view is that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but how seriously can you take someone who thinks that the vermouth deployed in a martini comes from Italy? Pas du tout, I’m afraid. A ratio of five parts gin to one part vermouth – stirred or swirled, not shaken. Pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with olives or a twist, depending on your mood.

When: sports

What: craft beer
It’s difficult enough to maintain your cool, calm, gentlemanly demeanour when watching your favourite team play a nail-biting game without introducing liquor into the equation. But then again it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as with a few drinks. The solution is something moderate, like beer. It’s crisp and refreshing, which is important for day-time drinking, it can be deliciously flavoursome, and, let’s face it, we’ve been pre-conditioned by a relentless avalanche of advertising and sponsorship campaigns to associate beer with sports. It feels right, so why fight it? You can choose though to cock a snook at those corporate puppeteers by applying your refined palate to the consumption of small-batch beer – to reassure yourself that you still have free will, and because it’s tastier by far.

Try: Jack Black. One of the original operators in the proliferating Cape Town craft scene, it now boasts the three additional variants, alongside the legendary flagship lager – my favourite being the Skeleton Coast IPA, a pleasingly bitter ale with a full well-balanced cereal flavour. The 440ml format, which seems to be a standard in the category, and the 6.6% ABV employed by Jack Black on the IPA, deliver what I would describe as an ideal per-unit level of satisfaction.

When: a birth

What: cognac
It’s a time honoured tradition, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, to present and smoke cigars at the birth of a child, and there’s nothing better suited to supplement a stogie and to toast such a momentous event than a fine cognac. The fragrant aromas of the former, and the rich flavour of the latter, and the theatre of two in concert, cigar between the fingers in one hand, balloon glass filled with smoke in the other, is the best of backdrops for this congratulatory gathering.

Try: Courvoisier XO. The Jarnac-based Couvoisier is one of leading producers of cognacs, having established its reputation as the preferred cognac of no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, a man with Europe at his feet and with the pick I’m sure of any fine spirit he might have desired. XO, which stands for extra old, refers to blends of cognac in which the youngest component is no less than six years old, and whilst age isn’t everything, it’s nonetheless a loosely reliable indicator amongst cognac’s big brands that you’ll be getting a suitably-matured, quality drink.

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Figuring out the French

They’re the captains of fine liquor, but navigating their spirituous seas can be challenging.  I charted a course to the heart of French brandy.

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2013 edition).

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

The fruit of the vine is often described as noble, with good reason.  Its contribution to our liquid landscape is arguably unparalleled, having given us wine, in all of its myriad splendour; champagne and its fellow bubblies; sherry, port and their other lessor-known fortified brethren; assorted liqueurs; grappa; eaux de vie; and, last but not least, a variety of brandies.  It was in France that the arts of exploiting the grape first reached its current cultivated proportions; specifically it is where the making of grape brandy became established and renowned.  Today the French dominate this sphere – their brandies are globally the most highly acclaimed, and the most widely and voluminously sold.  If you enjoy your brandy then you’d be well advised to seek out and appreciate their delicious nectar, if you haven’t already.  The latter though may not be as straightforward as it seems, at least not fully; the French are an indecipherable bunch at the best of times, and their brandies, replete with seemingly unintelligible jargon, are no exception.  Here then is a short guide to traversing the top tier.

What does AOC mean?

French brandy comes in three broad types, distinguished from one another by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC.  The AOC is the system by which France governs the production and marketing of certain of its agricultural products.  It is largely but not wholly based on the concept of terroir; essentially certain regions have acquired an exclusive right to assign their names to traditional product categories, and to legally compel production according to particular methods and standards.  This status confers a special cachet to subscribing products, which generally translates to a price premium in the marketplace.  There are two appellations specific to brandy: Cognac, the most well-known, and Armagnac, the most ancient. Additionally, for the sake of completeness, one should note that there are also often “sub” appellations to which distinct rules apply; Armagnac for instance can be Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze, Haut-Armagnac, and Blanche d’Armagnac.  Cognac is slightly different in that it allows for the specification of Crus, much like Champagne, denominating strictly classified areas within the region in which the grapes used in the so-labelled products were grown – examples of these being Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne and Fin Bois.

Brandies from any other region, or those not conforming to the regulations, constitute the third type: simply brandy that cannot be assigned either, or indeed any, appellation.

What’s the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?

The most obvious difference – dare I even say it – is that each must be produced in its distinct named region.  This means that they are subject the influence of varying soil, climate and water (collectively terroir), which eventually percolates into their flavour.

There are other subtle but impactful differences at all stages of the crafting process. Each is made using recipes with different ingredients.  Cognac primarily uses the Saint-Emilion grape (better known internationally as Ugni Blanc) to make its base distillate, whilst Armagnac typically favours a basket of grapes including Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche amongst others. Cognac must be double distilled in copper alembics (pots with a regulated shape) whilst most, but not all, Armagnacs are column distilled.  This may be loosely comparable to the difference between a clay and an electric oven in making pizza, although that may not be entirely fair – some pundits actually reckon that Armagnac is noticeably more fragrant and aromatic because of its distillation method.  Once distilled Cognac is racked in casks from Limousin and Tronçais, whilst Armagnac is matured in oak from the Monlezun forest.

Most tellingly perhaps – certainly for the devoted explorer – is the manner in which these two brandies have manifested themselves on the market.  There are many exceptions of course but by and large Cognac tends to be blended, the output of large marques with multiple estates. The four principal brands – Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier – are utterly dominant, commanding between them some 90% of the spirit’s global sales.  Armagnac meanwhile is smaller and artisanal, often the production of single vineyards, and traditionally bottled as vintages, its flavour heritage able to be followed like a trail of crumbs in a fairy tale.

How does one determine the age of a French brandy?

The English author Samuel Johnson once wrote: “Claret is the liquor for the boys; port, for the men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”.  I’m not sure that I’d necessarily endorse this sentiment, but it certainly takes a particular dedication, a certain heroic perseverence, to get to grips with some of the baffling French brandy terminology.  Why be so blunt as to put a number on a bottle when you can indulge in a little bit of romantic intrigue instead?  My particular favourite – with reference only to the poetry of it – is the wonderfully evocative Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP).

The standard age grades are as follows: VS (Very Special) or Three Star, which for both Cognac and Armagnac refer to liquid in which the youngest component has been matured for at least two years; the aforementioned VSOP, a minimum five years old for Armagnac and four years old for Cognac; and XO (Extra Old), denoting something of no less than six years of age.  It’s important to note that in each case the average age can often be significantly older than designated by the grade.  There are various other lesser used but equally poetic grades: Napoleon, Extra, Vieille Réserve, and Hors d’Âge (which literally means out of age or beyond age).  Some of these grades share the same legal definition, but are used in practice to show a distinction in scale.  So the grading is somewhat limiting a guide, driven by convention rather than precision, and leaving you – fittingly – to rely on your nose, your palate and your senses as the final arbiters. Santé!

Liquid gifts

A spirit of generosity

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared – page 2.

I’ve walked into the umpteenth shop only to leave again, short on ideas, long on frustration.  I’d set aside an hour of my busy day, and so far it’s taken three and counting.  It might be Father’s Day, a birthday, Christmas, or any number of other gift-giving occasions.  I just can’t seem to find that appropriate gift without a struggle.  I could resort to a voucher, or just compromise and settle on any old thing, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  It seems so callous; a gift should indicate that one cares enough to invest both money and thought (even if it’s not the case) otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.  This has been an unfortunate recurring episode in my life.  Sound familiar?  Fear not, help, such as it is, is at hand.  There is a genre of gifts that is ubiquitous and generic enough to be expedient, and yet varied and personal enough to convey a fulfilling sense of consideration.  I’m talking about fine spirits of course, the doyens of which are whisky and cognac.   I did a bit of shopping recently (sadly only of the window variety) and identified a few highlights.

Chivas Regal

Royal in both name and stature, Chivas Regal is quite likely the world’s most gifted spirit.  This iconic brand, now well over a double century in existence, has carved for itself an enviable reputation as a supreme purveyor of deluxe whisky.  Millions of people can’t be too far wrong; as a gift Chivas (pronounced shivers without the r) hits all the right notes.  It is flavoursome and interesting to the connoisseur – at the heart of the blend is Strathisla, a single malt from what is said to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.  And it is accessible to the novice – its mild, fruity flavour is easily acquired and its pricing, at least for the entry level 12 year old (a smidgen over R200), is entirely reasonable within the premium whisky bracket.

Chivas Regal is available on our shelves as either a 12, 18 and 25 year old.  The former is being offered in a package with two complimentary whisky tumblers during special gifting occasions, and the latter two are available year-round in attractive, top-end presentation boxes.

Remy Martin Louis XIII

If cognacs were stones, this one would be a diamond.  There are some that are more expensive, others that are more popular, and others still that are decked with a brighter glitter, but nothing else possesses the same cachet, shines with the same aura, or enjoys the same acclaim as Remy Martin Louis XIII.  Verbalised by the cognoscenti as “Louis Treize” (French for 13), this brand is an enduring classic.  I’ve seen advertisers gratuitously use the term “a mark of distinction” to peddle their wares.  Remy doesn’t need do this for Louis XIII (and Remy certainly doesn’t peddle).  If ever there was a product that was a mark of distinction then this is it…but it’s an unspoken fact, simply understood where that understanding is required.

Cognac is known for its excessive, some would say over-the-top, packaging.  The Louis Treize was one of the products that blazed this trail.  It has since 1937 been bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter that itself probably costs more than most other cognacs.  Decadent as this may seem, given that some components in the blend are over a hundred years old, it’s somehow elegantly appropriate.

Pricing is steep – expect to pay in excess of R17 000.  I would perhaps suggest that this a gift to be reserved for those held in the very highest esteem…or for those needing to be convincingly impressed.  The latter might explain why the Remy Treize, along with cognac as a whole, has become so popular in the East, where there is an entrenched gift-giving (and favour currying) culture in the working environment.

Richelieu XO Cognac

Isn’t Richelieu a brandy?  Well, as of last year, the brandy in the age-old French tradition is now offering us an age-old French tradition – cognac.    I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Richelieu XO, and I can report that it is magnificent, demonstrating complex flavours of fruit and spices and a full-bodied, silky mouth-feel.  The liquid is supplied by Richelieu’s stablemate Bisquit, but unlike their VSOP, which I find too cloying, this product manages to be both bold and restrained, each in the right place.

At circa R1600 it’s worth highlighting that it represents good value for an XO cognac.  It might just be the perfect gift for a new father – to accompany the obligatory cigars.

Michel Couvreur 1983

Here’s something one doesn’t see everyday.  Michel Couvreur has launched one of world’s only truly unique whiskies:  a 1983 vintage single cask…which is individually bottled on request.  The bottle comes inscribed with the name of the purchaser, and with the date and time of bottling.  It’s also accompanied by a certificate verifying its authenticity.  The individual bottling process means that each and every bottle will spend a different period of time in wood, and, as a result, will in theory be a different and unique whisky.

Couvreur is a whisky artisan of long standing, based in Burgundy in France, and known in particular for his highly cultivated maturation process, in which he ages Scottish new-make spirit in individually selected Solera sherry casks.  He and his small team are the remnants of an almost-forgotten golden era of whisky craftsmanship.

The Couvreur range of whiskies was launched in South Africa last year and is available in strictly limited quantities.  The 1983 retails for R4999.

Glenmorangie

Glenmorangie is one of the “maisons” in the LVMH group – the world’s largest single owner of luxury brands, and home to epic labels such Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari.  One would thus expect the guys at Glenmorangie to exhibit a swaggering command when it comes to gifting.  And indeed they don’t disappoint – every year bringing out gift offers that set a benchmark for the industry.  Their latest gift-pack whilst not their best is compelling nonetheless.  It’s a beautifully designed carton containing a bottle of Glenmorangie Original, and a complimentary dinky bottle of Nectar D’Or, an expression from the brand’s pioneering extra matured range (this one specifically was finished in Sauternes casks).

Pricing is at around the R400 mark.