Some products are irretrievably, unapologetically romantic; a smokey, single malt Scotch, a cold glass of crisp Champagne, a golden brown Cognac warming in the palm of your hand.
Just like champagne cries out for a toast, or Scotch an impromptu Robbie Burns reading, Cognac demands something from you too; a moments pause, a little stillness in your world, a little reflection as you stare into the glass. What you think of is personal, and frankly none of my business, though probably involves old friends you haven’t seen in a while. But It’s all part of Cognac’s enduring appeal, it’s mystique if you like; the ritual of swirling a good brandy around a snifter, preferably in a candle lit room or at the end of a satisfying meal. It’s something that makes the world a little nicer, a little more…magical.
Saying that, and contrary perhaps to its enduring image, this is not a drink that is the exclusive purview of fine dining and dare I say Gentlemen’s clubs, and I intend that term purely in the leather furniture, weighted bookcases and pipe smoke usage, and not the silver poles, low lighting, and girls paying their way through college application. This is a drink that should be explored by everyone and can be explored by anyone, after all is there one of us that doesn’t crave a touch of luxury in our world?
Luxury is an overused expression today. It seems that every few minutes another so called ‘luxury’ product appears on the market, another expensively bottled vodka filtered through the tears of virgins, it’s understandable, we all crave a moments pampering, a brief respite from the war where we can feel like Bond, or Hepburn, or Clooney. We can’t all afford a Ferrari, but maybe, just maybe, a glass of bubbly will do in a pinch.
If you ever needed a benchmark as to what luxury really is, Cognac would be a great place to start. What makes it so special is an unbroken lineage going back centuries, made with craft and care that simply doesn’t exist anymore, though I truly wish it did. Made from only the finest grapes from the finest growing areas in an already astonishing region, from vines grown in rich, chalky soil, and tended to like children by its cultivators, harvested in October before the first bite of winter and then gently, so gently pressed to release the juice before being distilled into an eaux-de-vie or water of life.
While not actively filtered through virgin’s tears it is however allowed to sit in limousin oak for decades at a time, slowly building in flavour and complexity, quietly, patiently waiting down the years and in some cases even centuries for the singular moment when a master blender with the taste buds of an angel; in the case of Remy Martin, one of only four people in an entire century to hold the post, opens the cask, tastes it and, with most certainly a rueful smile and a sage nod of the head, finally acknowledges that it is ready to be blended into smooth, golden caramel VSOP, stunning XO or maybe even the godlike Louis XIII.
It’s something that’s loved by all who’ve touched it, and that’s why it’s adored by those who drink it. I myself have never drank it without having the urge to let out a little sigh and then make a few long put off phone calls or perhaps start a short correspondence. If you’ll pardon me being poetic, it’s like a standing ovation in your mouth.
Traditionally cocktail bartenders have been hesitant to use it, practically afraid of the stuff, but there’s really nothing to fear. This is one of the original ingredients that gave us the cocktail in the first place and we kind of owe it for that. It’s the basis of drinks like The Classic Champagne cocktail, a sexy marriage of French champagne and Cognac that brings out the best in both, The Blazer; sugar caramelised on the sides of a snifter by an open flame, combined with a little orange and bitters. Or perhaps I can I interest you in a Sidecar, a heavenly mix of cognac, cointreau, a spruce of lemon and a sugar coated edge to the glass for a final moment of sweetness before it hits your mouth. Throw in Crusta’s, Flips, Daisy’s and the occasionally maligned but utterly underrated Alexander and the list is endless. You just have to accept that it’s not, and never will be vodka, the great social chameleon which takes on the flavours added to it as easily as pulling on a sweater. To drink Cognac requires an element of risk on your part. But is that such a bad thing. Aren’t we all a little bored by Vodka and juice? Wouldn’t we all secretly like to try something unique? The only crime is playing it safe when you could be exploring.
Cognac requires you to breathe deep and spend a few quiet moments analysing what you smell, what you taste, what you feel. Is it carmel sweetness? A little spice? Citrus? Is that ginger lurking on the edge of your palate? Embrace the enigma. You have nothing to lose but an opportunity. It doesn’t need qualifications to enjoy, doesn’t ask for solemnity and thankfully doesn’t require gray hair, just a little respect, a little thought and an adventurous spirit.
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