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If you come in with a big group and are a totally hammered 55 year old woman…

…it won’t matter to anyone, especially my manager on duty, the hostess, or me (or even the rest of your party) when, after I tell you that I can’t serve you any alcohol, you yell, “I’m never coming back here again!” as you storm out from your party.  In fact, the rest of your party will be glad that you left and that I didn’t serve you anymore alcohol.

Just so you know, you never coming back here again is a big win for us.

I’m just sayin’…


Sometimes I do a post that I have every intention of following up on. But then, it falls through the cracks. Here is that very post:

Last year, I wrote about brandy and cognac. I mentioned that I’d be getting a little deeper into the cognac thing, so, half a year later, here we are!

As I mentioned in that post, cognac is a subset of brandy. It’s named for a small mercantile town just north of the Bordeaux region of France. Cognac sits on the Charente River, which empties into the Bay of Biscayne at Rochefort , just north of the Gironde estuary, the site of the most fabled (if not the most “grand”) Chateaux in the world such as Margaux, Latour and Lafitte.

In the middle of the last millennium, the Charente was a somewhat significant river for shipping, sending barges laden with casks of brandy to the world and receiving spices and other exotica from around the globe. Cognac was a natural river port, but actually, the town further upstream, Jarmac, current home of Courvoisier, was on track to be the “home of cognac” that Cognac itself eventually became. According to Nicholas Faith’s great book on cognac, which, sadly, I can’t put my hands on at the moment, Jarmac was a more significant port, but a nobleman who had influence (perhaps it was Louis XIV) decided to show favor to Cognac over Jarmac (I’m going by memory here). Hence, most of the “houses”  ended up in Cognac proper, formerly a large salt distribution center. It’s quite possible that without noble intervention, we could all be drinking jarmac today.

Most people aren’t aware that cognac is like blended scotch in that most of the cognac that we consume is blended from many different barrels. Each “house” has its own flavor profile that it keeps standard through the use of the cellar master (Le Maitre de Chai – yes, it’s still very much a man’s game), but it is based on as many as a hundred different sources. There are a handful of producers that make a product similar to a single malt scotch, but they are very rare.

Cognac was designated a wine growing region on May 1, 1909. It took another 30 years for Cognac to be declared a Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Controlled Appellation of Origin.

The region itself is broken down by zones  which roughly correspond to the geologic tendencies. there are six such “growing areas” ranked in order of quality and considered “crus” under the AOC –  Grande Champagne (GC), Petite Champagne (PG), Borderies, Fines Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaries. Finally, there’s an oddball designation, Fine Champagne, which is a blend of the top two crus.

Don’t be confused, the word champagne has nothing to do with the bubbly chardonnay drink that we pop on special occasions. In fact, cognac must be made from at least 90%  Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanché or Colombard. 

The four predominate soil characteristics of the region are chalk, clay, limestone and sand. Each of the regions has a specific composition that sets it apart from the others. This helps distinguish the flavor profiles as much as the blending does.

Here’s a map of the region. You’ll note that it looks roughly like a target:

Map courtesy of the Borderies distillers Domaine du Buisson and can be found here:

This is a small distillery that blends from their own vineyards, so they are closer to the spirit of the single malt scotch distiller, although they still blend from various casks. They just don’t buy from a variety of producers like the major houses do.

Anyway, getting back to the map, you can see that the highest designation, Grande Champagne, comes from a roughly round region that would be considered the “bulls-eye”. Some call it “The Golden Circle”. This is the home of the biggest distillers and the source of the highest quality raw stock. Its soil is mostly chalk, clay and limestone. It is this composition that gives the best cognac its renown for consistent quality. However, as in the case of Domaine du Buisson, excellent cognacs can be found outside of the region, although they can be hard to find in the US. Also, there are some blends that rely on grapes from outside this region, such as Martell’s Cordon Bleu, which relies on the nutty and floral characteristics of grapes grown in Borderies.

Now that we’ve briefly discussed the regions, lets delve into the various quality designators and the production of cognac. 

First of all, you should know that if there’s an age designate, the age refers to the youngest vintage used. the minimum age requirement is two years, but this is virtually never used. Distillers usually start at 12 years and go up from there. Until it’s blended, the wine is known as eau-de-vie (waters of life). Cognac is twice-distilled, normally in pot stills, also known as alembic stills. These are onion shaped copper pots.

The ratio of eau-de-vie to cognac is roughly 9 to 1.

The various initials that are supposed to designate quality are sometimes confusing to the novice. The lowest quality cognac is called VS, or “very special”. I don’t know what makes it “very special”, since there’s no S rating, but there ya go. Here they are in order from bottom to top:

VS – very special. This is the “youngest” of the cognacs. Minimum age of the eau-de-vie is 2 years old.  Technically, you could have 95% of the cognac being 50 years old and only 5% 2 years old, and it would still be considered VS. Theoretically, this could be far superior and pricier than a VSOP or XO.  Obviously, a distiller would be out of his or her mind to do this. VSes are generally made from the youngest of the usable vintages. The fact that it’s the lowest designation doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just that it won’t have the distinctive and rich flavor profiles of headier blends.

VSOP – very special old pale. Sounds very British, doesn’t it? I suspect that they are responsible for the designation, especially since the acronym refers to English words. This is the next step up in quality and price. The minimum age of the  eau-de-vie is 4 years old. Generally, you’ll see the average age of the eaux-de-vie ramp up as we go up the rungs.

XO – Extra old. Minimum age is 6 years old. Now we’re talking mostly old vintages, some of which can be a half a century or more old. This is going to change to 8 years in 2016, assuring an even more exclusivity.

You also have other qualifiers. Napoleon falls somewhere between VSOP and XO. It must be as old as an XO, but presumably, the average age will be lower, so it won’t be quite as expensive as an XO, but it demands a premium above VSOP.

Hors d’âge (beyond age) is basically a premium XO.  Louis XIII de Rémy Martin and Hennessey Richard (pronounce it ri-CARD) are examples of this. For example, Louis XIII uses 1200 different eaux-de-vie, some of which are 100 years old.

Extra – older than XO, you might think of this as an XXO. This can command a premium double that of an XO.  Rémy Martin even has an “Extra Perfect” that almost  doubles the price of Extra.

There are a couple of other more obscure designations that we’ll let slide.

There is one maker who is famous for ocean maturation – Kelt. They send barrels on a 3 month tour (as opposed to the three hour tour that Gilligan and his mates made). Unlike the Skipper and Maryanne, these barrels come back at the end of their voyage. This is done to pay homage to the origins of brandy and cognac as well as possibly introduce the variations in temperature and the influence of the salty sea air.

Cognac is traditionally served in a warmed brandy snifter, although Riedel and others have designed dedicated cognac glasses that look more like larger port glasses. Warming the glass allows the aromatics to be released, giving the taster a profound nose of rich scents. Whenever I serve a cognac, I give it a little swirl on the table to encourage this aroma. there are even nice devices that perform the function of warming that you are unlikely to see in most restaurants.

Cognac should be savored at the end of a meal and not drunk in conjunction with food, although any rule can certainly be broken. If you drink cognac with savory dishes, both will suffer. I really don’t even suggest serving cognac with sweets. That’s better left to sweet dessert wines. While some drink it with various juices, if you’re going to mix them, you should stick with cheaper brandies. It’s a waste of your money and the quality of the spirit.

Well, I hope that this very large thumbnail sketch gives you a better appreciation for this fine spirit. As a waiter, you should always keep cognac in your back pocket for those guests who clearly have an eye for quality. A little prompting could add another $10 – $300 to the check and provide the guest with a taste of luxury so often lacking in today’s dining.

Jack Daniels is not bourbon

Don’t ever forget that Jack Daniel’s, while tasting very similar to bourbon, is categorically not bourbon – it’s Tennessee whiskey. More precisely, “Tennessee sippin’ whiskey”.

First of all, it’s made in Tennessee, not Kentucky. Bourbon is named for a county in Kentucky where little bourbon is distilled today, but that doesn’t mean that bourbon can cross state lines. I mean, some try to do it and all, and legally it’s just a specific process with certain parameters, but is bourbon from Colorado really bourbon? C’mon people, let’s get real. If there is one state that could get away with it (and some of us have tried), it’s Tennessee. We are two states bound by a common heritage. If you look on a map, Kentucky looks similar to a pregnant Tennessee. Since we’ve been spooning since our births, this doesn’t seem out-of-place.

But Jack Daniel’s (and the other famous named-for-a-dead-guy Tennessee whiskey, George Dickel) is not, I repeat not bourbon, despite being made of sour mash just like bourbon. The key difference is that Tennessee whiskey is filtered through charcoal. Bourbon is not.

The last thing you want to do as a waiter is to upsell Jack Daniel’s products when someone asks for a bourbon drink. While some people think of it erroneously as a bourbon because, let’s face it folks, it does taste a lot like bourbon, there are some partisans who would cut out your heart and squeeze a few drops of blood out of it into a Manhattan if you lumped Jack Daniel’s in with bourbon (and this comes from both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey fans).

So, those of you young whippersnappers who are just getting started peddling the devil’s elixer, repeat after me -“Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey…”

I mean, you wouldn’t screw up and call Bushmill’s a scotch would you? I hope not.

Class dismissed.


A quick reminder about premium brands

We’ve been talking about wine, but if you aren’t asking a very easy question, you’re missing a big opportunity to upsell.

The question is, “Do you want (insert brand name here) or (insert premium brand name here)”?

In other words, When someone says, “I’ll take a gin and tonic please”, is at least your immediate question “Which gin is your favorite”?

Even better is, “Do you prefer Tanqueray or Bombay”? If they only want the cheap well brand, they’ll tell you. But by offering a choice, you make it easier to make the choice between the two options. This is an old sales principle.

If they say “Bombay”, you’ll then ask “Bombay or Bombay Sapphire”? If they say, “Oh yes, Sapphire”, you’ve just moved them up 2 price tiers. That’s usually an extra buck for each level. So now, you’ve just built your check by $2. Doesn’t sound like much unless you do that 6 times a week. That’s like an extra $600 table every year for asking a couple of simple questions. And sometimes the upsell can be as much as $4 or $5 if you move them from a well whiskey to something like Single Barrel Jack Daniels or a Woodford Reserve from a well bourbon. If you consistently upsell, you’ll makes hundreds of extra dollars a year.

I’ll be posting more on this at a later date, but basically, you need to learn which one of the “top shelf” brands are carried by your bar and then commit them to memory. It should almost be automatic and reflexive. If someone asks for a Cosmopolitan, the first thing out of your mouth should be something like, “Which vodka do you prefer, Absolut, Stoli, Belevedere…(letting voice trail off)? You should never “settle” for the well. But that doesn’t mean that you should be pushy or aggressive. Just let them remember how much they like Grey Goose instead of Popov.

Tanqueray Rangpur

TN legislature overrides Governor’s veto of “Guns in Bars” bill

“NASHVILLE – The Senate voted 21-9 today to join the House in voting to override Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill allowing those who hold handgun carry permits to take their weapons into establishments that sell alcoholic beverages.

Democratic Sen. Doug Jackson of Dickson, sponsor of the bill, said the override means the new law will take effect 40 days from today, or July 14”.

While restaurant owners were generally against it, apparently, they didn’t fight too hard against it:

“Dismissing the fact that the state’s major law enforcement and restaurant associations had come out against the bill and that several uniformed lawmen had stood behind Bredesen at the veto ceremony, Todd noted that, as he stood in the dock and asked for an override, he, too, had been flanked by former law enforcement officers. There had been six in all, it appeared, all in plain clothes.

And Todd said that restaurant owners had never campaigned seriously against the bill. “I know. I talked to a lot of them.”


Reminder of the importance of ID’ing your guests

Last weekend, one of our servers had a table that was bought a bottle of champagne by another table in a different section being served by a different server. The couple wasn’t ID’ed by the server. The next day, we got a call from an angry parent who wanted to know why her under-aged child was served alcohol, because the kid was a little under the influence when he or she got home from the date. “Where were you served alcohol??!!” the mom sputtered.

 The server was suspended for a week.

The server wasn’t suspended because an angry manager was pissed because of a customer complaint. The server was suspended to show the parent that we take this sort of thing seriously. The manager didn’t really want to suspend the server because he recognized that it was a bit of a weird situation. He didn’t actually take the order himself, although he did send the order to the bar when the other server told him that his table wanted to buy them champagne and he served the alcohol to the couple. But we servers are sort of conditioned to take the order, evaluate the guest and then ask for ID if they appear to be underage. This went a different way and his guard was let down. A couple of the cues that we look for were absent (unfamiliarity with alcohol terminology, inappropriate alcohol ordering, i.e. “Give me jello shots with my Kobe steak tartare”, you know, that sort of thing). How many underage people order a nice bottle of champagne?

But that’a moot point to the ABC (the Alcohol Beverage Commission). Had this been an ABC sting (and yes, they set stuff like this up all of the time), the server might have been led out in handcuffs. He might very well have spent the night in jail. He could have lost his ABC permit for a year, effectively shutting him out of a job. He could have paid a hefty fine along with the restaurant. And, god forbid that the couple got in a wreck and killed somebody. He would be totally screwed.

Hopefully it’s been contained to the restaurant. Hopefully, the manager who spoke to the mom conveyed the seriousness with which we treat this incident; god knows it was conveyed to us during preshift. Hopefully, she was satisfied with the strong action that was taken (that’s almost the same thing as a $700 fine). However, she could still make a complaint to the ABC. Now we have to be extra conservative when asking for IDs. The ABC is known to have underage people who look like they’re 25, and, if the ABC is contacted by the parents of the couple, they will probably send in somebody to try and trip up a server. They won’t necessarilysend us a notice or  fine us for this instance because they really have no proof other than the word of the parents and kids. They would have to do an investigation and it’s far easier for them to just come in and do an undercover sting. That would accomplish two things – it would support an investigation of the first instance and it would also establish a pattern of abuse that would support taking strong action against us.

They can do this undercover sting in several ways.

They could send in someone who is unnaturally hirsute for his age (or someone who looks like she could be a 25 year old bombshell – heck, many 15 year olds look like they’re 22 these days). They could have a father pour a glass of wine for a 20 year old son in the presence of the server. They could have the father say, “It’s OK, we allow our kids to drink. It’s our right as a parent”.  They could have a 45 year old agent ask to buy a bottle of wine to take with her (we can do this as we have a corkage law that allows people to take their unused wine with them, but we have to uncork the bottle and pour at least a small amount into the glass). They could have someone try to order alcohol without an ID. They could do what was done in this case – try to buy alcohol for an underage guest at another table. Or they could do a variation of this and go to the bar with three people who are of age and one who is underage. The underage person orders a Sprite while the others have been carded. Then, they all bring their drinks from the bar to the table and the server assumes that the carding process has been done. The underage person then “switches” to something like a gin and tonic, the server not knowing that the first drink was a non-alcoholic one, or even not caring.  This is a trick that actual underage folks  pull all of the time. And, finally, they could have someone with an obvious fake ID.

So, a warning to my fellow waiters. Don’t let your guard down. If you haven’t carded someone who could be under 21 at any point in the meal, even if they order something with their coffee at the end of the meal, card them. When if doubt, card them. Do it politely and with humor if necessary – “You look good for 84, oh wait, it says you were born in ’84”. Or fall back on the old, “Our alcohol commission has been extremely active lately. We’re having to be overcautious. I apologize. I sure wish people would card me these days”. And don’t let a parent push you around. It doesn’t matter that their kid has been drinking wine with the family since she was 10. Don’t let them pour their kid wine. At least not in your presence. And tell them that – that you can’t see them pour wine for their kid or let them have a glass of wine in front of them. This is a nod and a wink to them that there’s no way that you can tell if the glass of wine that seems to be in front of no one is being consumed by the kid. At least give yourself some cover because, frankly, you can’t monitor their table at all times, right?

Tennessee governor vetos “handguns in bars and restaurants” bill

Gov. Phil Bredesen has used his 6th veto against HB 962, a bill intended to allow registered right-to-carry gun owners to take their guns into establishments that sell alcohol, a right not currently granted to them.

My opinion? Guns and alcohol don’t mix. Ask Plaxico Burress if you don’t believe me. I prefer my shooters in a shotglass, not on a barstool. I’m kind of silly that way.

Will the state legistature overturn the veto? Stay tuned for further updates. Right now, the House needs 50 of the 99 members to vote to override the veto, which would then go to the Senate where 50% plus one vote of the 33 members will sustain the override. Support has been strong for this bill on both sides of the aisle, so the veto has an uphill battle.